Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sangram’s ‘Ramdhanu Milan Utsav’

My Story, Sep '14
Aniruddha Dutta on his experience of the ‘2nd Rainbow Festival of Unity’ at Baharampur

It was a cloudy, rainy Sunday evening in Baharampur, a small town that is the headquarters of the district of Murshidabad in West Bengal. The mood was sombre among the participants who had gathered for the ‘Ramdhanu Milan Utsav’ – Baharampur’s version of the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride walks and festivals held in many Indian cities. The event, which entered its second year in 2014, was organized by Madhya Banglar Sangram, a community-based organization that works with the transgender and other gender or sexually variant communities of Murshidabad, including Kothis and Hijras (terms for feminine-identified people assigned male at birth).

'Ramdhanu Milan Utsav' rally at Baharampur. Photo credit: Aniruddha Dutta 

As the participants gathered in front of Rabindra Sadan (an auditorium in central Baharampur) on the evening of August 10, 2014, it was not just the weather and the possibility of rain that marred the mood. Just about a week earlier, Sukhchand, a community member from the town of Beldanga south of Baharampur, passed away in an accident. Nor was this the only recent death within the community. A few months earlier in March, Sajal, a dancer who used to perform in weddings and festivals in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (a practice known as Lagan or Launda Nach), passed away in a vehicular accident while trying to get to a performance venue on a tight schedule, which served as a grim reminder of the precarious circumstances in which many Lagan dancers performed their occupation.

The loss struck me personally as well, as I had known both Sukhchand and Sajal in the seven years that I had spent as a volunteer and advisor for Sangram. Both were likely to have been present at the event had they been alive, as they were active members who had not shied away from public visibility in previous such events.

Once the skies had cleared up and enough people had gathered at the venue, the evening’s programme started with a brief tribute to Sukhchand. Sujay Bhowmik, actor and member of Sangram, briefly introduced the organization and its journey over the last eight years since its founding in 2006, and enjoined everyone to observe a minute of silence in the memory of Sukhchand, who had played an active role in this history.

Subsequently, the participants gathered behind the organizational banner of Sangram, picked up their handmade posters, and slowly trailed out of the Rabindra Sadan premises for a public rally through some of the town’s main streets. Some had already participated in last year’s walk, which created something of a scandal in the town as the first time in the region when so many people who were visibly trans or gender variant had gathered together for a rally. Due to the resultant escalation of curiosity and interest, many people were ‘outed’ further by the media as several media outlets including the leading Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika carried pictures of the 2013 walk. Some participants like Kanchan Roy and Arunava Nath, longstanding members of Sangram, even faced familial rejection and harassment in their neighborhoods. And yet, most of them were back for this year’s edition. For others, however, it was their first time in such a public event, and given the aftermath of the previous year’s rally, it was understandable that several chose to wear masks.

Another scene from the 'Ramdhanu Milan Utsav' rally.
Photo credit: Aniruddha Dutta

The streets were rain drenched and sparsely peopled for the first few minutes, causing anxiety that the walk would miss its intended audience. However, things livened up as the walkers used a moving public address system (hauled by a rickshaw) to relay their message to the general public, gradually attracting the attention of onlookers. Seema Sarkar, a local radio artiste and longtime ally of Sangram, known to many of us simply as Seema Di, started off the walk with a moving speech in Sukhchand’s memory – recalling how he had been the life of many such events in the past because of his lively disposition and many talents, which included making up impromptu rhymes for any occasion. She went on to note how the apparently ‘respectable’ (bhadro) sections of society derived pleasure from taunting and harassing people like Sukhchand: “Today, the people that our society marginalizes, they want to merge with the general public, they have taken to the streets with their heads held high . . . are you willing to join them? Or will it affect your sense of respectability?”

Other speakers such as Raina Roy, a trans woman activist from Kolkata who had traveled to Baharampur for the event, also alluded to the distance between those participating in the rally and their implied mainstream audience, and how this distance was maintained through gender and sexual norms and hierarchies of class and respectability. “You must be thinking, who are these people? Why are these people, whom we see every day, walking together? Actually, it’s a way of showing this society that we too exist; our existence cannot be denied . . . you mock us, why because though male in body we are feminine in behaviour, or because some of us reject the gender assigned to us; when we speak about our sexuality, we become marked as disreputable or obscene. Yet there are many people whose sexual behaviours do not match the conventional norms of man-woman relationships.”

The message of the rally did not stop with the reiteration of the divide between the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘margins’. Several speakers alluded to the fact that the day coincided with the festival of Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan, which has a particular cultural resonance in Murshidabad (a Muslim majority district) as an occasion when people tie rakhis (bands) around each others’ hands in public, so as to symbolically affirm the message of communal harmony. In the context of this rally, the symbolism of Rakhi was harnessed as a way to bridge the aforementioned divides. As Seema Di said, “Today is the festival of Rakhi – this is not a time to maintain distance between oneself and others, but a time to connect hearts with hearts and lives with lives.”

This symbolic sense of connection was sought to be translated into reality through an open-air public programme at the end of the rally. The onlookers and passers-by were invited to attend the programme as an opportunity to learn more about the transgender and other gender or sexually variant communities, to ask questions and to hear from the community members in their own words. One particular attraction was the inclusion of a public screening of the documentary film Diaries of Transformation (directed by Anirban Ghosh, 2011), which outlined the life stories of several gender variant people in Kolkata.

Photo credit: Aniruddha Dutta
As the evening gave way to dusk, the rally followed a circular trajectory to return to its point of origin, and the walkers gathered in front of an open-air stage on the grounds of Rabindra Sadan. After the walkers settled down and some people who had been drawn in by the rally took their seats as audience, Sujay Bhowmik took over the proceedings and invited some key allies and supporters of Sangram to say a few words. Among those present was Dr. Shaktinath Jha, an eminent scholar and researcher on folk cultures of Bengal, and more broadly, South Asian philosophy and religion. Dr. Shaktinath Jha noted that unlike in Europe, where the gender binary was very clear, ancient Indian philosophy permitted the concept of at least three genders. “Indian philosophy does not believe in the concept of ‘pure man’ and ‘pure woman’,” he said, noting that many important texts included a conception of tritiya prakriti or ‘third nature’, people who were described as neither men nor women. He also noted that many popular religious movements and sects in Bengal and India, such as the Vaishnava, Bauls and Fakirs, evidenced an extensive practice of men enacting or imagining themselves in the roles of women; important religious figures such as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had lived in the role of Radha for extended periods of time.

However, Dr. Shaktinath Jha did not confine his attention to the past. He articulated a critique of the contemporary LGBT movement, which, despite the rich resources of gender and sexual variance in both classical texts and popular or folk culture, had largely modeled itself on the western LGBT movement and as a result, did not adequately connect with the most vulnerable communities such as Hijras who lived in rural areas. In response, Sujay Bhowmik spoke about the differences between Hijra clans, which pursue separate professions and are often segregated from mainstream society, and other transgender and LGBT communities or identities. Called to the dais as a researcher and community member working with Sangram, I spoke further about how these differences created challenges for building a unified movement – for example, though Sangram members maintained good relations with local Hijra households and several had even joined the Hijra kinship system, the Hijra groups maintained their distance from public events such as the ‘Ramdhanu Milan Utsav’. In the end, most speakers agreed that greater communication and solidarity with Hijra groups was needed to strengthen the LGBT movement in the future.

The evening wrapped up with the screening of Diaries of Transformation, which was projected from a screen on the open-air stage such that it could be seen and heard not only by the immediate audience, but also by people passing by the Rabindra Sadan complex. Indeed, the screening proved to be a provocative experience – spurring debates around LGBT visibility and political strategy that harkened back to the concerns about respectability and the mainstream-margin divide that were raised during the rally. In the film, one of the protagonists, Bini, openly speaks about her experiences as a sex worker, referring at one point to how many men don’t care if their sexual partner is a cis (biological) woman or trans woman, as they only look for ‘holes’. During this sequence, a senior board member of Sangram got up and left the screening as she felt that such language and open references to sexual experiences would be detrimental to the image of the community.

Even as the screening continued, a debate ensued on the sidelines. Some trans women's community members asked, was Baharampur prepared for such a film? Some opined that the film might be suitable for Kolkata, but this was not the time to introduce such a sensitive issue to Baharampur where LGBT political visibility was relatively new. Others, including myself, pointed out that the film represented a diverse spectrum of gender variant people and did not stereotype trans people as sex workers; besides, sex workers were often the most vulnerable within the community, and their stories needed to be heard in their own voices.

It would probably be impossible to know the precise impact that the film and the event as a whole had on audiences in Baharampur. Despite the ‘crude’ language, most people stayed till the end of the film, and I even noticed some of them shedding tears during particular sequences in the film. As the programme wrapped up with a vote of thanks, what at least seemed certain was that the day’s events had prompted important conversations both within and outside Sangram on issues ranging from Hijra inclusion, social respectability, sex work, to the future direction of the LGBT movement. Hopefully, these conversations would resonate far into the future, and animate further dialogue both within the ‘community’ and across the borders that still separate many of us from the rest of society.

Aniruddha Dutta is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies and Asian & Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Iowa, USA and has been associated with Madhya Banglar Sangram and gender variant communities in Murshidabad for over seven years as a researcher, volunteer and community member. 

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