Every year, thousands celebrate the Aravani festival in the sleepy town of Koovagam, Tamil Nadu, where the presiding deity is Lord Aravan – the virgin son of the Pandava prince, Arjun. According to the myth, it was prophesied that the Pandavas would only win the battle of Kurukshetra, if a perfect male was sacrificed from within their clan. Aravan offered himself up, with the condition that he would spend one night as a married man. According to the story, he married Lord Krishna, who transformed himself into a woman as a reward for his sacrifice.
At the Aravani festival – a celebration of the transgender community – after being symbolically married to Krishna for a night, trans-people who participate in the ritual are widowed the next day and begin the process of mourning the death of their symbolic husband. At dawn, the Aravanis, as they are known, don the widow’s white cloth, break their bangles, and grieve for the rest of the day.
It was this take on the word Aravani, that captivated Poornima Sukumar, a 27-year-old artist and muralist from Bangalore, when she attended the festival in 2015. “The word Aravani is used for any devotee of Lord Aravan, in the Tamil language,” Sukumar said. “This is a word without the stigma that a word like ‘hijra’ carries in society.”
In January 2016, Sukumar set up the Aravani Art Project, a space for the transgender community to express themselves through street art. The idea behind the project came about while Sukumar was working on a documentary on the transgender community over three years, with London-based filmmaker Tabitha Breese.
“Tabitha would come, shoot and leave,” said Sukumar. “Every single time, I was the one left behind with the community. For her, it was a subjective point of view, but for me the community became really good friends.”
Sukumar stayed in touch with the trans-people she met, because the idea of simply ending those carefully-forged friendships was not something she wanted or could live with. Since then, the project has been using art, conversations and educational drives to change social perceptions about the transgender community. The group’s most recent project was a large mural along a wall of the Dhanvantri Road underpass in central Bengaluru, as part of the St+Art India street art festival.
The mural, titled Naanu Iddiv or we exist, in Kannada, depicts a transgender person using visual motifs that suggest masculine and feminine attributes. “I’ve chosen the hibiscus as the main symbol as it is a unique, beautiful flower that has both male and female parts,” Sukumar said. “The designs were simple and geometric so they could paint it easily. Since they were untrained, I could not immediately expect them to design something, but the end goal was for them to design their own wall and paint it.”
Members of Bengaluru’s transgender community have welcomed the art intervention. “Everyone always thinks that we’re up to no good.” said RJ Priyanka, a transwoman who joined Sukumar for the project. “This is a good way to prove to people that we’re talented and capable of doing things. People will be very surprised that we’re a part of this.”
Reshma, another member, said that the project changed her life. “It feels liberating to use art to express ourselves.” she said. “The public thinks that we only beg and do sex work. We are also human beings, and because we’re involved in making street art like this, people are beginning to see us differently.”
Added Chandrika, another artist from the project, “The idea that we are able to participate in this project and paint a face that belongs to us makes me very proud.”
For Sukumar, earning the trust of her collaborators was the hardest part. “We need to understand that it is difficult for most trans-people to come out on the street and paint,” she explained. “This is not their comfort zone. It’s taken time to build that trust and it’s finally easy for me to call them to a location and say, ‘Let’s paint this wall together.’”
Sukumar said the project has also sparked a journey of self-realisation for her. “I’m struggling but learning a lot,” she said. “It’s exciting as a lot of people are coming forward! I want everybody to come join us and that’s why I always make these extremely open events. Sometimes, finances are a problem because you’ve to make sure the community gets something out of this too. Beyond that, we’re heading in the right direction.”
Sukumar said that she makes sure every education drive and conversation the Aravani project hosts, ends on the note that it is society which needs to change, not trans-people.
In the future, Sukumar and her collaborators plan to work with different transgender communities across India. “We’re at a very basic level of breaking stereotypes here,” she said. “It will take at least a year to really break the ice and see what to do next.”