“If they see
Breasts and long hair coming
They call it woman
If beard and whiskers
They call it man
But look, the self that hovers
Is neither man or woman”
In India the iconography of Ardhanarishwara is central to the belief that the genders are equal and can be fluid. It has been celebrated in myth and is a widely popular image. And this form of Shiva represents the “totality that lies beyond duality”. Another myth brings Shiva and Vishnu/Mohini together to birth Ayyappa who slays a demon who had the boon of invincibility and could not be killed by any mortal from “natural” birth.
Some of us learn to accept without questioning, many embrace the world but there is a huge majority that is still figuring out what it is to be tolerant to others who do not belong to the majority heterosexual world view. Can we have an all encompassing vision of everyone?
In a country of over bearing religious diversity and iconography, the fluidity of it is difficult to comprehend. One could celebrate the excess or withdraw to personal belief systems that accepts the other as oneself. It is these liminal identities and fluidity of gender that sustain faith in diversity and our level of tolerance.
I used to often watch food being distributed at the edge of Cubbon Park every evening. It was cooked by volunteers and fed hungry souls in an urban space. This gesture of communal cooking warmed many hearts; many unknown faces glowed in the dark of the flickering lamp that lit under a huge Peepul tree. Lonely hearts melted in conversations about life and reality. The faithful pujari had a set of volunteers who cooked and served food to strangers. Even a non-religious person would be tempted to participate in this act of sharing. These rituals transcended religion’s sustained faith of being human.
The landscape of this public garden is the epicentre of the city. The public and private overlapped as lovers gathered to get away from families. Currently policing of couples has become common. The space became a hub for transgender people and gay men who take over from the office clerks who walk through the park in the evening. The local police plays hide and seek in this garden of earthly delights. The conflict of public/private is eternal, the patriarchal, hetero-normative world has always been critical about views that do not belong to the heterosexual nuclear family system. It is evident and ironical to see that the Vidhana Soudha, a post-colonial building that prides in being an amalgamation of multiple architectural styles is a neo-classical edifice that suggests diversity. And on this seat of power is inscribed “Government work is God’s work”, which faces the colonial edifice of the Attarakacheri–– the court of law. The same court of law that is contemplating Section 377 against the LGBT community––with words like “unnatural” ––a colonial law that needs to be amended.
The stigma and prejudice has created and perpetuates a culture of silence around homosexuality, and result in denial and rejection in our society along with discrimination in workplaces and public spaces.
In the same Cubbon Park, a small lake is considered sacred and is associated with a prominent jatra, called Karaga, a most exciting all night festivity. I was very curious about the Karaga––the rituals entail a sacred Kalasha (pot) being carried by a man dressed in a saree, clean-shaven and masculine. The yellow saree and jewellery made him a goddess by night but an ordinary man by day. I later learnt that such cross dressing was a common tradition in theatre forms like the Yakshagana and dances like Bhamakalam where men dressed up as seductive women in all their finery. No one talked about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT)!
The Sindhi neighbors I knew invited hijras on Diwali. They came and performed while the family showered them with gifts and money. They blessed us all and promised to return. Women wander in urban spaces carrying Yellamma––a mother goddess on their heads and came for contributions and it was only later that I knew that they belonged to the devadasi community––ritually married to the temple priest and the god. One grew up looking at those that destroyed gender norms and learnt to accept diversity.
Such gender transformations are a fascinating part of many festivals and many performing arts. The cross dressing has interesting references in the Mahabharata, where the valorous Arjuna transforms into Brihanala to remain unrecognized in exile. The Pandavas and Draupadi are intrinsic to this community and festival. The Karaga bearer undergoes a physical and psychological transformation, the profane human becomes divine and sacred trough the ritual vratha––he practices abstinence and is separated from his family. In the process of transformation, he wears his wife’s mangalsutra, turmeric-dyed saree and is clean shaven. The human body becomes the moving shrine, the Karaga is guarded by the valorous veerakumaras, men with bare chests and swords that are the signs of masculinity. They display their valour by holding swords and striking them against their bare chests as they cry out–Dik Dee! Dik Dee! over and over. They are guardians to the goddess. They accompany the Karaga and protect it through the route, displaying their strength by barging through the crowds, pushing people out of the way and making space for the movement of the Karaga. And these veerakumaras are supposed to behead the Karaga carrier if he fails to balance it.
