Dressed in a lilac cotton sari, a red bindi on her forehead, 38-year-old Anonnya, a member of the transgender community from Dhaka, looks elegant as she walks through Delhi’s Shrine Empire Gallery in the company of friends. Bangladeshi artist Tayeba Begum Lipi is showcasing her latest exhibition “Reversed Reality”, as a collateral of the India Art Fair, and Anonnya has served as its inspiration.
Childhood memories come flooding back to Anonnya — of struggling to fit in a man’s world by dressing up like a young boy, of leaving behind home to save the family from embarrassment, and living with people who have nothing in common except for their bodies. The works bring out the stark differences between the carefree, protected life of Lipi and the rejection and loneliness that Anonnya has faced all her life.
“Transgenders are considered strangers and aliens, people to be afraid of,” says 45-year-old Lipi, who was moved by the tale of a transgender guest at a friend’s party. That was the first time she had met someone from the community and decided to work with them. “When she was six or seven years old, the guest’s father had sent her to the transgender community against her mother’s wishes. She had no idea where to go,” says Lipi, who co-founded the Britto Art Trust, Bangladesh’s first alternative arts platform.
Another friend put her in touch with Anonnya, who works with an NGO involved in integrating the transgender community into society. “I called Anonnya thinking that I would have to convince her to be part of the project, but she jumped at the idea,” says the artist. “I want people to know more about us, and not be scared of us,” says Anonnya.
Though her parents never asked asked her to go, neighbours, acquaintances and even strangers always made her feel like an “outsider”. Anonnya recalls being abused as a child. “She cried as she shared the story. People were always trying to touch her,” says Lipi. As a young adult, Anonnya decided to move out of her house; she didn’t want to “become an obstacle for her two sisters” who were of marriageable age.
In her works, Lipi focusses on her muse’s “reversed experiences” in life. She compares her own life with Anonnya’s through videos, installations and photographs. Some of them have been inspired by everyday items that Anonnya uses, including a wig and her favourite bag. “Every interaction with Anonnya was a step towards discovering her lesser-known life — the way she lives and what she wears,” says the artist.
Lipi started with collecting childhood photographs of Anonnya and herself to highlight the contrast. Twenty five of these photographs have now been displayed in the artwork titled When the Life Began. “The choice to have the photographs in black and white was deliberate. Anonnya had once said, ‘You see us wearing colourful dresses and makeup; but our life is black and white. That’s why we put on colours’,” says Lipi.
The comparison between the two continues in the installation Lullaby, a set of fibreglass face sculptures painted in silver, with a headphone below them. