From Chennai to Pune, via a place beyond gender
Text and Pictures : Poornima Sukumar
As told to TLJ
My work, since I started the Aravani Art Project in Bangalore, early 2016, makes me travel a lot. Aravani is an initiative where a team of people who believe in my craziness and I, paint walls in different cities with the people from the Transgender community for awareness and social participation. One such work trip took me to Chennai, early April, this year. We were painting a wall in an area where people from the Transgender community reside, as an ode to Tara.
Tara, was a transgender woman who was coaxed to burn herself, end of 2016. We were painting a mural on a 58-feet building, where Tara used to live, with her friends. The mural, was also an ode to many other transgender women who have passed away. One warm, lazy morning, while I was catching some breeze, Nirmala Akka a person from the transgender community, who was living close by, approached me. She had not been participating in the project but vouched her support. She said my work with Aravani interested her and she wanted to chat.
We talked about a lot of things — my work, her struggles in life, the discrimination she faces for belonging to a community that hasn’t received complete acceptance in the country, yet, and about why I do the work that I do.
Though Nirmala Akka has been living and working in Pune for 14 years now, she has kept a house in Chennai too, because here, she says she found some peace.
Soon, I was getting overwhelmed by the stories she was telling me, even if it was just of her daily life. The struggles were enormous, since there were days that Nirmala Akka would earn just enough to feed herself one square meal, and yet, she would never hesitate to be generous no matter how little she had. Suddenly, as we were talking, a cat plonked itself on her lap. She loves cats, she told me, because she feels as independent, self-indulgent, and proud as them.
We exchanged telephone numbers and bid each other goodbye after coffee.
Just about two weeks ago, I was travelling to Pune, on work. I knew I couldn’t leave without calling on her here. I found her phone number and got her on the line. She didn’t remember my name, but she remembered that coffee and conversation we had in her Chennai home. She shrieked with glee with her recollection and insisted we meet again, in Pune. I couldn't be happier to do so.
Here, Akka’s days are busy. She leaves every morning with her friends and community members, asking for money at traffic signals and at stores across the city, and returns home late in the evening. Work kept me busy too, but Akka would call me, unfailingly, every day of my four days there, to check on me. Was work ok? Was Pune treating me well? Her genuine concern started to make me a little guilty, representing as I was a section of the society that doesn't completely accept transgender people like her. It irked me to think of the stigmas we build around ourselves, the walls that keep us from appreciating individuals who fight the odds and do so bravely.
When we finally met, Akka spoilt me silly by making me crisp, yet soft, dosas, my favourite tiffin, expecting absolutely nothing in return for her generosity and endless affection. Our time together was almost ending that evening when a cat found her again— a beautiful black one this time, her own pet. I didn’t have the heart to leave this picture of content, of happiness, and pure, unadulterated love that stood before me.
So I painted it. I am a wall painter and I paint walls with my heart and soul. I’ve been painting walls for a year now. I ave made over nine murals, in the past year, but the painting I made of Nirmala Akka at the TIFA Working Studios in Pune on 21st May, 2017 is closest to my heart. She doesn't even know about it.
Travel is funny sometimes. When I went to Chennai earlier this year in April, I didn't know I’d meet someone who’ll inspire me and feed into my work with Aravani. In fact, that Pune is now on the Art Project’s map (the other cities we had earlier shortlisted were Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi and Kochi), is solely because of Nirmala Akka.
Never stop looking, and never stop travelling. You never know where, who, and what can change you.
Poornima Sukumar is a muralist by profession and a traveller at heart. She loves discarded things and is passionate about meeting new people.