Published: 10th October 2018
This Durga Puja is going to be extra special for Kolkata's queer community, and these are the people responsible for it
Just like saline is used to stabilise the diseased, one installation tries to pump in the light of knowledge through projections and 700 saline bottles
Durga Puja is not just a week-long display of pomp and show. Bengalis like to think of this once-a-year festival as an all-inclusive one — celebrations that won't leave out a single soul. So it is only logical that the Silpara Barobagan Cultural Association and the Santoshpur Lake Pally Puja Committee chose to educate people and speak about the queer community as part of the celebrations. The organisers had planned and started working on the designs way before the landmark judgement decriminalised Section 377, but it surely gives them a stronger ground since there won't be any legal repercussions whatsoever.
Installations made out of a variety of items — from traditional speakers to medical equipment — adorn the Silpara Barobagan Cultural Association's pandal (marquee) and try to drive home the message that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders or queer individuals are no different from the others around them. "The idea stemmed from an incident I witnessed in November last year. I was returning home in a shared autorickshaw and one of my co-passengers was a trans-person. The others in the vehicle expressed utter disgust whenever their bodies touched that person's body," says Upasana Chatterjee, a third-year student of Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, who is spearheading the design team and has also sculpted the idol herself.
Acceptance: The idol has Lord Ganesha sitting on Goddess Durga's lap, showing that she had accepted Ganesha even though he was different
Just like saline is used to stabilise the diseased, Upasana's installation tries to pump in the 'light of knowledge' through light projections and 700 saline bottles. "The idea is to make people understand that if they are fully aware of who they are and are conscious of it, this inequality and discrimination will come to an end," explains Upasana. "The idol too has Lord Ganesha sitting on Goddess Durga's lap, showing that she had accepted Ganesha even though he was different from the others and that her love was unconditional."
The Santoshpur Lake Pally Puja Committee has also come up with a unique idea. They are working with transgender individuals from day one to the immersions. "We approached a few puja committees to collaborate with them and organise a puja where transgenders were involved in every aspect from the preparation to the celebrations," says Shree Ghatak Muhury, whose organisation Troyee Foundation is the social partner for the puja.
Shree is the first trans-woman in West Bengal to get legally married, "I have seen people discriminate or stay away from transgenders even in a queue at a pandal. They are disgusted when they see someone from the third-gender around them. I wanted to change this. I thought if people saw us working hand in hand to help organise a puja it would help abolish the divide."
Hand-in-hand: Santoshpur Lake Pally Puja Committee working with transgender individuals from day one to the immersions
But will these initiatives help spread awareness or just be a thing to tick off the pandal hopping list? Debdatta Chowdhury, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, thinks these initiatives are excellent ones but is also worried that it might not be able to communicate the message. "It will be all for nothing if they visit and appreciate these pujas and pandals but the next day feels awkward to sit beside a trans-person," she adds. "A legislation cannot alone change society. We are a long way from the point where we would treat a puja organised by transgenders or queer individuals like any other puja. This is definitely a laudable initiative but we need more awareness."
Neha Nandi, a trans-woman, has been on the receiving end of many a snide remark from the public while visiting puja pandals or otherwise. "Even the so-called educated section of the society find it hard to accept us around them. This puja is a way of us showing people that we are as human as they are," says Neha. She works at a private firm and is a member of Troyee Foundation working on the Lake Pally pandal. "What our society needs is awareness and proper education. We are not different as human beings — people might have read this in Biology texts but have not internalised that. The prejudices need to go."
She thinks that putting the onus on the society is also not the way forward, "A lot of transgenders go around begging or even extorting. This creates a negative image. It's wrong to blame people saying that no one gives us jobs. The government has made provisions for everyone to get the chance to get employed and there are surely other ways to earn a living."