Poornima Sukumar is creating safe spaces for the transgender community with the Aravani Art Project

23rd Feb 2018
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The Aravani Art Project, spearheaded by Poornima Sukumar which uses art as a tool of engagement, has completed over 14 public projects across red light areas, ghettos and slums across many Indian cities such as Pune, Mumbai, and Kolkata with the help of the transgender community.

Walls are not always about separating communities but also bringing them together. Public art can bring people closer as established by Poornima Sukumar, a 29-year-old muralist and Founder of Aravani Art Project. Through art, she aims to create safe spaces for the transgender community and enable them to connect with others in their neighbourhood.

“It reclaims the streets on which so many transgender people suffer violence and discrimination,” explains Poornima. Started in 2016, Aravani Art Project draws inspiration from the Aravani festival, a celebration of the transgender community.

Poornima Sukumar (R) with Vicky Shinde during a project in Dharavi - June 2016

Since its inception it has completed over 14 public projects across red light areas, ghettos and slums across many Indian cities such as Pune, Mumbai, and Kolkata with the help of the transgender community. From using art as a tool of engagement Poornima has embraced the community as her own and moved into sharing life stories, voicing challenges, and working in depth with the members.

“The journey has been a mixture of adventures and crazy times. The only constant has been fighting against the norm,” she says.

Life-altering moment

In 2014 while working as a freelancer Poornima was approached by a documentary maker who was making a film on the transgender community. It was this opportunity that changed Poornima’s life. She recalls,

It took about three-and-a half years to finish the documentary and by then I was completely disgusted by how society turned a blind eye. The transgender community was a thriving pool of beautiful human beings but never seen as that. I met brave women formed deep friendships with each one of them. I am still so moved by each of their struggles and how they face their miseries every single day, simply to be true to how they feel. It motivated me to see the positive aspect of their existence and their boldness to stand up against the rest of us.

So after the documentary was completed, Poornima felt guilty about taking so much from the community and hence, decided to give back. Using art she decided to take up public projects not just to get the community involved but also use the opportunity to observe them, understand their interactions with each other and be a part of their lives and challenges.

“I have to be honest here and tell you that it has been extremely difficult to gain their trust. I still don’t feel that I have succeeded in that aspect. It’ been decades since we have shunned them for what they are and it almost feels like a blessing to have them participate in painting a wall with us.They are still wary of people who may misuse their stories and identities. They are documented through photo shoots and video shoots but they hardly get paid for the time they spend," reveals Poornima.

Project in Jaipur at the Vivek Vihar Metro Station, February 2017

Since the transgender community is a close-knit one, working with one community has helped the Aravani Art Project connect with the community in different cities. This has allowed Poornima to travel and engage with different communities across India. The walls are public spaces that the community can relate to. Each public project portrays a transgender person (a mix of multiple faces mixed into one face) surrounded by culturally specific motifs. In Pune, it is the Paithani saree while in Chennai, the jasmine flower blooms on the walls.

The projects have allowed her to observe the community and its challenges, tensions, camaraderie and daily rituals. She shares how while painting the wall in Chennai she stayed with the community for a week and experienced how they enjoyed celebrations like birthdays. Similarly in Sonagachi, the red light area in Kolkata she met old transgender people who had lived during British rule. They felt things had gotten worse for them post their departure from the country.

Facing a host of challenges

According to Poornima, the challenges that the community faces are still stuck at the basic level, and includes discrimination and a lack of empathy. As transgender people are considered “unnatural” they are unable to find jobs and often take to begging or sex work. Most often, they end up becoming the victims of harassment, social negligence, and societal pressure.

After facing years of discrimination, they are reluctant to take up jobs. They need the push and motivation to move away from the lives they lead now and go onto better things.

“The key is to be as genuine and honest with the approach, they do not encourage sympathy or being treated differently. I think all this is still a learning and will always be,” she offers. 

Sonali next to the Pune Project, Budhwarpeth

A rebellious child to a champion

Poornima’s own story is an inspiration in itself. Raised in a joint family, which broke down during her teenage years she grew up with immense loneliness and a rebellious streak. Gradually her struggles made her more aware of the many social issues that go unnoticed. “Being rebellious often leads us to paths that are untethered,” she quips.

From walking into Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru to pursue art as a hobby at to enrolling for a fine arts degree, to graduating in 2008 and the next day starting her first job as an art educator at Inventure Academy, Poornima’s association with art has been constant. In 2012 she was a training faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. By 2013 (she was 24 then) she decided to take a sabbatical from teaching.

The Aravani Art Project

While Poornima’s close set of friends and family form her biggest support system she finds strength from her team which includes Sadhna Prasad, the Art Director and Viktor Baskin Coffey, writer and producer.

From left : Priyanka R, Sadhna Prasad, Viktor, Shanthi, Poornima Sukumar and Aditi Patkar

A big milestone in their journey was when Shanthi Sonu and Priyanka Divaakar from the transgender community joined the team with the assurance that they would participate in all future projects. The project’s increased presence on Facebook and Instagram and launch of its own website has given Arvani Art Project the much-needed publicity it deserves.

While they undertake commissioned projects which are paid for by MNCs and various companies, the public projects usually find support from city planners in different forms - travel and stay or supplies. Organisations like Aarogya Seva based in India and US have provided much-needed support and added value to the art projects by providing free medical checkups to the community while the project is being executed. These are little things that Poornima is attempting to do for the community.

Poornima notes that over the years, there has been more awareness about the community and support from the society to engage and interact with transgender people.

I don’t speak on behalf of the community, I encourage them to, or accompany them when required. I ensure that I am not their representative, rather a pillar of support.

Dealing with it at the personal level

Not being able to find them jobs and pull them out of the drudgery of begging and sex work still continues to hurt and rankles Poornima. Barring a few NGOs who are trying to get them jobs, a lot more needs to be done. At a personal level, I feel I’m wrapped in a lot of their stories, they share it as a matter of fact and it breaks my heart to realise that they have come to terms with how badly we (society) discriminate. Sometimes I am consoled by the same people who I am crying for. Even simple things like walking on the streets affect them, they are looked at differently and initially, I would pick so many fights with strangers and it would affect me. It still does. But time teaches you to speak up and fight when it is absolutely necessary, or it would seem like pointless ranting.”

Poornima’s biggest challenge is to find a sustainable way of making sure the project does not wither off with time and the other is to find walls to paint.

For St+art Kolkata Arvani Art Project painted a mural in Sonagachi, the biggest red light district in Asia

“People might assume that finding the trust within the community to do the project is tough, but the toughest is to find a wall to paint on. They are okay with strangers urinating on walls and throwing garbage against them but are averse to doing an artwork. It is so bizarre because most often they do not have a valid reason. Their hardships have left them bitter and angry with society. It requires a lot of perseverance and sometimes one cannot please everyone and accepting that is difficult too.”

Staying driven

In the midst of all the challenges when asked what drives her, Poornima says, “Curiosity drives me. I’m curious all the time to understand gender, the difference between gender and sex, and who decides it was unnatural? Why do we have rules, laws and policies for the decisions we make for our own body, mind and soul? It’s an endless spiral I am sucked into. It’s sad that they need to be courageous and brave all the time, just to follow their heart - I want to be with them in every way I can!”

Constantly on the lookout to do something innovative and inclusive for the community Poornima signs off with these profound lines written by her friend Malvika Tewari. This is something Poornima truly believes in.

“I pray for strength,

For reassurance and tenderness.

But more than anything else I pray

That tomorrow we wake up genderless.”

Here’s more power to her and her causes!

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