Aravani Art Project – Breaking Norms, Creating Art!
Public art interventions with the transgender community.
Stuck in traffic on a gloomy day with the incessant honking filling the air, I look around to find something to distract me, to add a little colour in my life. Luckily, thanks to the explosion of street art, murals of different shapes, colours and sizes catch my eye. But one mural that really embeds itself in my brain is the one on Danavantri Road. A Large mural of a transperson, with the words “Naavu Iddeve” (We’re also here) written in kannada beside it.
This mural is done by the Aravani Art Project, a project that creates a collective space for people from the transgender community by engaging them in public art interventions. Their work is breaking more norms than we can imagine, so we reached out to them for an interview. Here’s what they had to say.
What inspired you to start Aravani Art Project? Tell us about its inception.
In the numerous travels that I undertook, I had the privilege of working with social causes, human welfare- mainly with children, women and the transgender community.
And it is while undertaking these projects I realized that I could use art to engage with different communities and address various social issues that continue to plague our society. I was involved in a documentary film with a film-maker from London for about 3 years which entails the Transgender community. This gave me a first-hand experience in interacting with them and understanding them as individuals and a community. When the documentary was coming to an end, I had an urge to keep my association with them going. Art being such an important part of my life I thought I would address their societal situation by painting walls with them. A series of discussions with the trans persons and dear friends led to the founding of this project. I would like to acknowledge our co- founder Sadhna Prasad for always being there and taking the whole project in such a quirky dimension.
I once attended the Koovagam festival which gave me an outburst into the culture of the Transgender community. The festival goes on for 3 days, the first two days the Trans-women celebrate and dress up like a bride to be, they get married to Lord Aravan and celebrate their holiness. The last day left me speechless, because according to mythology Lord Aravan dies the next day and the Transgender women become widows. This left me consequential and in awe of such a strong culture, so moving and so powerful. I felt ashamed that we, as a society have no light about their existence with us, lest we acknowledge. After that the documentary that I was a part of continued. I made the strongest connections with a few members of the transgender community, and there was no turning back. I kept getting deeper into their lives and thus aggravating my urge to let the whole world know how beautiful and strong these women are.
The people from the Transgender community are proud, beautiful people. They have incredible stories to share, if only we’d stop to listen.
What do you think of Indian’s perception towards the Transgender community?
The rule of law is supreme and everyone is equal in the eyes of law in India. Yet, the transgender community is in a constant battle as they have to fight oppression, abuse and discrimination from every part of the society, whether it’s their own family and friends or society at large. The life of transgender people is a daily battle as there is no acceptance anywhere and they are ostracised from the society and also ridiculed.
The exposure nowadays has been however positive and celebrated, and it is definitely a good start. But to live an everyday life, the public needs more awareness and sensitization.
There is a very thin line between respecting the community members as who they are, and turning it into a topic of discussion and making a mockery out of it.
What impact has the project had so far?
Our impact has been so heartfelt, that it did not require statistics. Shanthi, one of our core team member who belongs to the Transgender community shares “I have joined the Aravani Art Project as a full-time supporter and I love that people are looking beyond stigma and myths. We as Transgenders are capable of doing beautiful things too, hopefully the society understands this”. Since our project unfolds directly into the grass-root level, we tend to be more inclusive and transparent with our approach. This has created a very affirmative and a positive outlook on the community.
The fact that the space we create also acts as a catalyst for conversations, allows people who are scared or curious to have a first-hand experience with the community. Several volunteers and a few people from the public centre shared experiences like ” normally, I would have been a little scared to talk to the community, but after interacting with the Aravani team, I feel a lot more free to interact and even have a friendly conversation, which is a lovely feeling”.
Through our project we were able to execute and successfully complete eight large scale projects in India and one across the borders in Sri-lanka within the span of 16 months. We are able to also build a network within the Transgender community and also working towards sharing a border-less world.
What are some of the cultural and societal norms that you wish you could break with the Aravani Art Project?
I’ve always believed that, if we have the power to hate, we have the power to love as well. We need to eradicate almost 75 years of thinking, which will definitely take time to change the mindset of an entire society/country. However the process has already began, with so many young adults fighting and coming out for the cause, I only wish for more of this to happen.
Culturally, if we respect the people from the transgender community as one of the messengers of God and invite them to seek blessings for all the good times, it is equally important to respect them while they otherwise exist. We choose to roll up our glasses, or laugh at them otherwise, which leaves them really hurt and instigated. The community has been subjected to years and years of discrimination and disrespect. We as a country did not even bother to identify, what’s worse?
They have lived a life in the shadows for the longest time…and the least these beautiful people expect is a smile, or to just to be treated without judgements, hesitation and disrespect.
To be able to give a voice for the community and those in the society who stand together and bridge the gap that exists.
To try and sensitise and educate people about the Transgender community and its people.
Why did you choose art as a medium for awareness?
As a practising artist for almost 6 years, I view artistic creation as a behavioural process of how a community comes together to slowly stand up for what they believe in. Our medium of expression, however, turns out to be “Public art/ intervention through painting walls” since I believe that art can become a tool of interpretation for the socio- economic conditions of a society with not much voice and to also bring out a sense of social participation and awareness.
Art has the power to bring people together and requires an individual to be themselves. It allows people to participate regardless of age, race, gender!
Can you talk us through the process of creating a mural? How do you source the wall, what are the permissions you need, how do you decide what to paint etc?
Creating a mural in India is an art in itself. We have had the best experiences hunting for a wall in streets that hardly exist, busiest market places, loudest sounds of honking and sometimes so emotionally draining to walk through the red light streets with homeless children and women, it is like a movie over time.
After a crazy episode in Dharavi, where we almost got arrested for building a scaffolding to paint a wall, nowadays we start to seek permissions or find support from the local politicians/ leaders or the government itself, which is a different and a roller coaster in itself.
We are constantly working on our designs, depending on the next city/location chosen. We research or refer to a lot of mythology and the present status of the given geographical place which in turn helps us with the design and the stories. Our designs are constantly reviewed and in collaboration with the people from the Transgender community.
What are some of the difficulties the Aravani Art Project faces?
Right now our difficulties lie in connecting with the right people in terms of permissions for walls, monetarily and definitely gauging the support from the community. The grass-root work with the community requires a lot of time and patience in order to make a change.
We assume that when one is in the low- economic strata, they would oblige to anything we offer. We don’t think about the consequences that the individual faces because of our assumption of trying to “HELP”. We need to assess the situation and make sure every so called “solution” of ours is sustainable and profitable.
Yes, we might take time and progress could be slow, but I really prefer all of this happening organically.
What’s next for the Aravani Art Project?
We have so much brewing happening, we are planning on executing more Public Art Projects in Delhi, Kolkatta, Hyderabad… we are on the lookout for collaborators and any kind of support.
We also have some interesting work in the well-being forefront for the people from the community who work with us.
We believe in community living and that requires all of us to work together for a cause. <3