In Cottonpete, there is the Dargah-e-Sharif of Harzart Tawakkul Masthan, an 18th century Sufi saint who was hurt during a Karaga procession and was healed by the temple priest. He wished that after his death, the Karaga procession would stop at the dargah. This was a secular gesture that fostered faiths beyond religion, and is one of the few instances of inter-religious interactions in the city. In these times when conversations and gestures of faith can bring people to trust one another, there were many from different faiths that believed that the taveez tied at this shrine warded off the evil eye.
The meeting of goddess and Sufi seem electric, full of transformative potential for our received notions of intransigent religious and gender divisions. In our age of suspicion and fundamentalism, few instances of such profound inter-religious dialogue survive. The ritual of the Karaga can be traced to the close social connections with the local Muslims and the Thigala community. The Darogas, official gardeners of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, collaborated in the horticultural enterprise of cultivating Lalbagh. The shrine is significant for Hindus who believe in the Sufi’s power to ward off evil and protect children. Indeed, it is not only the Karaga that brings Hindus to the Dargah. On any given day, Hindus come to pray, make offerings, and receive blessings of the saint. It is quite common to see Hindu women with their children lined up outside the Dargah’s mosque to have their children blessed by the purified breath of the man coming from their prayers.
Bangalore’s cosmopolitanism, openness and visibility of the LGBT community has created a more liberal subculture. The annual Queer parade, Queer film festival is a visible public event that makes its presence felt and the many proactive organizations and liberal voices like the Swabhava Trust ALF-, Alternative Law forum and others, has been in the forefront and has constantly had a multidisciplinary approach to law, society and culture. It has constantly asserted it’s stance by being generous to marginalized and specifically the LGBT community.
The fight against Section 377-the draconian law against the LGBT community has been one of their concerns. And Gowthaman Ranganathan from ALF says “The violation of fundamental rights of LGBT persons warrants nothing less than the highest attention of the Supreme Court. Further, decriminalization cannot be left in the hands of the Parliament which functions primarily on the notion of majority. A counter majoritarian concern will be left unaddressed by the parliament and hence it is all the more important that the court steps in to safeguard the rights of sexuality minorities. The fact that most countries that decriminalized homosexuality did so through its judiciary drives home the importance of the court’s role.
No doubt that S.377 is intrinsically tied to the lives of LGBT persons and affects them adversely but in the event it is not discarded by the courts or otherwise, LGBT persons would continue to live and fight to diminish its relevance.”
In 2009, ALF was involved in a subversive actions that happened in Bangalore called the Pink Chaddi campaign against the attack of women in a Mangalore Bar by Right wing goons in Mangalore. A group of women decided to peacefully protest in the Gandhian way. Pink underwear was sent from different parts of India and about 500 pink chaddis were couriered to the office of Pramod Muthalik (head of the Sri Ram Sene) with an invitation for a resolution of the issue; this was rejected. Pink was always associated as a symbolic colour by groups involved in issues important to women, and to LGBT people. And has become a new colour of resistance for a more tolerant and humane world.
We can think before we disregard and judge a person’s characteristics; their ethnicity, religious beliefs or their gender and sexuality. We need to challenge societal norms and really push boundaries in terms of cultural and social perceptions. Tolerance to the fluidity of gender and sexual identities are critical. And unconditional and non-judgmental acceptance of the other is fundamental to our reality.
Art Historian,curator and arts administrator,founder of 1.Shanthiroad studio/gallery an alternative art space in Bangalore.www.1shanthiroad.com
*.“On the 1st Of February, 2016, the Supreme Court referred the matter pertaining to the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to a five judge bench. Section 377 is India’s colonial anti-sodomy law that has resulted in the persecution and prosecution of LGBT persons in the country. A challenge to this section was allowed by the Delhi High Court in 2009 which was reversed by the Supreme Court on 11/12/13. The curative petition seeks to remedy this wrong and provides us with a final chance in the judicial process to strike section 377 as unconstitutional and antithetical to fundamental rights.”