Nine singers release India’s first transgendered-artist album.
When Amitava Sarkar sings Ekla Cholo Re, Rabindranath Tagore’s famous
call to conscience, you can’t tell he is neither male nor female. This
is exactly the point he and eight other singers want to make with
their album, Songs of Caravan, the first to be produced in India by
people of the third gender. Music is beyond these limits.
Sarkar’s choice of Ekla Cholo Re is terribly apt for it contains the
line: “Jodi tor dak shune keu na aashe”. If no one will accompany you,
Getting the album out was a long walk alone for the man behind it.
Anubhav Gupta, 30, who heads the NGO Jeevan Trust, wrote over 500
organisations asking for support. But he was repeatedly
unceremoniously turned down.
“They are much more than street performers,” says Gupta, referring to
hijras. “The world should realise that.” But the raw truth is that
general perception of the singing talent of transgendered people is
limited to what is heard at special occasions. Even Bollywood has done
little to promote them.
This is ironic as the glitter and glow of Diwwali in the north Indian
plain was never complete without a visit from a group of people from
the third gender. When they arrived at your doorstep seeking alms, the
elderly of the house were usually generous as their songs were said to
usher in good fortune. Given their status, however, it is strange then
that they have had to move mountains to release the album which
arrived last month.
Key to the breakthrough was the Netherlands- based PlanetRomeo
Foundation, which also works for the rights of LGBT communities. Once
it gave Gupta the go-ahead he began looking for talented hijra singers
across the country. The search involved spending many days writing to
organisations that work with the transgender community. But in the
end, he emerged with a broad sweep of talented voices from Maharashtra
to Manipur and Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan.
“Most transgender people lead uprooted lives with their groups or
tolis away from their families,” explains Gupta. “Their struggles do
not end at that — they fight a constant battle be accepted for who
they are by their own inner selves, and society at large.” Indeed the
very title of the album, Songs of the Caravan, is a reflection of
those journeys, musings, dreams, desires, joys and sorrows. “Many
participants felt they found their voice through this album, and
realised they could sing,” he adds.
After the painstaking process of selecting the final nine singers on
the basis of their voice, commitment and passion for music, it was
decided that the artists would record and mix tracks in their hometown
and the final work, including digitisation, would be done in Delhi.
The 13 songs are rendered in nine different languages in genres such
as folk, traditional, devotional and pop. An added bonus is tracks of
their self-composed poetry, evidence of the freedom they were given in
the project. “They have sung what they believe would best suit their
voice,” Gupta told The Express Tribune. The album has five
self-written songs, two prayers, one English number, two folk songs
and two songs by Rabindranath Tagore.
Five of the nine singers are formally trained. Ankur Patil is pursuing
his Visharad, a high degree in music. Amitava Sarkar is a student of
the legendary Rabindra Sangeet, Suchitra Mitra. But Rani, Kalyani,
Hansa and Kalki Subramanium are among those not formally trained.
Kalki runs an organisation called Sahodari Foundation in support of
the transgender community.
It was not as if they hadn’t tried. Akkai Padmashali was keen to learn
Carnatic classical music but her teacher told her to discontinue her
classes because of her identity. “She said that my classmates were
uncomfortable with me around,” says Akkai. And while the young singer
was shattered, she turned to the one learning tool that was easily
available and non-judgmental: television.
“I was an avid watcher of all the classical music programmes on
Doordarshan and would do my riyaaz alongside and later — especially
when there was no one at home,” she says. And thus, despite a lack of
tutoring, the 29-year-old was confident enough to agree to be part of
Songs of the Caravan. She chose to sing Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma
dedicated to the goddess of wealth Lakshmi. The Kannada prayer was
written by Purandar Dasa many centuries and was first sung by Akkai’s
idol MS Subbulakshmi.
She explains the choice: “Born male, I have always wanted to become a
woman. Though I do not believe in gods, Lakshmi was the first ‘woman’
I ever saw. Her facial expressions and the way she is dressed made me
feel good. This song is an ode to her.” Indeed, may the album bring
them all good fortune and wealth.
© 2013 The Express Tribune News Network
By Raksha Kumar