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Out Soon: A Play On India’s Pregnant King To Change Views About LGBTQ People!

She scissored the curls away but I remember this sensation very vividly – it was not like she was cutting hair, it was as if I had a pair of wings beneath my shoulder-blades, that the flesh had all grown over, and she was slicing free.” – Sarah Waters

The Supreme Court of India in its pioneering judgment in 2014 recognized the third gender along with the male and female. Technically this prevents individuals and organisations from discriminating against transgender people. But the reality is different. A judicial ruling is of little help if people do not change their thinking and their attitude towards these people.

The status of the LGBTQ community in India is still ambiguous; their identity muddled. Heteronormative society tries to avoid them as much as possible and basically, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores their very existence by pushing them to the background. Our conditioning is such that the only ways in which we are used to seeing or thinking about transgender people is of them begging at a traffic signal or being made fun of.

The Indian entertainment industry has been no different. Barring a few films and plays, the majority has represented the community as an aberration, not fit to be understood and hence not deserving of an equal standing with the rest of society; and this has done more damage than good to the image of an already marginalised and silenced community, by simply making queer characters a subject of ridicule.

In very few stories in films and on stage, do we see an attempt to go beyond stereotypes and understand the world of the third gender. One such example is the play, “Seven Steps Around The Fire”, by Mahesh Dattani. In this play he weaves the story of the murder of Kamala, a beautiful eunuch who dares to marry the son of a politician. The play highlights the deplorable conditions of transgender people in India and the fate that awaits them if they aspire to step out of the filthy margins their life is relegated to. In “Dreams of Taleem”, Sunil Shanbag sensitively portrays the isolation felt by its gay protagonists. Some of the other directors and playwrights who have successfully potrayed the LGBTQ issues on stage have been Mahesh Elkunchwar, Tripurari Sharma, Lilitte Dubey (again in a Mahesh Dattani play “On A Muggy Night In Mumbai”), Happy Ranajit (“A Straight Proposal”) and some others.

A recent film in which the protagonist meets an ignominious end is Hansal Mehta’s “Aligarh”. Based on the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University, and was persecuted and victimized for his sexual orientation, the film is a nuanced exploration of what it means to be homosexual in a largely homophobic country. Kalpana Lajmi’s “Darmiyaan”, also narrates a heart breaking story of an aging film actress, who hides the true identity of her son when she realises that her son is an ‘eunuch’. There are couple of other films like Amol Palekar’s Daayra or Pooja Bhatt’s “Tamanna” which portrayed the community sensitively addressing the gender stereotypes. On the contrary, regional films in India have been quite progressive in dealing with the issues. Films like Rituparno Ghosh’s “Chitrangada”, “Memories in March” and “Arekti Premer Golpo” (just another love story) can be hailed for highlighting various aspects of gender and sexual identity. B S Lingadevaru’s “Naanu Avanalla”, Ligy J. Pullappally’s “Sanchharam”, Ravi Jadhav’s “Natrang” are some of the notable films in this direction.

However, not only are plays and films that deal with the issue of LGBTQ rights few and far between, the reception of such movies mostly always court controversy. “Aligarh” was given an adult certification by the censor board citing the reason that it was not appropriate for all kinds of audiences. Who can forget the rampage by Shiv Sena after the movie “Fire” was released, even though the censor board had let it pass without any cuts? And many other movies such as “My Brother Nikhil”, “Bombay Talkies”, “Shabnam Mausi”, or “Tamanna” that deal with sexuality and its expressions, have hardly got enough attention for them to spread much awareness about the issue. These are a beginning though.

As a team when we decided to conceptualise “Flesh” – which deals with the LGBTQ issues – it was out of the need to speak out, break the stereotypes and bring in a fresh perspective with a new story. Some of the team members including the cast, who belonged to LGBTQ community, wanted to highlight that our mythology and religious scriptures stems from an ancient culture which was far more tolerant and accepting towards the community. And for that the team felt “The Pregnant King” by celebrated author and mythologist Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is an apt narrative.

The play highlights homosexuality and transgender issues in the time of Mahabharata with a story which can be related to even in today’s modern times. But above all, it tells a human story of Yuvanashva, a childless king, who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant to make his queens pregnant and gives birth to a son. Much like the issues of LGBTQ community faces today, Yuvanashva struggle to understand his own gender role, with his desire to be accepted for what he is, and his efforts to break free of the shackles of his identity.

Any play, film or art form has the potential to become an agent of social change. They bring forward the issue and open minds while entertaining. And if the voices in those creative expressions belong to the very people who it is basically meant for, then those expressions truly come alive in a performance. “Flesh” has those voices. You will hear them – the dreams, the aspirations, the desire to be mainstreamed – loud and clear. And we hope that it will open your mind to the ‘unknown’ and help you make room for all – man, woman and everything in between.

“Flesh” will be staged on January 14, 2017, 7PM at LTG Auditorium, Copernicus Marg, New Delhi.

Featured Image courtesy of Kaushik Bose.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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