It’s monsoon season. That means rain, rain, and more rain. Every single day, there’s rain. There’s so much rain that the land has given way in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, causing 50 thousand people to go missing and 73 thousand to go stranded. It has rained so much in Mumbai that (at least) three buildings have collapsed, leaving dozens dead. The rain has also forced inhabitants (especially those who do not work in an office) into hibernation, as many Mumbai streets are now too treacherous to walk through. The harsh weather has caused me to seek respite in some footage I already have but have not yet shown. Needless to say, the footage is of a sunnier, drier time…
We’re heading back to hot and sunny Koovagam to attend the “Miss Koovagam” transgender beauty pageant. In a town just outside Pondicherry (near Koovagam) over one hundred transgender participants from all over India competed for their chance to win the coveted “Miss Koovagam” crown. Gopi was also there [see ‘Meet Gopi (Koovagam Part 2)’] along with Taejha Singh Susheela (see ‘Koovagam Part 1’), and two others whom you have not previously met. Meet Malika, India’s first transgender model to present on the international stage, and A. Revathi, a veteran activist and author of the groundbreaking publication entitled The Truth About Me. Both were called upon to judge the event. To make the following video, some footage of the beauty pageant seen in ‘Meet Gopi’ was resurrected and reincorporated on a new timeline with entirely new material. The result is an experiential reinterpretation of the beauty pageant as seen through the eyes of individuals from within the transgender community. Watch this Part 3 to Koovagam here:
The two activists seem to reside at opposite sides of the spectrum. On one end is Revathi, a writer, actor and activist, who has worked in the NGO sector for over 12 years. Best known for her work with Bangalore-based Sangama, she recently divorced NGO-style activism in order to live a more reclusive life. Revathi has frequently spoken out against corruption within the NGO sector, and has demonstrated a more individualistic approach to activism. Living at her native home in Tamil Nadu, she is researching in preparation for an upcoming publication on transgenderism in India. She has two books under her belt: Unarvum Uruvamum (Feelings of the Entire Body) and her autobiography, The Truth about Me, which is reportedly the first English book published from a member of the Hijra community.
On the other end of the spectrum is Malika. At 28 years of age, she has made a name for herself as the first Indian to participate in the 2011 “Miss International Queen” pageant for transgender individuals. Since then, she has used her fame to advance the goals of her Trust. She is quite active in the blogosphere as well, using the power of her digital network to help lead initiatives for her NGO.
Despite their differences in approach, Malika and Revathi acknowledge that they share the same goals, more or less. The Koovagam festival is the place where they can come together to express that singular vision. Furthermore, while their differences may be trying at times, they reflect a special diversity of perspective from within the transgender community in India (and around the world) that, I believe, are the real ties that bind the movement together. After all, what would be the value in doing anything if everyone thought and did the same thing?
For both of them, “Miss Koovagam” is an important place to provide a platform for individuals in the community to share their true colors. “Transgenders have been suffering for a long time. Many even beg on the streets. For the whole year, they go from door to door just to survive…[But,] Koovagam is a place where they come to forget their suffering. That is why we show our talent. That’s why we come here,” she says. “Miss Koovagam” gives individuals a chance to look forward to looking forward to something positive in a reality that is out to get them.
For them, the Koovagam festival is also an important place to make their voices heard in the media. Since the pageants began, the media presence has grown in size. According to Revathi, the coverage has been a “mixed blessing”. Koovagam has suffered a string of negative media exposure, predominantly surrounding the prevalence of sexual abuse among the townsmen. However, because of the sheer amount of coverage, Malika believes that the state and national governments will “open their ears to [their] case”. It is exposure that counts, according to Revathi.
On one hand, music and dance are performative acts of “escaping” the harshness of daily existence (the beautiful result of which also happens to be my escape from the monsoons). On the other, music and dance are also tangible instruments of social change. Aware of the their power, Malika, Revathi, and others, are beginning to make real inroads in local and national government policy. Perhaps it won’t be long, then, that we will begin to see the clouds clear over India’s transgender communities.