The Aravani Art Project, a brainchild of Poornima Sukumar, was born of an experience which profoundly changed the life-course of not only the founder but all those who have been a part of this movement. Aravani refers to a person who worships Lord Aravan, the patron Hindu god of transgender people in Tamil Nadu. When Sukumar attended the Koovagam Koothandavar Festival in Tamil Nadu while working as a documentary researcher, the mourning and dancing associated with the festival opened her mind to a world she had never seen before.
She found friendships that impacted her so deeply that when she returned home to Bengaluru, she was determined to dedicate her life to the cause of transgenders and to create safe spaces for open dialogue and exchange.
Viktor Baskin, director of the project, says that it was developed out of a desire to create safe spaces for alternate voices through art as a social practice. She says that they had been thinking on how they could use their skills to do this. She recalls that when Sukumar first met Sadhna Prasad, who is currently the artistic director, the project began to develop its iconic graphic style. It was later supported by Priyanka Divaakar, a radio jockey, who came on board as an artist and cultural consultant.
Soon after, Shanthi Sonu met Sukumar at a popular Bengaluru Art Market and she joined the team as an artist and documentary maker. “I joined the collective after meeting the team through my PhD research as an anthropologist. I remember walking into Poornima’s sun-soaked house with the intention to simply interview the team about their work. Weeks later I wondered how I’d ever lived my life doing anything else. It just seemed too fit,” Sonu exclaims.
In this way, Aravani Art project has grown into a dynamic collective of diverse women artists who identify across the spectrum as transgender-women, gender-fluid women, and cis-gender women. “We continue to work in collaboration with the many transgender communities of India and we dive deep into a unique culture and explore traditional practices. We examine their spaces of innovation, the places of their history and create room to learn by transforming this knowledge into public art,” she adds.
Baskin believes that the streets are a particularly important place to do their work because it is in these public spaces that the bodies of transgender identifying people are subjected to violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure. “We seek to respond to these experiences by creating spaces that encourage exchange, discussion, openness and debate surrounding gender categories and identities,” adds Baskin.
Talking about why art was chosen as a medium to push for the rights, Prasad says, “In India people love art and they love being able to get involved in its making; they love being able to create something that stays standing in their neighbourhood, something they can pass each day and know they were a part of its being there.” She believes that art does not require people to label each other and that it creates a beautiful and sacred space for the freedom of expression along with the freedom of spirit. Even though art is not completely neutral, people from all walks of life feel like they can come and engage with one another.
“When strangers stand side by side with a paintbrush in their hands they can have the kind of dialogue that they never dreamed was possible,” Prasad says, adding that their art is really about the conversations that it ignites. Baskin adds that this way what is left on the wall is really the colourful remnants of friendships; an energy that whispered a particular mural into being.
“As a transgender woman, I want to see us live with liberty and to be accepted as normal human beings in the society,” says Sonu. She adds that she has dreams for herself and that she wants to see both — her own culture and her community — survive without any fear in any form.
“I want to open all the doors that were once shut for me and to create opportunities in all fields. We are not just fit for begging or sex-work,” she says. Even though they may not always break free from the shackle of society, they need to keep going. “We need to accept genders in all forms because we are humans who are made up of the same skin and blood,” says Sonu. She firmly believes that change is something that is important and one can make a change to their own community. One can make a change everyday.
The Aravani Art Project has worked all over India, creating murals in Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and even across the ocean in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Prasad says that their hope is to keep moving further north into remote parts of India. She adds that they have a number of international collaborations on hand with artists from around the world.
“Volunteering for the cause is really about getting involved in whatever way one can which can be,” Baskin believes.