We Attended the First Transgender Cultural Festival in Odisha’s Sleepy Town of Berhampur
Ranjita runs a parlour in Berhampur, Odisha, that doubles up as a safe space for the transgender community. Image: Viraj Nayar.
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We Attended the First Transgender Cultural Festival in Odisha’s Sleepy Town of Berhampur

More than just song and dance, the festival was a chance for the state’s third gender to celebrate themselves.

As soon as our cab reached the Berhampur toll booth in Ganjam in Odisha, Rupali, a 20-year-old transwoman greeted us. Knocking on the window pane, she smiled and asked for money. Rupali was dressed in a sari, red lipstick and had sindoor in her middle parting. Our driver informed us that this was how transgendered people in Odisha earned their livelihood: By begging, on toll booths and trains, and sometimes engaging in sex work. According to reports, “Odisha is counted as one of the states with a higher transgender population.

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Berhampur is approximately 185 kilometers from Bhubaneswar. The drive to the sleepy, dusty town takes four hours. The road is lined with fields and trees on both sides with an occasional thatched-roof hut thrown in now and then. As soon as you reach Berhampur, the roads start narrowing as shops and food kiosks take over the streets. There are beauty parlors with bright signs in Odia, chemists sitting next to Ayurvedic medicine shops, rickety hotels, quilt makers, and continental restaurants on the same stretch of road. By the time we reach the heart of the town, it had started to drizzle, so we head straight to our hotel rooms.

We were here to cover the transgender cultural festival organized by Anwesha Kala Kendra, a cultural institution founded in 1999 by 65-year old Usha Rani Mahapatra that runs various dance and performing arts classes in the town. It organizes annual cultural festivals and this year, they had decided to dedicate the festival to the third gender in the country. Anwesha Brahma, 26, whose mother runs the Kala Kendra, says, “This is such a small town. The transgender people here have very limited options.” Brahma, a former student of Indian Institute of Mass Communication has also produced a documentary The Transition on the life of transgenders in the state.

Brahma’s experience of growing up in the state was shaped by one of her cousins who identifies as queer. Watching the jibes he received every time they went out to shop or play made Brahma realize what others from the community must go through in their everyday lives. Brahma says, “I made the documentary after the Supreme Court recognized transgenders as the third gender in 2014. It’s about how the status of transgenders in the state changed after that order.” The documentary also shows how transgenders have found a niche for themselves in a society that shuns them.

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The festival was scheduled for July 8, a Sunday, in the town hall in Berhampur. When we reached the venue, it was empty, except for the cleaners still sweeping floors and blowing up up balloons for the dias. The day-long festival was supposed to start at 10.30 AM, and included a fashion show, a children’s dance show and folk dances scheduled throughout the day. We waited as a few people trickled in, but the hall remained almost empty. We soon gained entry backstage, where women who identify as transgender or hijra, were changing into their stylish best. Outside, the rain clouds had started gathering.

The green room was devoid of any furniture. Lovely, Ganga, Preeti, Mamta, and Ranjita—all belonging to the Kinnar community in Berhampur greeted us, shaking hands and exchanging introduction. I watched the girls as they went on about drawing on their make-up and struggling with their sarees. Lovely draped a purple velvet sari, pairing it with a yellow blouse. She applied kohl looking into a hand-held mirror. Ganga touched up her make-up and soon everyone was taking selfies. I clicked a few too. Everyone was looking their best. It was a celebration of them being visible. This festival was after all for them.

Lovely told me about her dance performance. Ganga was excited about the fashion show she would be walking for. On other days, Ganga, like Rupali, begs for money on trains and at toll booths. But today, she looked her best and wanted to forget the jibes people throw at her. And she did look radiant in her red sari.

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The festival started almost an hour late. Lord Jagannath’s statue had been placed on the dias. We started with a screening of The Transition. The minister of state for social security and empowerment of persons with disability, Prafulla Samal inaugurated the festival (Oddly, transgenders come under the ambit of persons with disabilities). MLA Ramesh Chandra Chaupattnaik and Berhampur Development Authority (BDA) Chairman Subash Maharana were also present.

During the latter half of the festival when Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, the transgender rights activist and Bharatanatyam dancer, was supposed to join as a chief guest, the hall came alive, buzzing with girls and women who identified as the third gender. The party had just begun. Girls dressed in traditional Berhampuri patto, their traditional sair, with flowers in their hair filled the auditorium. 19-year old Roshni Kinnar came dressed in a chic skirt with her hair tied high in a ponytail. 25-year old Simran Das, born and brought up in Berhampur, came dressed in a silk sari with bright pink lipstick. They all belonged to the same gharana and lived together in rented houses.

During the festivities, an Odia journalist, Sudip Tripathy, sang hit Odia songs to claps and shouts from the audience. Students from the Anwesha Kala Kendra performed. Dileep, their 30-year-old choreographer looked proud and excited. Media persons had started trickling in by now. It was late evening when the organizers announced that Tripathi wouldn’t be able to make it to the event, as she wasn’t keeping well. A flicker of disappointment passed Barsha Kinnar’s face who was sitting next to me. But the show went on.

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In the green room, Lovely changed into a red blouse and lehenga for her dance performance. Other performers, all belonging to the Kinnar community were getting ready. Local folk music filled the room as Lovely made her entrance. She was channelling her favorite Madhuri Dixit, and she danced with abandon. At one point, her necklace came undone. Without stopping, she took it off and threw it away. The audience came alive. They shouted. They clapped. Lovely was having her moment. Earlier in the day she had said, “I feel free when I am dancing.”

Then came the fashion show. A fusion of Indian and international beats provided the soundtrack, and one by one the models walked down the ramp, choreographed by Dileep. They had been rehearsing for weeks, but they still looked at Dileep for cues.

The last performance of the day was 30-year-old Preeti Pattnaik’s dance. Earlier in the day she had said, “Why should people make fun of us? Why do they make us feel different?” During her girlhood she had become more and more aloof, because everyone made fun of her. “I stay away from people. I don’t want them to laugh at me. Bura lagta hai (It hurts).” Right now, no one is laughing at her. The audience is at her feet, as she twirls her peasant skirt to Madhuri Dixit’s ‘ Ek, do teen’.

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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.