Well, it’s that time again. Summertime. In most parts of India, summertime brings sunny, cloudless, yet humid weather with highs in the lower 100s and lows in the upper 80s. Yet, in spite of these unforgiving weather patterns, it also happens to be the time for one of India’s largest religious festivals, the Kuthandavar-Aravan Mela (aka Koovagam Festival), which takes place in a small town called Koovagam, located in the middle of Tamil Nadu, the southern-most state of India known for its exceptional heat. The mela (festival) is best known for its open inclusion of transgender participants. The festival annually attracts over 100,000 participants and observers, numbers that resemble, but hardly rival, the Kumbh Mela (the world’s largest religious festival which attracted about 15 million attendees in Allahabad during January and February of this year). Koovagam can be best described as a mini-Kumbh, whose participants engage in a series of rituals while visually reenacting a story in the Mahabharata, one of Hinduism’s most important texts. The following video is an interpretation of the story and account of the event from the perspective of a Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam dancer named Taejha Singh Susheela. Highlighting the perspective of an observer, this video is one of two that illustrate and (silently) critique the participant/observer divide; My next blog entry will contain interpretations from Koovagam participants within the transgender communities. Here’s part one:
At Koovagam, transgender and male participants retell the marriage and immediate widowhood of Mohini, the female manifestation of Lord Vishnu/Krishna. The story, told in four sentences, goes like this: Arjuna’s son named Aravan, agrees to sacrifice himself to the goddess Kali in order to ensure his people’s victory in an important war that was essentially caused by a territorial dispute. But, as a condition of his sacrifice, Aravan requests to be married so that someone may mourn for him upon his passing. There were no willing female volunteers near the battlefield. So, in order to fulfill his wish and ensure his people’s victory, Vishnu/Krishna turns into Mohini and becomes his wife for the night.
Aravanis (aka the transgender participants) take on Mohini’s role throughout the course of the ritual’s two days taking place on Tuesday, April 23rd and Wednesday, April 24th. On Tuesday, the Aravanis marry Aravan through the ritualistic tying of a Thaali (turmeric-infused thread) and flower garlands around their necks and wrists inside the Koovagam temple. Bangles are also put on serving as the metaphorical icing of the marriage cake. During the evening, various celebrations ensue. Then, on Wednesday morning, the Aravan diety is carried around the temple grounds on a massive mobile float. At the end of the procession, Aravan’s ceremonial decapitation takes place. Finally, at a specific location approximately 1 km outside the temple grounds, participants break their bangles, cut the Thaali and garlands to mark the beginning of widowhood. Transgender participants also ceremoniously lament for their lover, bathe at a watering hole, and out on white saris as is traditionally practiced by Hindu widows.
According to Taejha, the rituals are performed as a way to celebrate transgender identities within the context of Hindu mythology and scripture. For many, it is the performative affirmation of third-gender selfhood in Indian society. The parallel between transgender participants and Mohini (aka Krishna in drag) is pretty obvious. However, like drag performers, Vishnu is able to revert to accept male manifestation after Aravan’s death, whereas transgender participants do not/cannot. While Mohini enters the “battlefield” for two days, transgenders have to fight on the battlefield their entire lives. “Their battlefield is the battlefield called life,” says Taejha. “It is actually for this reason that transgender participants mourn.” This, at least according to him, is the “word on the street.” For a participant-oriented interpretation of these events and the reasons behind them, check out my next Fulbright-mtvU post.
As expected, there was also a large media presence from local and even international news organizations. Much of the media coverage was positive, but some was also negative, exposing some of the age-old problems that still plague the transgender communities in India.
Additionally, this year, three “Miss Koovagam” beauty pageants, featuring some well-known transgender personalities in India, took place on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Interestingly, Padma Submramanium, one of the most famous exponents of Bharatanatyam dance, inducted the ceremony at one of the beauty pageants. My next video will largely feature these events.
Aside from losing my precious sound recorder (which I consider to be my own personal sacrifice symbolizing everlasting solidarity with Aravan), baking in the sun to the point of exhaustion, and sometimes battling with other photographers for the perfect shot, I had a great time. In fact, I met some amazing people (participants and media observers alike) who I can now call my close friends. I always say that nothing brings people closer together than sweat.
Stay tuned for the next Fulbright-mtvU posting on this in the near future. In the meantime, however, take a peek at some of my pictures gathered while there.
A BIG thanks goes out to Taejha Singh Susheela, the talented Mohiniyattam dancer who briefly played the role of Mohini herself for the purposes of this project. Also, I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Varsha Yeshwant Kumar, the fiery photographer and videographer who kept our boat afloat. Without their support, this (and the next) video would not have been possible!