Breaking new ground

Panmai, the first transgender theatre group in Tamil Nadu, on the need to have a space to tell their stories.

August 03, 2015 05:32 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 12:58 pm IST - Chennai

Angel Glady, Living Smile Vidya and Gee Imaan Semmalar of Panmai Theatre group Photo: R. Ravindran

Angel Glady, Living Smile Vidya and Gee Imaan Semmalar of Panmai Theatre group Photo: R. Ravindran

In August 2014, Panmai, the first of its kind transgender theatre group in Tamil Nadu, staged its debut play.

The cast and crew were a nervous and excited lot. They wondered how the audience would receive their first theatrical venture Color of Trans . To their surprise they were met with a standing ovation at the end of what could only be described as an evocative and moving performance. One year on, Panmai has staged eight shows of their constantly evolving play, three of which were in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, while Color of Trans 2.0 , the latest version, was staged only last week at the Goethe Institut to a packed house.

The play, which traces the journey of three transpeople — Living Smile Vidya, Gee Imman Semmalar and Angel Glady — has received rave reviews from its audience. “When we performed in Bangalore, a member of the audience told us that Color of Trans was an intervention in modern Indian theatre. To us, that was heartening. Our focus has been to present the story of our lives, people’s perception of us and the problems we face, while also providing a platform to other voiceless and marginalised people,” says Imman, a transman and NGO volunteer from Bangalore.

Panmai came about after Living Smile Vidya, or Smiley as she is better known, returned from the U.K. after a short course in theatre. “I’d been involved in theatre for over 10 years, but had always done cis-gender roles. It was after I went to the U.K. that I realised there was so much more I could do. I saw transpeople there actively involved in the performing arts, while here we see them take to beggary and sex work. I wanted to change things a little. Once I returned, I got in touch with Angel and Imman, both of whom I had known for a long time, and we decided to set up Panmai,” says Smiley, adding, “Panmai started out as a platform for us to tell our stories. But in the long term, we hope to turn it into space for other marginalised people to tell theirs.”

The one thing Panmai is determined to do is make people realise that they have individual identities apart from being transgenders. “You could say Color of Trans is an attempt to shake people up and make them realise that we are individuals too. The play does not lecture people on transgender rights; it is more in your face while also being entertaining,” says Imman, adding that the play is their attempt to challenge the purity associated with the cultural space.

All three members of Panmai are well-educated and hold Masters degrees. However, finding a job has been more than an uphill task for them. “The primary problem we face is the difference of genders and names in our educational certificates. We haven’t been able to update those so far, since there are no provisions yet. Even companies that are willing to hire us, cannot do so since our records just don’t add up,” says Angel, who had tried going to Malaysia in search of a job, almost got one, only to be told that there wasn’t much they could do because of her certificates.

“Sure, the Government offers free sex reassignment surgery here, but the quality is so poor, half the time it’s a botched up job and we are left to deal with the scars. That apart, there is no option to have certificates changed,” explains Imman. While Smiley pipes in, “I may appear as normal as anyone else, but I know the scars I’m dealing with. For a long time, I had severe body image issues. It is only now that I have learnt to deal with it.”

The biggest problem most transpeople in the country face is the many levels of discrimination. “Right from childhood, they face an untold amount of discrimination, which leads to many of them dropping out of school. Beggary and sex work seem to be their recourse. I’d like to work towards a day when transpeople don’t feel the need to give up on education,” says Imman, adding, “While there is some awareness about transwomen these days, there’s still very little known about transmen. We don’t even talk about the challenges faced by transpeople with disabilities or the other more marginalised transpeople in the country. In our future productions, we want to bring out the layers of discrimination (including caste, class, education and ability) that transpeople face.”

For now though, the three have little dreams of their own that they’d like to fulfil. “I want to buy a house and live a rent-free life,” says Smiley, who has spent four months looking at houses, only to be turned away because she is a transwoman. Glady, on the other hand, wants to study further.

“Preferably theatre in a place like the U.K. or France,” she smiles.

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