A Photographer Captured Intimate Portraits of a Trans Woman on the Brink of Transition
Mumbai-based Ajatshatru Singh’s series is an intimate exploration of Parineeta and her journey of gender reassignment.
Mumbai-based photographer Ajatshatru Singh remembers the first time he met Parineeta. "It was on the film set of Mukkabaaz in 2017," the 29-year-old tells me. “She was working as an assistant in the costume department and I was an assistant in the camera department. We all would hang out together after the day’s shoot quite often and she was a fun person to be around. Quite helpful and always cheerful, she had good vibes and was a good teammate, worked hard on the set.”
What he wasn’t aware of at the moment was that Parineeta was thinking of undergoing gender reassignment therapy. Parineeta is a 26-year-old costume stylist based out of Mumbai.
Singh’s friendship with her may have begun on Bollywood sets, but it became stronger only a year or so later, when he was looking for a subject to shoot for portraits during his free time. “I was a little bit apprehensive that she might not be fine with me taking pictures as we hadn’t spoken in a long time,” the Varanasi-born and bred photographer tells me. “But once we started talking, it felt like it was yesterday when we both were working on the film set and ended up reminiscing about the good times. She was on board with getting her portraits taken and fixed up a date.”
Over the next few months, Singh—whose earlier work also includes working as a camera assistant on the sets of Netflix’s Sacred Games—started getting acquainted with his friend. First came the conversation. “I ended up asking questions about her gender orientation and then she opened up about her gender reassignment therapy. This got me more curious because even though I was aware that such therapy exists, I didn’t know details, the steps involved and, more importantly, the family and social ramifications of undergoing such a process in a country like India where such topics are a taboo. As a documentary photographer by heart, I think I knew that I wanted to visualise her story in my portraits,” he says.
We chat with Singh to know more of this ongoing photo series, titled Transition:
VICE: Could you tell us about the process of working with Parineeta?
Ajatshatru Singh: Shooting Parineeta has been the most relaxed and fun shoot I have ever done. The entire time, it did not feel like a shoot at all because there was no process involved. It kind of evolved as I went with the flow and everything fell into place.
So you never really planned, say, a day’s schedule ahead of time?
Our sessions were never planned as we both had work on the weekdays and the only time she was free was on the weekends. So over the months, whenever we had time, I would go and chill at her house and have long conversations about our lives in general, out of which I would be educated in her transitioning process. During our conversations, I would observe her and think of frames where I wanted to shoot her in.
Where all did you shoot her?
I only shot her in her home because it was a safe and personal space and it fit the theme of the project. This is a very personal project for me and I wanted her to be in a space where she would feel completely comfortable and could be herself.
Tell us about Parineeta. What is she like?
For me, the best thing about Parineeta is her personality. Documenting her in such a personal way was a little difficult due to my awkward nature but she completely put me at ease which was very helpful. She works as a costume stylist, five days a week. We would meet up for lunch; she would cook. She is a great cook, which worked out beautifully for me as I was always well fed! Apart from all that, she has a normal life like everyone else. She wakes up in the morning, goes to work and makes a living as a stylist.
Had she started her therapy by then?
When I started documenting her, she hadn’t started her therapy yet. She was in her research phase, where she was finalising the different doctors she had to go to and logistics.
Is her family supportive?
Her family, especially her father and sister, are very supportive and understanding. But it took her a while and some effort to get the family members to understand. Her relationship with her mother is still a work in progress. Parineeta’s relationship with her sister Pubali is important as she was the first one to know about her sexuality, back in school times. Back then, Parineeta thought she was gay because she wasn’t aware of the term ‘gender dysphoria’ because of lack of information. Her sister was understanding and supportive, which was very helpful for her later on when she told her parents. It was much later that she came to know more about gender dysphoria.
Tell us about the therapy.
In order to start the therapy, one needs to go to a psychiatrist first, who does an evaluation in order to make sure you are mentally stable and aware of the procedure involved in gender reassignment. Parineeta got her certificate from Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla from Grant Medical College and JJ Hospital on October 6, 2018. Soon, she started her hormonal medication from Dr Dhiraj Kapoor, her endocrinologist. The medication has strong side-effects, which, in the initial phases, gave her mood swings or her body would start heating up temporarily. After a while, she got used to it and was fine.
What are your observations of her at this stage of therapy?
When I met her the last time, I think she was more confident about the process she was about to undergo. She had recently participated in the Colour Positive Beauty Pageant and won the title of Ms Queen, and was super excited about it. All the elements—from her family coming together for support to having a good work environment where she was encouraged to participate in the competition—have massively helped Parineeta but she had to fight for it.
Looking back at my experiences so far, I have more learning curves than observations in my time with Parineeta.
Would you call your experience eye-opening?
Since my childhood, it has been ingrained in my head that gender is binary. Concepts like Gender Dysphoria and Gender Neutral were not even heard of from where I come, so this experience has definitely been eye-opening. There are so many things that a heterosexual person could take for granted: people being wary of you based just on the way you look and choose to be, not trying to get to know you beyond basic social interaction, a layman on the road not being too courteous, filling in official forms, meeting people romantically, dating, sex, identifying with characters in films, and so on. This project, in the most organic way I can think of, has given me a deeper understanding and allowed me to be more empathetic towards not only Parineeta but also anyone who I may meet in the future with a similar situation.
It’s especially endearing to see these portraits in the light of the controversy and disappointment of The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill passed last year.
The Bill passed out last year was flawed because of a multitude of reasons, like how they have defined the term transgender, no reservation in employment, education, no appropriate protection against rape and assault, etc. I’m sure like me, everyone knows the main points which are regressive and fundamentally wrong. I think that in light of the bill, it’s important to highlight that regardless of age, sex, religion, caste, gender or sexual orientation, citizens of a country need rights to be safeguarded. These are basic human rights. As said by Parineeta at one point: She doesn’t want to be viewed as a trans woman but just a woman. The second we label someone, we are marginalising them. We need to view them as just people, citizens, humans.
Pallavi Pundir is on Twitter.