By Annesha Ghosh:
In an exhilarating first, members of Koti, Hijra and other transgender women communities from across Kolkata and its suburbs have come together this year to organize a one-of-a-kind Durga Puja, as an attempt to ‘reclaim the social space’ in the face of ‘ostracism’ levied on the community as a concomitant of their gender, in addition to class and caste hierarchies.
Organized by Kolkata-based sexual rights initiative, ‘The Pratyay Gender Trust‘, in association with ‘Uddyami Yuvak Brinda’ , the local club of the area, this ‘her’storic Sarbojonin (community) Durga Puja will be held at Jay Mitra Street- a low-key neighbourhood near Sovabazaar, in north Kolkata.
Although the club has been conducting their annual Durga Puja for 27 years now, it is the first time that the association has inducted into its working committee a host of individuals from the transgender women community.
Quite significantly, activities that are traditionally male dominated– from the choice of theme to conceptualizing the idol; decoration of the ‘Pandal’ (marquee) to collection of subscription and formation of a Puja Committee – will now see the active participation of transgender women.
The Puja celebrations will be inaugurated with a ‘Jatra’ (a form of folk-theatre) performance by the troupe of senior transgender artist Manorama Kinnar on October 18. With an estimated budget of Rs. 1.50 lakhs, the group has also started a fundraising drive on Facebook, inviting donations from the public, in order to secure a sound financial base to this first-of-its-kind initiative.
For 55-year old Bhanu Naskar, the realization of a dream conceived a year ago has heralded a new dawn. “Being a Hijra has never made me feel ashamed of my identity. However, the discriminatory gaze that transgender individuals are subjected to in the public domain, especially during social and religious gatherings, has often made us think disgracefully of ourselves. Given the undeniable significance of Durga Puja as a well-known trope in the social sphere, it was in early January this year that we came up with this idea of organizing a Durga Puja, where transgender women would be actively involved in the multifarious activities of the festival,” said the secretary of The Pratyay Gender Trust.
As a poignant afterthought Naskar added how the first thoughts concerning this move was subconsciously triggered by the all too frequent denials they would be greeted with, barring them from participating in simple festive rituals like offering Anjali on Ashtami or the partaking in the traditional ‘Sindoor Khela’ (the smearing of vermilion among married women on Vijay Dashami), which marks the culmination of the six-day festivities.
Asked about the import this collaborative enterprise may bear on the larger consciousness of the transgender community, Anindya Hazra, founder of Pratyay Gender Trust crafted a thoughtful response: “On any given day, it’s a lot easier to do things in isolation. There is little or no resistance from other societal forces at work and you can afford to have your way without having to face the realities of a ‘gendered’ existence, especially one that is arguably far more rigidly demarcated than the conventionally ‘accepted’ ones. But the dynamics change drastically when you attempt to pursue the same narrative in a broader social realm.”
“Regardless of how guarded and problematized this space may be, irrespective of the severity of the limitations incumbent upon the middle-class society, the requisites of the present times mandate that our endeavours do not preclude this space or the people who inhabit it. As a result, right from the word go, we were firm on our resolution that if members of our transgender women community are to organize this Puja, they must do so in collaboration with representatives of the local club and residents of the neighbourhood,” Hazra added.
At the nucleus of what plays itself out as a nuanced socio-politico-religious discourse, conceived with an unmistakable earnestness to infuse an embracive sensibility amongst the public towards those inhabiting the queer space, manifests the majestic idol of the mother-goddess, fashioned after the mythical ‘Ardhanarishwara’ or the composite androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. Artistically underlying the sexless or multi-sexual aspect of the soul, the sublime androgynous representation is being brought to life by one of the few yet finest craftswomen in Kumortuli – the famed potters’ quarter in north Kolkata.
For China Pal, the first female artisan in Kumortuli, creating the idol for Bhanu and company has been anything but a commonplace experience. “I had taken on the mantle of idol-making following the bereavement of my father in 1994. Since then the idols churned out from my workshop have travelled places, garnered myriad accolades. However, never before did I get the opportunity to collaborate in as unique an enterprise as this. The emotional investment on this occasion has been inexplicably high. For those who have been, time and again, shunned by the self-styled custodians of society, I couldn’t help but extend my support to this brave endeavour and do my bit in help mainstreaming their cause.”
Since the news of this valiant enterprise first came to light on social media, the response to the same been overwhelming, to say the least. If the ever-increasing congratulatory posts and show of support on Facebook, the multiplying local media coverage, the renewed encouragement extended by the residents of the neighbourhood, or separate developments such as recruitment of transgenders into the Civic Police Volunteer Force (CPVF) are anything to go by, it wouldn’t be a far cry to assert that Kolkata is certainly opening itself to a possibility of creating a harmonious, embracive interspace where individuals, regardless of their ‘gendered identities’, can claim their right to equal and honourable participation.