Mumbai (AFP) – On a huge sky bridge in the sprawling Indian metropolis of Mumbai, a transgender art group is trying to revolutionize attitudes by turning concrete pillars into brightly coloured murals.
People known as ‘hijras’ were identified as male at birth, but are now part of India’s ‘third gender’, an ambivalent position on the fringes of Indian society, which in turn is respected and feared as some Hindus Think they have the power to bless or curse.
Most workplaces are denied work, and many are forced to beg in major cities or at traffic intersections common on trains.
Some show up at family events such as weddings or birthday celebrations, or at new houses, offering blessings in exchange for money, sometimes threatening to curse if they refuse. Others turned to prostitution, increasing their risk of violence.
The Aravani Art Project hopes to challenge stigma and marginalization by showing transgender people as artists in the same public spaces where they beg or face abuse.
At the latest mural site – one of Mumbai’s busiest intersections – the team painted portraits of local residents, including two cleaners, a vegetable vendor and a policeman.
“This is an opportunity to showcase our talents,” said trans woman artist Deepa Kachare.
“We have to beg people by going to marriage ceremonies, baby births, shops, trains, some of us are also sex workers to make money,” she said.
“We’re begging all over the place, but we like to work hard and earn money.”
The group – whose projects are commissioned by governments, businesses and NGOs – has brought together dozens of mostly trans women’s street art projects in various cities across India.
“People are excited to see us working as artists,” says Kachare, 26. “Now, when they see us, they think positively.”
“We are artists”
The arts group takes its name from Lord Aravan, a Hindu god who “marries” hundreds of transgender people every year at a festival in southern India.
According to historians, Hinduism refers to the “third gender” several times, such as Shikhandi, a character in the epic Mahabharata. Over the centuries, hijras have played various roles in society, including royal servants. and the guardian of the harem.
But during the British colonial days, India criminalized same-sex sexual activity and it was not legalized by the Supreme Court until 2018.
The transgender community – believed to be in the millions – has been fighting to end discrimination, but many say they still struggle to be accepted by the wider society.
“What excites me is telling them (trans artists) that they are capable of anything,” said Sadna Prasad, a 29-year-old female artist and co-founder of Aravani.
“And gender really should be discussed much later, what they do in life and what they want to do come first.”
Another trans woman member of the group, Ayesha Koli, 25, who is still begging on the street, said her paint-splattered kurta has become a different kind of symbol.
“These days, when we go in our ‘painting clothes’, they ask us curiously if we paint,” she said. “We’re very proud to say ‘yes, we’re artists, we paint.'”
© 2022 AFP