Accept us as we are: Transgender community in Kerala

For transgender artists, dance performances are a means of livelihood and an effort to make their presence visible.


Published Nov 26, 2022 | 2:21 PMUpdated Nov 26, 2022 | 2:21 PM

LGBT flags in the little Kerala town of Aluva. (Creative commons)

By Lekshmi Gopalakrishnan

Unmindful of the sweat trickling down their faces sporting glossy make-up and liquid lipstick, they keep rehearsing the dance steps at the block panchayat office in Kasaragod of Kerala ahead of their next programme.

When they switched from the traditional classical and folk steps to the cinematic and fusion numbers swiftly with ease and grace, the onlookers gathered there seemed to have forgotten about the long-drawn debate on the gender of the performers and the stigma attached to it.

For these transgender artists, it was not just a performance but a means to earn their daily bread and butter and an effort to make their presence more visible in this society fighting all odds.

They were members of a unique art troupe, a first of its kind in Kerala formed with the support of the Block Panchayat at Kanhangad in this northernmost district which offered assistance, realising the hardships being faced by the marginalised community.

Titled “Sampoorna Kala Kshetra,” it is considered to be the first such professional group of the third gender launched or promoted by a government body in the southern state.

Taking a break from the practice, known transgender activist Esha Kishore, also a trained classical dancer who leads the team, said there are over 15 members in the troupe right now.

Read more: Hyderabad takes out Trans Tehzeeb Yatra

She said many of them had no permanent job or any particular means of livelihood after the outbreak of Covid-19.

“So, a number of community members, those who have an interest in art and dance, decided to come together and register an art troupe. We thought, if we perform under the banner of a registered group, we will get more acceptance in the society,” she told PTI.

Kishore and fellow transgender members presented the proposal before the Kanhangadu Block Panchayat during the ‘transgender sabah’, a meeting convened by them to discuss the issues of the community recently and it was accepted by the civic body.

Block Panchayat provides financial assistance 

As much as  ₹4 lakh was granted by the block panchayat for the art initiative last year, which covered the expenses of their costume, make-up articles, food, travel cost and of training.

Esha Kishore. (Facebook)

Esha Kishore. (Facebook)

Though an “arangettam” (debut performance) of the troupe members was planned last year, it did not materialise but the civic body again earmarked a reasonable amount in their budget to carry forward the scheme.

After over a month-long rigorous practice and preparations, the art troupe had an official launch last month by state Minister M B Rajesh in a function in Kasaragod, in which the artists showcased a marvellous performance of classical, ethnic as well as cinematic dance forms.

“We believe that the inaugural performance itself has helped us bring a positive change in the attitude of people towards us. Several people came to us and appreciated our work. We are getting some bookings also from various districts,” Kishore said.

At least 3-4 bookings have been received for the month of December. With the support of the civic body, the troupe is getting offers to present their programme as an opening dance performance at many government functions.

They also got an invitation to perform during the upcoming Bekal Festival, a major government programme to be held in this northernmost district.

Kanhangad Block Panchayat president Manikandan said they are the first-ever civic body to come up with an art troupe to support the marginalised group.

‘The trans community need means of livelihood’

Apart from giving acceptance to their gender identity, the initiative was also aimed at helping the trans community here find a steady means of livelihood, he said.

“We are now making all possible means to ensure getting them programmes on a regular basis. We are making interventions to include the transgender troupe’s dance programme in the events of the state Cultural Department and the Folklore Academy,” the president told PTI.

Considering their mental stress and trauma and the existential crisis they are facing, the Kanhangad block panchayat also started providing the transgender community with a venue to meet and discuss at least twice a month under its gender resource centre, he said.

“The prime objective of the troupe is to find some means of livelihood. In a broader aspect, we want to enhance the visibility of our community in society through our abilities and gain acceptance for our gender identity,” Kishore further added.

Noted classical dancer and transgender activist RLV Charulatha, who trained the artists, said gender is never a barrier to anyone’s artistic skills and the audience’s response was immense after their first programme.

A performer in the troupe, she said enquiries are being received from various quarters regarding the programme but many people are not keen to make payment.

“Majority of people still cannot accept the fact that we charge an amount for our performance, They think that they are offering a platform for the transgender community and it is their kindness. Acceptance and equal treatment is still a dream,” she told PTI.

Social acceptance still far away

Despite all the government initiatives and a much-acclaimed Transgender Policy in place, only 20 percent of people in the society are ready to accept the TG community and the rest 80 per cent are still viewing the section with contempt, she rued.

Many of the community members are afraid to reveal their gender identity due to fear of isolation, job loss, and collapse of family relations, the activist added.

“We don’t even have a place to sit together and discuss our problems and worries. Luckily, the panchayat allowed us to conduct our practice session at their auditorium. An own space is the need of the hour and we requested the civic authorities to do the needful,” the transwoman added.

According to unofficial figures, there are over 130 transgender persons in the Kasaragod district alone.

However, only 20-30 people are visible in society as the rest are still hiding under the gender identity of a male or female fearing social ostracism, isolation in families and job loss and other such factors.

“It is not at all easy to live in this society after declaring that we are transgenders. A steady income is very very important for us. Despite all the positive steps, the reality is just terrible for persons like me,” Charulatha added.

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