The Rebel Artist


"Artivist" Kalki Subramaniam Empowering Transgender Community In India

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Interviewer: Dr Chandra Vadhana
Research – Ms Jeena Jayaraman
Video Editor- Ms Akshitha Modi

In recent years, the people of India have witnessed a good number of progressive measures taken in favour of women and the LGBTQ community in order to ensure equal rights and respect in society. However, despite making laws and rules, India still remains a country with a limited culture for LGBTQ people due to widespread stigma stemming from colonialism in the modern-day populace. Trans people in our country live an oppressed life where every day is a challenge for them to survive. One such person is Mx. Kalki Subramaniam, who despite being bullied at school, having faced sexual harassment, and also struggling to express out to her parents – turned her anger into activism and is currently recognized as a celebrated activist across the globe.

Born in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, Kalki was considered the more privileged child among her two sisters, as she was born male. Yet, deep inside, she always longed to be her true self. Later, this gender dysphoria made her an easy target for bullying in school. In the beginning, she fought back but there came a point when she felt the world around her was crumbling down. But she was always determined in what she wanted to do – “I wanted to be the voice for a community and change the lives of people in our community,” says Kalki. Hence, she went to college to pursue a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication. She believes that education plays a huge part in enlightening and empowering and considers herself blessed to have been accepted by her family. “My mother saw me as a child of hers, rather than a boy or a girl. For her, my gender wasn’t important as she just wanted me to be happy and feel safe,” Kalki says. “Family acceptance is an important thing in anyone’s mind as well as social wellbeing.”

In the last 15 years, Kalki has inspired millions of people worldwide through her activism, or as she calls
it ‘artivism’ – fighting for gender equality, protesting against harassment, and creating a safe place for all
people in the world through the help of art! From Punjab to Tamil Nādu, Gujarat to Assam, she has been
invited by some of the top universities in our country and in the upcoming months, she’ll be touring some of the Ivy League schools including, Yale, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania to spread the message of gender equality, inclusion, gender justice, among other things.

The journey of becoming an artivist began in her teen years when she used to skip school and take refuge in the forests, escaping the brutal world out there she indulged herself in painting. She used to express herself in her artworks as well as write a few verses.

“The deepest wounds cannot heal until
they are expressed. Practising art helps us
heal emotional injuries, by providing a safe
opportunity for self-expression and
shaping one’s identity,” Kalki says.

After completing her Master’s degree in journalism, Kalki started a magazine called Sahodari to reach out to and support the transgender community. “With just 200 copies, I started the magazine. Every writer and reporter were from the transgender community,” Kalki informs. The magazine contained a vast range of articles including, mental and physical health, job opportunities, beauty and wellness among others. The magazine became popular and gained quite a bit of attention and as a result, it was not only being read by trans people but also by men and women in general. The success of the magazine led Kalki to do more and finally in 2008 she started the Sahodari Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for transgender people in India. Through this foundation, she initiated the widely popular Redwall Project – a community art project that provides transgender victims of sexual abuse the freedom to express their
pain. The untold stories of the voiceless transgender and non-binary people are documented with red palm impressions of the victim themselves and exhibited across universities, colleges, seminars and other
public spheres. So far a total of 500 transgender people have participated in this project encouraging
others in the community to step forward and share their experiences.

In addition to this, Kalki expresses her pain and sufferings through her poetry. Her book We Are Not The Others is a collection of poems, monologues, essays, real-life conversations, art and illustrations. Professor, author and poet Basudhara Roy in her review of the book says, “Each piece of writing in We
are Not the Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist offers an insider’s account of transgenders’ dreams, desires, hopes, pain and suffering that are all too universal and all too human. Challenging the stereotyping of signifiers, these are pieces that vehemently bring home to us the fact that boy/girl/man/woman/first gender/second gender/third gender are hierarchical categories that we forcefully impose upon human experience with severe injustice and irreparable damage.”

For more than a decade Kalki has been working for the social, political, legal and economic rights of
transgender people in India. In 2014, the Indian Supreme court verdict legally recognised transgender
people and directed the central and state governments to protect and take action for the welfare of the trans community. This has been a milestone victory in the battle for justice for the transgender community and Kalki’s contribution to this court verdict has been extremely important as she was one of the few activists who lobbied strongly among the judiciary for social justice for the transgender community.

Moreover, she has previously worked closely with the state government of Tamil Nadu as well as the National Legal Services Authority to convey the problems faced by the transgender community in order to help them make a change in their lives. However, her activism or rather artivism doesn’t stop here. She also combats climate change and the ways climate crisis impacts the lives of the transgender community. Due to global warming and climate change, people all over the world are suffering and to some extent, the marginalized section of society suffers the most. For example, during the Chennai floods in 2015, the trans community suffered the most as they used to inhabit slums near the water bodies. After the disastrous flood hit the land, many of them lost their homes, shops, and closed ones. And even in the relief camps, there’s discrimination against them. Therefore, Kalki advocates to stop climate change and saving the environment. For her upcoming endeavours, Kalki is planning to launch her own clothing line with her art imprinted on the clothes.

For decades, the trans community has struggled for acceptance and equality. “I’ve been traumatized, damaged, depressed but there’s a strong willpower in me that I developed which doesn’t let me stop,” Kalki shares. “Our continuous fight for equality and gender justice has opened many doors.” Many universities now offer free education for trans people, corporations have started to hire transgender employees and above all films have started to represent the transgender community in a rather original way than portraying them just as a mock relief.

“There is still much work to be done. There will be a day when
certainly, if not we, at least the next generation will dream and enjoy
the benefits of all the sufferings and all the activism that we do. Good
times are coming, hope is there.”

-Kalki Subramaniam



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