Block 107 is an unlovely terracotta-and-yellow building tinselled with sagging cable wires, located at the very edge of the Tsunami quarters at Ernavur, Chennai. A slate-grey wall separates it from the railway track beyond, and trains rumble past, leaving behind a pall of dust and grit.
But the painters, perched on a shaky scaffolding in front of the building, barely seem to notice; so engrossed are they in their work. With careful brush strokes, they fill in the outline of a face chalked on the wall – the face of Tara, a transgender woman, who self-immolated herself outside the Pondy Bazaar police station, after being reportedly harassed by the police, last November.
“This is an ode to Tara,” explains Poornima Sukumar of the Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project. Initiated by Sukumar last year, she hopes to create awareness about the transgender community and drive inclusivity, through public art. Sukumar, who calls herself an “accidental artist”, first engaged with the community while documenting the festivals of transgenders with a London-based filmmaker.
She worked closely with the community for nearly three-and-a-half years during the shooting of the movie, building trust and developing an easy rapport with them. Once the film project was over, she realised that she wanted to continue that relationship, says Sukumar, who has been engaged in creating art in public spaces for almost five years now.
Genesis of the project
The Aravani Art Project was formally kicked off in January 2016 at Bengaluru’s chaotic KR Market, where Sukumar and around 15 transgender women painted the walls of Sangama, a non-governmental organisation that works for the rights of sexual minorities.
The name of the project was inspired by a visit to the tiny village of Koovagam, in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district, famous for its annual transgender festival. Held at the Koothandavar temple dedicated to Lord Aravan, the festival sees thousands of transgenders converge here to recreate an ancient ritual that has its origins in the Mahabharata .
To ensure the victory of the Pandavas at Kurukshetra, Aravan, Arjun’s son born out of wedlock, offered to sacrifice himself. His only request was to be married before he died. Knowing that no woman would want to marry a man destined to die, Krishna transformed himself into a woman, married Aravan and spent the night with him. In keeping with this narrative, the transgenders who come here, play the role of both bride and widow during the course of this 18-day festival.
The Chennai chapter
The Chennai chapter of the project, their eighth since then, was kicked off on March 29 and went on till April 1.
As with all her projects before, she has engaged with the local transgender community. “I have chosen a wall in this complex because Tara stayed here,” explains Sukumar, who lived and worked with many of the victim’s friends as she executed the project. “It was very overwhelming both for us and the community. So many people came together to make this happen,” she says.
Kanchana is one of them. “Tara was like a mother to me,” she explains, slithering down a ledge, paintbrush in hand. Trained at the Sahodari Foundation Centre for Education, Arts and Media, Kanchana has always loved drawing, she admits. “It is good that I have used my skill to talk about my community. I hope to do more projects like this.”
The final artwork shows Tara dressed in red and bedecked in a cascade of jasmine. Below the painting is a message, Manidham Malarattum or ‘Let humanity bloom’. Shanthi Sonu, an RJ with a Bengaluru-based community radio station and an intrinsic part of the Aravani Art Project, explains the significance of the jasmine. “All transgender women love malli , as did Tara. This flower represents every member of the community who has died before her time,” she says, adding, “Instead of shouting slogans on the road, we can create a permanent reminder of our cause through this art.”