CHENNAI: It’s not often that you watch an invocation dance performance by a trans woman in a hall packed with office-bearers — all trans persons — of Sahodaran and its other community-based organisations such as Thozhi, Snegithi, and Indian Transgender Initiative, in Chennai. With her five-minute act depicting Rama Natakam, danseuse Vanitha had our undivided attention. “How is her dance different from female dancers? She’s just as graceful and expressive. But, she was denied the opportunity to learn the art form only because she was born a male. We all grew up in a similar situation and it continues to be so,” whispered a trans woman, sitting next to me at Hotel Gokulam Park, on Monday.
A much-needed milestone
Little did the trans woman anticipate that the collective unfulfilled dreams of their community will soon see the light of day. Thanks to Kerala-based Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust that announced the launch of its Chennai chapter with a free dance academy for the transgender community. The non-profit government organisation has collaborated with Sahodaran for technical support.
“We started a dance school in Ernakulam last month. Thirty-six out of 65 trans persons were selected and given a chance to learn from legendary teachers like Gayathri Subramanian and Gopika Verma. They have completed four classes already. There’s a dance school run by a trans teacher in Kottayam. She will also be coming to learn Bharatanatyam at Ernakulam. Art can transform lives and nobody must be deprived of their right to learn because of gender. All aspirants are equal to us. Besides this one, our next project in Chennai will be a free dialysis centre,” says KN Anand Kumar, founder of the NGO.
The dance school in Chennai is expected to be set up in T Nagar and the official inauguration will be on June 10, 2022. Over seven trans women, from across the city, have expressed their interest in joining the classes.
“Narthaki Nataraj has already set the ball rolling in the field of Bharatanatyam. She’s an inspiration to all. We’re roped in with established dancers to teach our trans women. We hope to begin with 10 trans women who are passionate and determined. Eventually, we’ll expand and include other social activities. The goal is to offer them a platform and tap their potential that’s been suppressed for a long time. We’ve planned for one or two classes a week. If all goes well, this can even help them earn a livelihood,” says Sunil Menon, founder, Sahodaran.
Purpose and passion
Among the many, whose prayers were answered with this project, was Vanitha who wowed us with her captivating performance. She’s currently pursuing her Masters in Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu Music and Fine Arts University.
“I learnt to dance from Ponni, another trans woman, for four years. But I had to quit as she moved to another place. To ensure that I stayed in touch with dance, I enrolled myself in this course and the faculty has been extremely empathetic. And, through Sahodaran, I’ve been getting chances to perform at functions. I was never allowed to dance when I lived under my parent’s roof. They frowned upon me, as it showed my feminine side, while others appreciated my skills. Had I started my classes early, I would’ve reached greater heights. Even today, I need a donor to help me buy my costumes. I’m awaiting the day when I can teach students,” she rues.
Despite owning an innate talent, many trans women are seldom encouraged, recognised, or given opportunities to learn in their formative years. Priyanka, another trans woman, moved to Chennai when she was all of 20. After another 20 years, she’s finally confident that the academy could do wonders for the struggling community.
“Most of us from the community enjoy dancing. Television was the easiest way to emulate our favourite actors and replicate movements. Like many, I was not allowed inside a conventional classroom. I was refused space in a popular city-based dance school, saying there was no place for trans persons. Not much has changed over the years, but there’s still hope. You either need to know an influential person or be part of a well-known organisation to bag chances. We don’t have the money to pay and perform. All we’re asking for is a space to showcase what we’ve got,” she points out.
Besides nurturing their passion, Sunil believes that the academy could be the place where they find their calling. “For a community that’s still fighting its share of stigma and discrimination from society for the basics, this indeed is a milestone. This could be a great way to integrate them into mainstream spaces and performances. We have trans women who will be coming from Kelambakkam, Ennore, and all parts of Chennai. Transportation is going to get cumbersome and expensive. We don’t want them to get energy-sapped and lose interest. All such factors come into play for them to even pursue their dreams. We’ll do our best to help them out in all possible ways,” he shares.
Around ten passionate trans women dancers have shown interest in the programme. The dance school is expected to be set up in T Nagar and the official inauguration will be on June 10, 2022. The school in Kerala began last month and trains around 36 dancers.