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Art accepts me for who I am, art doesn't judge me, and art is inclusive.

Queerspeak 1.0

From a young age, I used to see my mom putting rangoli in front of our house. When I would also excitedly try to join her in making some rangoli designs, she would shout at me saying, “This is something that a girl does and not a boy.” That made me wonder, in my heart I’ve always loved colors. Art has been my passion since childhood. When I got the opportunity to become a mural artist with Aravani Art Project, I could follow my passion and love for art and get exposed to a world full of colors with no judgments on my choices, being a trans woman. I enjoy it thoroughly now. So it’s love and passion both for me.

Before Aravani started, I worked with the Community Radio Station in Bangalore. If I go back further, I worked as a sex worker when I joined the transgender community. But looking back I am happy where I am today. The time I spent at the Community Radio Station was a turning point. That’s when I was recognized by the media and public, and people slowly started to accept me. I met new people, who supported the transgender community. I also met many allies while talking on the radio on various topics.

How my journey started with Aravani is quite interesting. See, for a trans person, the important thing in life is going through the transition period and it’s a long process. I was in the transition from the beginning. Until then I hadn’t gone through the sex reassignment surgery (SRS). Despite those 2 fulfilling years at the radio station, I realized that I wasn’t stable enough and I couldn’t record properly. I was feeling depressed. One day, while scrolling Instagram, I came across Aravani Art Project and it changed my life for good. I got to know that the collective uses art as a medium to empower the transgender community. This piqued my interest and I immediately reached out to Poornima Sukumar, who is the Founder and Director of Aravani Art Project, based in Bangalore. The next thing I knew she asked me to join for a mural project. Since then it’s been a magical journey and here I am today, painting the country, one mural at a time. Overall, if I recall, I’ve painted more than 50 murals across India, particularly in Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Delhi, Jaipur, and Mumbai.

Do you know what Aravani means? It’s one of the terms used to refer to a transgender person. The word Aravani traces its roots to Lord Aravan (son of Arjun) from Mahabharata, who is revered by the transgender community today. It’s said that Lord Krishna took the form of a woman and married Aravan before he was sacrificed in the famous battle. To commemorate this, the transwomen come together, every year, to celebrate the 18-day long Koovagam festival in Ulundurpet, Tamil Nadu. Once during the festival, Poornima Sukumar interacted with the community. Being a muralist herself, she wanted to give back to the community by bringing transgender women and art together. She used to visit our home and taught us art over chai. That’s how Aravani Art Project was born. And this bonding grew over the years for all of us who are a part of this amazing collective.

The last nine years with Aravani have been wonderful for me. All my dreams have come true. After joining Aravani, my SRS surgery happened and I got my breast implants done. And traveled so much for various art projects. Before this, I had never traveled by airplane so I got to fly for the first time. I love to travel to new places, paint, and meet new people, and it all feels so good. But there’s one dream that hasn't come true, yet. 

A few years ago, four transwomen from Aravani got selected for a project to paint murals inside the Facebook headquarters in California. Unfortunately, I was one of those who didn’t get their visa. But you know what, the ones who went to the US did a sketch of my portrait inside the cafeteria with the slogan ‘Gender free’. This brought me immense joy and I felt so special. The American dream is yet to happen, though.

Every project is special to me. Every wall I draw on is like a learning point and every wall is challenging: learning how to mix colors, how to sketch and so many intricacies are involved. I remember one of my first murals. It was both interesting and scary. When Poornima texted me that we were going to paint in a government school situated on the outskirts of Bangalore, I was hesitant because I was scared of children. You know why, because once children know that you’re a transgender person, the whole school starts laughing at you. I honestly didn't want to go. When we reached the school, we started to sketch and paint. The children were curiously watching us paint and some of them were eager to paint too. One of them came to me and asked a question, “Ma’am, can you teach me which color to put here?” You won’t believe it, I was like, this kid is not judging me on my gender identity. I then realized it’s parents mostly who tell them that we’re ‘bad, ‘kidnappers’, and everything incorrect. Children are so innocent. Then I started teaching him to paint red here and green there. This was such a happy moment for me.

Working with corporate companies is different from working with schools. With government schools like this, we have a lot of freedom to paint anything like flowers or butterflies. With companies, they have their agenda to be executed within a set period. These projects come with certain guidelines in mind as they are commissioned. There are restrictions but at the end of the day, they pay us. I am grateful for that.

But there’s something I feel is not-so-good about corporate companies. I want to be a little harsh here because I have seen this everywhere. It’s only during the Pride month, these companies are proactive. Oh my God! It feels like they switch off the bulb and Christmas is gone after the Pride month. See, I understand they want to support the LGBTQIA+ community but they should fully support it, and not just in the Pride month. 

A few months ago, I was in Hyderabad for a project with an MNC. I met a trans woman there who happened to be at the senior level in the HR department. I spoke to her about how the community should be fairly represented and accepted in the IT sector. I want more opportunities and more doors to be open to the community in MNCs and the IT sector in general. And it should start from the basics. Right from the security gate to the highest level, people are not aware of what the LGBTQIA+ community means. We, from the community, should sensitize them. Only then they can understand. Like in transgender community, there are so many categories, and then there should be awareness of pronouns. Once, I was at an MNC to deliver a sensitization talk and it came to me as a shock when the security guard stopped me at the entrance gate. I had to call the concerned person so they could let me in. You see, why it’s important for everyone to be aware of the community so people learn how to be inclusive toward us.

