Those associated with the LGBT rights and equality movement are also trying to look beyond now at other gender variants.
“A film or book that talks of LGBT community invariably sets itself in a metropolitan environment. No one looks at the sexual minorities in small town India,” says Gopi Shankar, student of The American College, who presented a paper at the National Queer Conference, a three-day event held in Kolkata recently in which academicians, policy makers, writers, intellectuals and independent film makers took part and discussed the rights and issue of LGBT in India.
“But, hardly there was any representation of the real India. One has to look beyond LGBT into the intricacies of sexual and gender minorities. There are minorities within minorities and no one talks about them. It has come to a point where any common man thinks that LGBT is a westernized concept confined to the metropolis,” feels Gopi. “We are trying to create regional resource materials on cultural and social representations and literary reference of Gender variants.”
Done under the students’ study circle ‘Srishti Madurai’, the research paper discusses the various depictions and mentions of sexual minorities in Tamil Sangam literature, the epics and the puranas. According to Gopi, there are certain subtle references to transwomen and suggestive relationships between two men. “For instance, the friendship between King Pari and poet Kabilar is shown as something more than just friendship. There are lyrical undertones suggestive of the intimate relationship they had. But since there are no explicit representation, one can only postulate a possibility,” he says.
Likewise, the famous sangam period characters of King Koperunchozhan and Pisuranthaiyar are another example, points out Gopi. “They are said to have not seen each other at all and yet shared love and regard for each other, so much, that they die at the same time at different places,” he interprets. “Sangam texts use the word ‘Pedi’ to refer to transwomen. This shows that they existed even then and it’s not a western concept that recently mushroomed in metropolitan India.”
Gopi’s research paper throws light on the various folk tales, traditions and cults associated with sexual minorities and gender variants, in different parts of India and South India in particular. The Aravan cult in Koovagam village of Tamil Nadu is a folk tradition of the transwomen, where the members enact the legend during an annual three-day festival. “This is completely different from the sakibeki cult of West Bengal, where transwomen don’t have to undergo sex change surgery or shave off their facial hair. They dress as women still retaining their masculine features and sing in praise of Lord Krishna,” he explains. “Whereas, since the Tamil society is more conservative and hetero-normative, transwomen completely change themselves as women. In the ancient times, even religion has its own way of accepting these fringe communities.” The Bachura Devi worship in Gujarat and Jogappa cult of Karanataka are the other examples.
The study also delves into the kinds of dialects and languages spoken by the LGBT community in different parts of the country and the socio-cultural impact on the lingo. ‘Hijra Farsi’ is the transgender dialect, a mix of Urdu, Hindi and Persian spoken in the northern belt of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and ‘Kothi Baashai’ is spoken by the transgender community in Karnataka, Andhra, Orissa and parts of Tamil Nadu. “They even have sign languages and typical mannerisms to communicate. The peculiar clap is one such,” he says.
“Our society had a clear cut idea of all these people in the past. Now that we have put them under one label ‘LGBT’, there is lot more confusion and other identities have got hidden. There are many gender variants and sexual orientations than just these four,” says the city-based collegian, who has also written a book Hidden pages (‘Maraikapatta Pakkangal’ in Tamil), that’s currently under review and yet to published.