‘We feel more feminine now’: Transgender community in Chennai on learning Bharatanatyam

“I believe I have got the talent to dance but people see me only as a transgender auto driver because I didn’t get an opportunity to show my dance skills. But, now I know I can come forward as a performing artist in front of everyone,” says Vaishnavi, the first transgender auto driver in Tamil Nadu, after joining the recently launched Bharatanatyam school exclusively for transgenders in Chennai,

Vaishnavi from Washermanpet is one of the 15 who is part of a pilot batch at this unique school teaching the transgender community dance forms free of cost, traditional considered to be the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu. It is a joint initiative of Kerala-based Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust and Sahodaran, an NGO working for the welfare of the transgender community in Chennai for over two decades.

“From an early age, I was drawn to Bharatanatyam, it makes us feel more feminine. Thought thirunangaigal (transgenders) have a lot of talent they don’t know whom to approach given the abuse they had faced in their lives. We have faced rejections after rejections and that kind of makes us give up on our dreams. Now, even at this stage, I firmly believe I can achieve my goal. We believe we will become good classical dancers,” adds Vaishnavi.

After the inauguration on May 31, classes began on June 5 under the guidance of renowned Bharatanatyam Dancer K Shanmuga Sundaram. The trainees, aged between 21 and 49 and all decked up in green sarees, took his blessings before starting with the lessons.

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“Today is a very important day for me. I cannot explain in words how happy I am. These classes will give so much confidence to the transgender community and encourage more people to learn this art. From childhood, they had been dreaming of this moment,” says Sundaram.

“When I teach here, I don’t find any differences. It’s just like teaching any other newcomers. The students are very much interested and they ask questions. I feel happy to see how they respect this art. The transgender community is achieving in various spheres of life. They will achieve greater heights in this art form as well. I will try to help in whichever way possible to make them good artists. They can perform on stage in another one or two years,” he adds.

It is a joint initiative of Kerala-based Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust and Sahodaran, an NGO working for the welfare of the transgender community in Chennai for over two decades. (Express photo)

Vinithra, a trainee, says she had learned classical dance for close to four years and later she was forced to quit due to her financial constraints. “I was not able to do my arangetram (first performance). Now, this dance school is providing me with an opportunity to pursue my interest again. This will encourage and motivate many young transgenders. I was apprehensive before coming here as I had left dance for over some time but the moment I reached here, I got into the groove and gelled quickly with our other members,” says Vinithra, who is working in Chennai Metro as a ticket operator.

Vinithra says that she had read about Dr Rukmini Devi, the founder of the Kalakshetra Foundation who began learning classical dance at the age of 32, and age should be no barrier for those who want to learn.

“Now look where Kalakshetra is. If she had thought about why she should begin something at the age of 32, the Kalakshetra wouldn’t have been established. We take them as our role models. I urge all our community members to come forward and show the world the talent they have, there are a lot of organizations like Sri Sathya Sai trust who will lend a hand to come up in life,” she says.

Though transgenders have a lot of talent, they don’t know whom to approach given the abuse they had faced in their lives, says Vaishnavi, the first transgender auto driver in Tamil Nadu. (Express photo)

Another student Vishnu Vilashini, who works as a healthcare worker in an NGO, says she wants to learn Bharatanatyam and teach other members of the transgender community and underprivileged children, also free of cost.

“Many trans people are interested in learning some form of art. I chose Bharatanatyam because from my early childhood, I was interested in the art. I want to learn this art professionally and do my arangetram,” Vilashini says.

Kalaimamani Sudha, a transgender activist who has been part of Sahodaran for more than 25 years, says that the community is sure to benefit from this initiative.

“I am 50 years old. Whatever I have faced in life are difficulties and insults. We never had any happy moments. Wherever we went, we faced only disappointment. Even when I wanted to study, I wasn’t able to pursue that. I quit after class 10 as I faced that much discrimination. But now, see how good things are happening. I feel so happy from the bottom of my heart to support an initiative like this. Even though I didn’t get this opportunity during my time, I feel like I am achieving something when these children get to learn the art they always wanted to, I feel like my legs are dancing when they do the steps,” she says.

Sudha also highlights that Tamil Nadu is more hospitable to the transgender community in comparison with other states. She said several of their community members are placed in higher positions in government offices, judiciary, and police departments in the state.

Kalaimamani Sudha, a transgender activist who has been part of Sahodaran for more than 25 years, says that the community is sure to benefit from this initiative. (Express photo)

“A total of 15 students are taking the classes now. The Sri Sathya Sai trust is providing the financial support and we provide the technical support. Not just Chennai, our community members, wherever they are, can approach us if they wish to learn this art,” Sudha adds.

Earlier, after the inauguration of the school, Dr C Sunil Menon, the founder of Sahodaran, had told indianexpress.com that he wanted this service to be available to the trans community free of cost as it will encourage more people to join and learn the art.

“It’s expensive to learn to dance. Not many people have the resources. If you want to do a performance you need to book a Sabha and they should be willing to give you the platform. After that, you need to pay for the instrumentalist, vocalist, and others. These are huge barriers, it puts you off. The community members will feel dejected that they are not able to exhibit their talent due to their financial constraints. We wanted to give this facility to the community free of cost. I feel this is a good chance for them both physically and mentally. Their health improves, there is a routine and mentally also they get a sense of discipline, purpose and I feel dance really inculcates that into your system,” he had said.

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