How One Transgender Woman Helped This Bangladeshi Artist Bond With The Community

26/01/2015 3:42 PM IST | Updated 27/06/2016 9:53 PM IST
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When artist Tayeba Begum Lipi decided to explore the transgender community, a world that she admitted was queer to her, she did not expect to be taken back to her childhood.

After several rounds of interviewing suitable candidates for her project, she chanced across 38-year-old Anonya who was different from everyone Lipi had met, not because of her sexuality, but because she was an educated person who came from a well-to-do family.

The 46-year-old artist then conducted a ‘reversed’ comparison between herself and Anonya’s childhood experiences, and brought to light the isolation, loneliness and rejection faced by the transgender today. Lipi has exhibited this in her ‘Reversal Reality’ show with two 7-minute channel videos, and two structures created from razor blades. Anonya’s love for bags, shoes and cosmetics, not unlike any woman, has also been displayed in shoes and bags made from gold-plated safety pins to underline the constant needling she is subject to from society.

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Not only did Lipi realise how much simpler her life was while growing up, she started to understand how tough the lives of the members of the community are, ostracized and ridiculed by society. “Anonya made the decision to leave her family to save them from the harsh judgment of society. She has travelled over the world and is educated as well, yet she has to struggle. And she has not given into her situation. That for me a very positive message,” says Lipi, who talks about her work and experiences with the transgender below.

‘Reversal Reality’ will exhibit from the 21st of January – 21st of February at The Shrine Empire Gallery, in Friends Colony, Delhi.

What message are you sending with this exhibit?

The message is to make people aware of the human being, behind what we consider to be a eunuch. Anonya is an activist as well. I want people to know more about her story and her struggle as well as the community as a whole. Maybe through this show, people will pause and stop and look at it and understand reality. It underlines the basic need for every human being to have the right to live with dignity. Shrine Empire liked the project and invited me to showcase my show with the gallery in India. Of course, there is a point of identification, as India also has a large community of eunuchs.

Where did you meet Anonya?

I met Anonya in 2013 while researching and interviewing for a cross-casting show. We met at my house. She was keen to expose her community and her story to the public. Her open-mindedness attracted me to her story. Anonya is very nonchalant of her life. She loves to dress up in pretty saris with her midriff showing and bold lipsticks, and has a fascination for colourful and fancy things. Yet she feels there is no colour in her life. Which is why the photographs I have used are black and white.

What was your first perception of Anonya?

A man with a prominent feminine side. When I first met Anonya, I saw a guy. But it was a guy who talked and walked just like a girl. And just like a guy, she was dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. But the way she introduced herself was very feminine. Anonya wasn’t my first experience – I’ve met other people from her community. She is very self-possessed and striking. She dresses and looks the part of a typical eunuch, and yet when she speaks (a smattering of English, Hindi and Bengali), she is articulate, mobile-savvy and can use a laptop. Something about her piqued my curiosity and I wondered if she would open up to me about her life.

Of all the people you interviewed, why her?

During the course of my video interviews, I realised how much depth there was to Anonya, and her life. I think, with an artist, sometimes it takes a small thought process for an idea to develop. I felt very comfortable with her. I felt that she was a person, just like me.

How was your childhood different from Anonya’s?

Well, talking to her was enough to outline stark difference in our lives. We shared such different childhoods. Even though she comes from a well-to-do background from the capital city of Dhaka, my childhood growing up in a village feels so much more protected (comparatively). Anonya unconsciously embraced what was natural to her publicly: her feminine side, and as she grew up, she understood that she was different. In class 8th her athletics teacher sexually harassed her – and was eventually punished for it. Children and neighbours always made fun of her. They saw a boy adopting a girlish avatar and in that a vulnerable target.

Has Anonya changed your perspective in any way?

Yes! Interacting with her has demystified an entire community for me. I was afraid of this community as a child, fuelled by the society’s general abhorrence. Today, however, I see each member of these communities as people with dreams and aspirations. Others think that eunuchs and other transgenders are a bad omen, that they are not natural. But they are just the same.

I think this show has made Anonya very happy and that gives me a sense of achievement as well. It was very important for me for Anonya to like the body of work I had created. My husband is making a film on Anonya and her community. She is expressive and lively, and yet, she is always surrounded by her own community. They all stick together. It is like her extended family.

What is it that you find most shocking about people who abet in isolating such members of this community?

This bias exists across the whole subcontinent. I do not feel shocked, but I feel collective guilt, that as a society we are not doing anything for making their lives better. Anonya summed it up best: “If you think we are aliens and not human, then take us away from the world.” They feel alienated more than other sections of society. In Bangladesh, the transgender community cannot apply for any normal job without being rejected. As children, they are tortured and bullied, even in school and they leave. Which is why most of them (in Bangladesh) are not even educated. The sad part of it all is that the families, like Anonya’s can afford to send them to school, but it is still an involuntary social isolation because of societal redundancy. Anonya was brave enough to use her education to make something of her life: she is a graduate and currently works in an NGO where she dispels myths on the entire eunuch stigma. But it is very difficult.

What do you plan to work on next?

My next creation is a project titled ‘No Men’s Land’. It’s a story about the India-Bangladesh partition for which I am working with different artists from both countries.

  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Shoes fashioned from gold-plated safety pins based on Anonya's preferences for female objects.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Friends forever: Tayeba Begum Lipi (L) with Anonya (R) with her works at her solo show Reversal Reality at Shrine Empire Gallery
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    A purse made from gold-plated safety pins modelled on Anonya's personal likes of feminine objects.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Tayeba Begum Lipi stands next to black and white photographs that draw a parallel between her childhood and Anonya's.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Fibre-glass faces for 'Reversal Reality'.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Tayeba Begum Lipi crouches next to a casket made with razor blades.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Copperwire wig by as a representation of Anonya's fondness for wigs.
  • Shrine Empire Gallery
    Bags to shoes, and the artist in between.

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