Some MNCs call us for the mural outside of the Pride month as well and it’s all commission-based so it’s very helpful for us. Indirectly, they are supporting the community. There’s a process to follow when we work with a company, right from when we step in until we finish the project. Then there are changes during the project—they might ask us to change the color or maybe make edits to the content. But all this is fine because I love painting. I get a medium to showcase my talent, and what I love doing, all apart from gender identity. I always say that it’s just a “PARDA”! Don’t judge my gender identity, just see my talent and give me the opportunity I deserve. That’s more important than making assumptions based on my gender identity.

The recent project I am doing is Khelo India in Chennai and here we have to paint a sports mural but I am excited about it. I am getting the work and it’s my survival. It supports my life. All my art is special but it becomes my favorite when I paint whatever comes to my mind, without any judgments and interference. When I paint what I like, how I like. It all started during COVID-19 lockdown. We were out of jobs for two years and it was a tough period. We couldn’t go out and paint the public spaces, no permissions were granted. During that time, Aravani sent us a few canvases. We painted it at home and then sent it via Dunzo. That’s how I learned canvas painting. This gave me the idea to start my project, Trinetra Trans Arts, along with a friend who’s also from the transgender community. Trinetra means the ‘third eye’, more like the opening of the third eye. This art project is started by a transgender woman, to and for the community.

All my art is available on Instagram and anyone can buy them. We started this recently, we’re at the ABCD level of art culture here. A professor from Switzerland came to meet us and they bought seven of our paintings. Our Trinetra art is in Switzerland now. My clients are in Australia and the most recent one is in London who paid double for our canvas. I was so happy! How I paint these canvases comes with a story. There’s one themed on Jalkanya with a princess bathing in a lotus pond and talking to friends. Maintaining your project needs a lot of time and dedication. We try but then we get busy with mural projects. We are looking for people who can fund us or provide us with a grant. 

Despite the challenges and hiccups, what keeps me going is my art. The hand that once held the condom, how proudly it holds a brush today, so that is a change, right? I don’t want to go back to my sex work or the begging that I had to do before. Of course, I am not against sex work, it is up to them, who are we to judge? I will continue my journey with colors! 

When I was going through the sex reassignment surgery, which is very painful, I was suffering. Post-surgery, after a few weeks, I got a call for a project at Freedom Park Bangalore. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t imagine going. But with some courage and inspiration from my fellow muralists and Poornima who has always supported me financially and emotionally, I went ahead, wearing sanitary pads as I was bleeding a lot. I stood on a ladder and started painting. Once I started to paint, I forgot my pain. It all just went away. That’s how art is for me. It’s very therapeutic. 

Art is calming, anywhere I paint. In 2019, we cheered Team India by painting the walls of Thiruvanmiyur railway station in Chennai with murals on Mithali Raj, MS Dhoni, and  Virat Kohli. For this, I had to climb on a scaffolding of 60 ft height and it’s on the main road. It was exhilarating to climb so high and paint. The surprising part was when people came to me asking, who is this woman you’ve painted with the cricketers. I had to tell them she is the captain of the India Women’s National Cricket Team. People are generally not aware of the Women’s Cricket team. Oh, I remember, I met Mithali Raj once and was elated to see her. To add to the fun while we painted, passers-by whistled at us and gave us a thumbs up and this motivated us more. The support and acceptance from the public matter a lot to us. 

And yes, family support is very important for the queer community. If the family doesn’t support us, we take the wrong path and we suffer. No one should go through the hell that I have gone through in my life. I want my future generations to be more accepted in the family and society. Secondly, education is very important so that queer kids can stand on their own feet and support themselves. When I joined the community 10-15 years ago, it was a different story. People used to throw tomatoes and stones at us. It was a bad atmosphere of teasing, violence, harassment, murder, and everything dangerous. Now with social media, there’s awareness and sensitization and the scenario has changed for good. I am proud to see a few people from my transgender community in respectable positions in police, media, and other fields.

When you’re a part of the transgender community, you have an adopted family that functions as a guru-chela system. So when I joined the community, I found a mother (guru) who adopted and accepted me as a daughter (chela). She guides me through everything, she looks after me and that is how they accept us within the community. When the newer generations come, I’ll be a guru and adopt a daughter. In my biological family, I can’t express myself how I want. I can’t wear lipstick or makeup, I can’t wear a saree in front of them. Because they don’t want to see me for what I am. They want to see me as a stereotypical male child whereas in my adopted family, I am a free bird and I can dress up like a woman. With them, I can move around freely and be comfortable. 

Today, I am happy that my family has accepted me for who I am. They are like a backbone to me. My mom and everyone love me dearly and are supportive of me. This makes me feel good. Without their support, I wouldn't have reached this level, but I won’t deny that it took a lot of time, fights, and battles to reach this milestone. 

For me, art is a medium where I can express myself without any inhibitions. I can put what I want to put in art canvases so it is up to me. There is so much freedom that I can spread my wings and fly without any fear. I have done a canvas painting depicting child abuse, which is my own story of abuse as a kid. This is freedom for me, where I can paint the canvas of my life the way I want. Art accepts me for who I am, art doesn’t judge me, and art is inclusive. 

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