‘We feel more feminine now’: Chennai’s transgender community on learning Bharatanatyam

“I believe I have the talent to dance, but people only see me as a transgender car driver because I haven’t had the opportunity to show off my dancing skills. But now I know I can introduce myself as a performing artist in front of everyone,” says Vaishnavi, Tamil Nadu’s first transgender car driver, after joining the recently launched group. Bharatanatyam School Exclusively for Transgender in Chennai.

Vaishnavi from Washermanpet is one of 15 forming a pilot group at this unique school teaching traditional dance forms to the transgender community for free, considered the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu. It is a joint initiative of the 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. However thirunangaigal (transgender) are very talented, they don’t know who to turn to given the abuse they have faced in their lives. We’ve faced rejection after rejection and it kind of makes us give up on our dreams. Now, even at this stage, I firmly believe that I can achieve my goal. We think we will become good classical dancers,” adds Vaishnavi.

After the inauguration on May 31, classes began on June 5 under the guidance of renowned teachers Bharatanatyam dancer K Shanmuga Sundaram. The trainees, aged 21 to 49 and all decked out in green sarees, received his blessing before starting classes.

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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. Since the childhood, they dreamed of this moment,” says Sundaram.

“When I teach here, I find no difference. It’s like teaching any other newcomer. The students are very interested and ask questions. I am happy to see how they respect this art. The transgender community is successful in various spheres of life. They will also reach greater heights in this art form. I will try to help in any way possible to make them good artists. They can perform on stage in one or two years,” he adds.

It is a joint initiative of the 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 been learning ballet for almost four years and was then forced to quit due to financial constraints. “I couldn’t do my the arrangetram (first performance). Now this dance school gives me the opportunity to pursue my interests. This will encourage and motivate many young transgender people. I was apprehensive before coming here as I had been out of dancing for a while, but by the time I got here I got into the groove and quickly integrated with our other members,” says Vinithra , which works in Chennai Metro as a ticket office.

Vinithra talks about Dr. Rukmini Devi, the founder of the Kalakshetra Foundation who started learning ballet at the age of 32, to make her realize that age shouldn’t be a barrier for those who want to learn.

“Now look where Kalakshetra is. If she had thought about why she should start something at the age of 32, Kalakshetra would not have been established. We take them as models. I urge all members of our community to come forward and show the world the talent they have, there are many organizations like Sri Sathya Sai trust that will lend them a helping hand to get ahead in life,” she says.

Although transgender people are very talented, they don’t know who to turn to given the abuse they have faced in their lives, says Vaishnavi, Tamil Nadu’s first transgender car driver. (Express photo)

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

“A lot of trans people are interested in learning an art form. I chose Bharatanatyam because from a very early age I was interested in art. I want to learn this art professionally and do my the arrangetramsays Vilachini.

Kalaimamani Sudha, a transgender activist who has been part of Sahodaran for over 25 years, says the community will definitely benefit from this initiative.

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

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

Kalaimamani Sudha, a transgender activist who has been part of Sahodaran for over 25 years, says the community will definitely benefit from this initiative. (Express photo)

“A total of 15 students are currently attending classes. The Sri Sathya Sai Trust provides the financial support and we provide the technical support. Not just in Chennai, our community members wherever they are can contact us if they wish to learn this art,” adds Sudha.

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

“It’s expensive to learn to dance. Few people have the resources. If you want to do a performance you need to book a Sabha and they should be ready to give you the platform. After that you have to pay for the instrumentalist, vocalist and others. These are huge barriers, it puts you off. Community members will feel discouraged not being able to showcase their talent due to financial constraints. We wanted to give this facility to the community for free. I think it’s good luck for them physically and mentally. Their health improves, there is a routine and mentally also they gain a sense of discipline, purpose and I think dancing really instills that in your system,” he said.

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