At a gathering in Chennai last month, Selvam, a transman, said, “Cultural activities are a way to bring awareness among people”.
If we look back into our freedom struggle, it was only through street plays and other cultural activities that our leaders spread the freedom movement. Later, the medium of cinema played an important role in defining politics and landscape of our country.
Selvam recounted how people from villages contacted him to join his drama troupe once they knew it harboured queer people. Most of them saw drama troupes as a safe place from the highly critical society. Artists played characters of opposite gender with ease and it was acceptable in their world. They were not discriminated against or labelled; they were just artists.
I did not realize the full significance of what Selvam said until recently, when I witnessed it at Vannangal, a queer cultural event, held on Saturday, June 15, 2013 in Chennai. It was truly heart-warming to see the queer community come together to celebrate the diversity among us, and to make a difference. The event was part of the city’s fifth annual Rainbow Pride celebrations, and was organized by the Shakti Resource Centre, Nirangal and the Orinam collective.
Vannangal was held at Spaces in Elliot’s beach in Besant Nagar, where many members of the Chennai public head to on a weekend. It was interesting to watch the reactions of people who walked into the venue, not knowing what was happening there. Most of them were families. While a few walked away after they realized what it was about; and a few stayed back to enjoy the event.
One such middle-aged couple sat next to me. It was 9.30 PM and the venue, that had been packed until 9 or so, was almost empty.
The last, and the eagerly awaited performance of Yalini Dream was due.
I heard the husband tell his wife, “Polama? Idhu bore’a irukkum pola” (Shall we leave?, I guess this would be boring) – the wife did not respond.
From his tone, I sensed, he was not comfortable being there.
He repeated, “Polama?” (Shall we go?)
The lady replied, “Irunga, enna avasaram?” (Wait, what’s the hurry?)
Yalini opened her act with ‘The story of butterfly and firefly‘ – a metaphor for forbidden love. The mesmerising performance made everybody want more, and made the uncomfortable husband forget where he was.
Then, she performed her second piece, ‘The marriage’ – a story of a South Asian lesbian woman and the family pressure on her to get married. The auditorium was filled with silence, as members of the audience absorbed the emotionally intense and all-too-familiar scenario of heterosexist patriarchal marriage-centrism. Somewhere in the middle of the play, the lesbian character said, “I thought one of the benefits of being a dyke was that you don’t have to get married”.
The woman next to me burst into spontaneous applause at that line. When she looked around and realized she was the only one clapping, she stopped abruptly.
These actions of hers spoke volumes.
I recalled what Selvam had said on that previous occasion.
The woman could have been anyone: someone who enjoyed art, a supporter, a sympathiser. Maybe, even a refugee from the straight world seeking momentary respite in this queer sanctuary.