Freedom in fluid lines: this year’s Kumbh Mela had its first ever transgender art fair

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, head of the Kinnar akhara. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, head of the Kinnar akhara. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar  

The artists have drawn out themes from regional folklore and Hindu literary texts rife with stories of gender transformation

“Of course, I hate those prying eyes,” says Sanjana Patil. “Who does not like to work freely?” The 40-year-old transgender artist from Nashik pauses for a moment, wields her paint brush over the ample contours of Renuka, the patron goddess of transgenders in the Hindu pantheon, and smiles.

“But here we don’t hide. We paint without inhibition.”

At Kumbh Mela’s first-ever transgender akhara, a congregation of religious renunciates in Prayagraj, artists such as Patil have shed the trappings of heteronormativity. Spurred by their spiritual guardian Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the first transgender to represent Asia Pacific at the United Nations in 2008, over 25 artists have turned two acres of barren land into a lively art village.

In tents that have served as their makeshift homes since January, the artists debate queer issues. Outside, they dabble with paintings, installations, photographs, and sculpture echoing themes from mythology to contemporary trans activism. Sexual ambivalence is the recurring motif in all their artworks.

In Nashik, Patil had to work on her canvases at night to avoid curious eyes and taunts; here she paints at will. “Art isn’t only about the canvas or gallery,” she says. “It’s about having the freedom and audacity to make a statement, to invent or cause a reaction.” 

The artists have drawn out themes from regional folklore and Hindu literary texts rife with stories of gender transformation. “We wanted a mélange of ideas,” says Tripathi, who’s also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer from Thane. “It’s important for artists to express themselves without the fear of being judged, pigeonholed or castrated.”

While Kumbh is speckled with cultural hotspots such as Kala Gram where folk art, handloom, handicraft and literature have received ample government patronage, the art village is a new and transformative idea. Amid the thoughtful waste-to-art displays, there’s also a timeline on the inception of transgenders portrayed through a series of watercolour, acrylic, coal and clay paintings.

On an acrylic-sprayed canvas, Bahuchara Mata, the ancient Hindu goddess of fertility, is perched on a rooster after shedding her femininity. Her marauder is cursed to a life of impotence unless he acts and dresses like a woman for a year. There are portrayals of eunuchs in royal palaces during the Mughal era, and contemporary trans activists liberating the queer community.

“The focus is evocative storytelling,” says Shubhangi Chaurasia, a 23-year-old folk artist from Prayagraj. “We’ve even inferred from stories traditionally considered to have no homoerotic subtext.” The idea for an art spectacle originated in early 2016 when Mumbai-based photographer Punit Reddy was in Ujjain to understand the trans community’s exclusion from the religious mainstream. Inspired by Tripathi’s activism, Reddy thought it was important to break stereotypes that have relegated trans people to the margins of society.

“The lack of employment opportunities has forced them into sex work, extortion and begging,” says Reddy. He initially planned to have artworks with only religious connotations, but later decided to include secular and contemporary works. “In an artists’ residency there’s bound to be an exchange of ideas and aesthetics. Art isn’t one-dimensional,” he says.

The transgender art village evolved organically. Last year, a group of artists was hired by the Uttar Pradesh government to beautify the streets, buildings and public places across the State as part of its Paint My City Project ahead of Kumbh. The owner of an empanelled agency hired by the government, Ashutosh Chaudhary, roped in 25 artists from the group to set up the transgender art village under Tripathi’s guidance.

Later, other artists drawn from India and abroad joined, and the network expanded. “The artists were initially sceptical about working with transgenders,” says Chaudhary. “But when they started learning about trans history and their struggles, they adapted easily.”

Chaudhary readthe Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata, regional folklore and oral traditions. But resources remained a challenge, as the government lent no financial support, leaving the artists with mostly voluntary projects. 

The more explicit and sensuous artworks were also kept away from display. “We had to keep controversial art out because we feared a backlash from orthodox seers and the uninformed public,” says Chaudhary. “Kumbh is about religion, not free expression. Transgender monastics have to first gain legitimacy in the spiritual realm.” The promoters of the art village spread their message of inclusion through networking, social media, and word-of-mouth.

When Amalchi Castillo, a 29-year-old photographer from Puerto Rico arrived at the village early February, he had no idea what to expect. “I had never heard of an artists’ residency in a religious festival, so naturally I was excited,” says Castillo. “Art can create controversy, so it’s inspirational to see how the artists have started conversations on taboo subjects.” 

New Zealand-based artist Abigail Jensen came to Prayagraj last November for the Paint My City project. She now wants artists to share their ideologies through art but break free from traditional and imitative frameworks. “The idea is to break all taboos in a hyper-religious setting, and unlock people’s minds on the female sexual form,” she says. Even though Jensen has so far worked on portraits of contemporary queer reformers, she is determined to showcase more explicit or controversial artworks by the end of Kumbh. “There’s bound to be resistance from traditionalists, but we have to push back against forces inimical to change,” she says.

Echoing Jensen’s views, Indore-based artist Vijay Kale says some orthodox sections are averse to nude or semi-nude portrayals at religious sites. So, to increase transgender art in secular spaces, Kale hopes to rope in sponsors and global art connoisseurs. Tripathi herself doesn’t want to limit the residency to religious spots, which restrict freedom of expression. “I want to contemporise it and take it to other parts of the world, make it chic,” she says.

The akhara has been a transformative experience for many. While some think their prejudices about the trans community have faded, others are beginning to see human qualities in people revered as demi-gods. 

Patil knows she’s won a small victory. She doesn’t have to work on her canvas at night in Nashik’s bylanes. “We now have a platform,” she says. “We are guardians of culture; we’ve finally won back our rights.”

The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi.

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