Indian Transgender Community

Community, tradition and struggle: Inside India’s first government-funded transgender poetry meet

The Sahitya Akademi hosted readings by transgender poets in Kolkata in an event chaired by writer and activist Manabi Bandopadhyay.

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.