For these transgenders, art is the weapon in their fight for dignity

Thirty-two-year old Prerna is an artist who is very happy and confident today. Being a transgender, she could not see herself beyond begging and being laughed at. But thanks to her soulmate Kalki Subramaniam, who is also a transgender rights activist, an actor, artist and entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu.  Kalki has liberated Prerna by her project “Wall of Kindness”.

 Transgender community in India is highly underprivileged and misunderstood. Most of them are bereft of any scope of education or literacy and are left with no option to express their emotion, grief, feelings and talent. “I have only faced rejection all my life. Society always looked at us like a laughing stock. Depressed and nowhere to go, beggary seems the only solution to survival for us. But Kalki used art to vent out our inner self so that society could accept us the way we are,” says a jubilant Prerna.

In 2008, Kalki Subramaniam, a transgender, founded the Sahodari Foundation, an organization that advocates for transgender people in India. At the age of 13 she used to draw, paint and write poetry to express her internal struggle. Kalki realized that art was a therapy that could heal, pacify and empower. Her “Wall of Kindness” is an enterprise that uplifts transwomen by opening a new world of possibilities through art.  The artists, who are involved in the beautification process, also get remittance for their participation as a source of income. By colouring the walls of rural and tribal institutions these brave individuals are reclaiming their identities and trying to create a compassionate society that is neither transphobic nor homophobic. Even her paintings reflect the gender fluidity she identifies with. Titled ‘Love beyond Gender’, ‘The Rainbow Queen’ and ‘Free Spirit’ epitomized by a horse, to name a few, her works of art reveals Kalki’s preference for a unisex approach to life rather than conform to a conventional male-female outlook as prescribed by societal norms, “I am someone who loves to celebrate life and not just get tied down to a mere mundane existence on earth.”

The transgender community has been oppressed by different types of discrimination and cruelty.  Shunned by family and society, they have restricted access to education, health services and public spaces. Till recently, they were excluded from effectively participating in social and cultural life. Politics and decision-making processes have been out of their reach. Transgender people have difficulty in exercising their basic civil rights. Reports of harassment, violence, denial of services, and unfair treatment against transgender persons have come to light. “The majority of Indian transgender population (census of India 2011 survey says 4.88 lakhs, but it could be 5 times higher) is not educated, mostly ostracized by the family, thrown out of our homes and have lost the opportunity to study at school or college. This rejection makes us disqualified for well paid jobs and pushes us into the street for begging and sex work to make money to meet all their needs. While food and shelter become a priority, education fades away as a distant dream for us, and art is something not in our priority and needy list at all, we see it only in films or occasionally in newspapers and ignore. But I, being a transgender woman who was one of the lucky few to be accepted and adored by my family, had the privilege to get educated and to travel the world, and as well be an artist, knew the importance of art in our lives, the transgender people’s lives. “So I created Sahodari Foundation for our community, taught them art which is a therapy in itself. We have been painting the walls of schools in rural areas. The kids enjoy our company. Interacting with the kids at this age is a kind of sensitizing them. At this age they have understood us that we are not abnormal. We are like anybody else who have creativity and talent,” claims Kalki

“I consider the Supreme Court’s verdict in our favour as a huge landmark and the first step to integrating the community into the mainstream society,” says Kalki, the vociferous campaigner for bestowing legal status to third sex in India.

Kalki has earned her space by being the most celebrated transgender activist in the country. She was among the 12 women with inspiring social media presence honoured by Facebook Inc., and is a proud recipient of the Achievers Award from Coimbatore Lawyers Association and Transgender Welfare Association. She also holds a place for herself as one of the nominees in the L’Oreal Paris and NDTV’s -‘Women of worth’, a joint initiative by the brands to acknowledge the unsung heroes of our country. With a tag of being the first-ever transgender in India to play the lead in a motion picture, Kalki debuted as an actress in the 2015 release Narthaki.

Responding to her choice of name, she elaborates: “Kalki, the tenth and final reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu is a destroyer of evil. I identify with that and the name is a tribute to my own bold and fearless nature.”

Each day of Kalki’s life is hence a living tribute to herself to celebrate who she really is deep within – someone unique, someone who has carved out a niche.