A wall in Bengaluru painted by Aravani Art Project shows the face of a trans person with hermaphrodite hibiscus flowers and the words Naavi Ideeve, meaning ‘We too exist’

In February 2017, Shanti, who identifies as a trans woman, stood apprehensively before a blank wall at a Government school in Bengaluru. She was there to paint the wall, along with Poornima Sukumar, founder of Aravani Art Project, a collective that works to bring gender fluidity into the mainstream and create safe spaces for alternate voices through art.

Shanti admits that she was nervous. “Kids have been told all kinds of stories about trans people – that we are abnormal and dangerous. I wasn’t sure how they would react to me.” To her delight, the children picked up brushes and joined in the painting. When one of them said “Ma’am, can you teach me how to paint this,” Shanti says it was “the happiest moment of my life.”

Shanti painting a wall with school children in Bengaluru

That incident sums up the philosophy at the Aravani Art Project. “We do not seek pity or charity,” says Sukumar firmly, “We offer friendship and only ask that it be returned.” A trained artist, she started interacting with the trans community when she assisted British filmmaker Tabitha Breese with a documentary film. The film took over three years to complete and changed her life forever. The harassment and discrimination the trans community goes through everyday is unbelievable, she says. Most of them make a living by begging or prostitution, because they are so disenfranchised that they do not see any other options. Even though the law recognises them now, we still have much work to do before the world understands that we are not all located on one or the other side of the male-female divide.

“To see the tribulations and pain of the trans community at close quarters and then not do anything about it was impossible for me. People just like you and me were dealing with daily persecution because of superstition and lack of understanding.”

Poornima Sukumar, Founder Aravani Art Project

Sukumar was joined by Aditi Patkar and Sadhana Prasad and the Aravani Art Project was born to create a platform that would expose the trans community to art, while starting a more inclusive dialogue with the rest of society. The collective has painted over fifty walls in different cities, including one at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. There are twenty five members currently, all of whom earn their livelihood from commissioned projects.

The streets are a particularly important place to do our work, as it is in these public spaces that the bodies of trans gender people attract violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure.

Aravani Art Collective

The collective has a distinctive style that brims with bold colours and larger-than-life imagery. Each wall is carefully planned and researched. For example, a wall in Chennai was painted with the face of Tara, a trans woman who self-immolated after alleged harassment, in front of a Chennai police station. The worn, but determined face of a sex worker towers over the neighbourhood in Sonagachi, Kolkata, Asia’s largest red-light district A recently painted wall at the site of the upcoming Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru, features the diversity of the people who make up the Kathegalu or ‘story of the city’: from traffic policemen to school children, street vendors to tech professionals.

The mural in Sonagachi, Kolkata, Asia’s largest red light district, painted in collaboration with St+Art

When I interview Shanti, she, along with Sukumar and the team, are busy painting a wall at the Bengaluru Metro that will feature Corona warriors. It is ironic, says Shanti, that her mother would scold her for making a rangoli because she was born male; and here she is now, making a living from art. “Come and paint with us and hang out,” she signs off. “It will be fun.”

Covid has stalled many street art projects and Aravani Art Project is offering stunning canvases and postcards for sale. Order now at their Instagram account @https://www.instagram.com/aravaniartproject/

Postcards created by members of the Aravani Art Project. Available at @https://www.instagram.com/aravaniartproject/

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