On July 17, the Sahitya Akademi hosted the very first government-funded transgender poets meet in India. Chaired by professor and author Manabi Bandopadhyay, the meet, held in Kolkata, was an effort to give a larger platform to the voices of transgender people in Bengali literature. Since her appointment as the principal of Krishnagar Women’s College in 2015, Bandopadhyay has been one of the most identifiable transgender faces in the country and has been actively involved in several efforts towards larger representation of transpersons in West Bengal. When she approached Sahitya Akademi member and Bengali poet Subodh Sarkar about a meet exclusively featuring transgender poets, he enthusiastically welcomed her proposal.

The event, held at the Sahitya Akademi auditorium, was curated to include performances by transpersons from different class and caste locations and featured readings by poets Prosphutita Sugandha, Sankari Mondal, Rani Majumdar, Aruna Nath, Debdatta Biswas and Debajyoti Bhattacharya. Apart from these, the event also included impromptu performances by poets Tista Das and Anurag Maitrayee, who were part of the audience.

Photo by Upasana Agarwal
Photo by Upasana Agarwal

The deeply-personal performances ranged across various themes and experiences. Rani Majumdar, a poet, writer and activist from Asansol, read out poems that dealt with themes of violence and desire that operate within sexuality. Prosphutita Sugandha, a math teacher from Medinipur, read out “Ekti Patar Golpo” (“The Story of a Leaf”), a poignant poem about adolescence and rejection: “Everyone wanted me to be smart, I didn’t. I wanted to sit in the trees among the butterflies...” Actress and writer Sankari Mondal’s poem was a powerful renouncement of society and the standards of acceptability that are used to discriminate against transgender people.

Between performances, Bandopadhyay recited her own poetry, bringing in aspects of a cisgender male narrator and comparing gender inequality and binaries to communal tensions. Most of her works linked her experiences to a series of world events, politics and everyday society. “Gender Dysphoria, these two words are my Hiroshima and Nagasaki,’’ she read.

Debajyoti Bhattacharya’s work spoke about transpersons’ conflicted relationships with their family. Afterwards, she proudly introduced her mother who was seated in the audience. “I didn’t study literature, I’m a person of science,” Bhattacharya said about her literary journey, “but I’ve written since childhood. It’s not easy to be recognised as a writer in general, but the moment someone sees that I am transgender it becomes all the more difficult.”

As an event that was almost entirely led by transgender persons, many celebrated it as a victory. But it was also marked by shades of transphobia. The audience ended up segregated, with cisgender individuals sitting facing the podium while transgender persons sat in a corner. An intermingling of rows only happened until there was an actual scarcity of seats.

Sahitya Akademi’s decision to call the event “Third Gender Poetry Meet” was also ill received by some. “I do not believe in this hierarchy of gender,” poet Tista Das told Scroll.in. “I understand that the Supreme Court has ruled us as Third Gender, but I believe that Sahitya Akademi could have had the sensitivity to refrain from using this terminology.”

Photo by Sudeshna Bose
Photo by Sudeshna Bose

Bandhopadhyay herself acknowledged this as she called singers and dancers Anjali, Madhu, Shyamoli, Sankari and Kalpana – who write their own songs referencing traditions in hijra families – to the stage. “These are people you always reject, you pay them to leave you alone. But today I call them before you so that you recognise their art and skill,” she told the audience.

While the poetry meet had the novelty of being a government-funded event, there have been several NGO-based and trans-led spaces that have created platforms for creative expression for the transgender community, whether it be poetry, theatre, dance or art. There are several community events such as the Kolkata Rainbow Carnival and queer cafes in the city that host regular performances. As Suphee Biswas, co-founder of Samabhabona, an NGO engaged with intersectional politics and transgender rights, said: “We would have street plays more than a decade ago to raise awareness about trans lives.”

Tension about erasure and perceptions of respectability also marked the event. While addressing the audience, Sahitya Akademi officer Mihir Kumar Sahoo, welcomed transgender people into the mainstream, a statement that was criticised by poet Tista Das before her performance. “There’s been a lot of talk of mainstreaming, but I personally don’t believe in the mainstream,” she said.

“What makes the mainstream? The fact they were born with everything handed to them and we were not?” Das later said to Scroll.in. “Did they not use this to discriminate against us and abuse us? I do not want to be ‘accepted’ by my oppressors.”

It was a sentiment echoed by activist Raina Roy. “They want us to fit into their standards of respectability (bhodrota), so as long as we have ‘respectable’ jobs, as long as we aspire to their lifestyle, we’re okay,” she said.

Kolkata, while having larger transgender inclusivity and visibility than a lot of other metropolitan cities, still has a long way to go. Government efforts like the Transgender Welfare Board in West Bengal have been heavily criticised by the community for their ineffectiveness, but there is hope that newer efforts will be more sustainable.

Members of the Sahitya Akademi, in the meanwhile, said that the poetry meet would not be a one-off event and they hope to organise many such meets. Subodh Sarkar, while speaking about the importance of marginalised communities controlling their own narratives, said: “LGBT people should be able to tell their own stories, it will have more depth.”

For Manabi Bandopadhyay, the event, despite its criticisms, was an important step forward. “I cannot explain the importance of this event to you, it is something that is felt within the community,” she said.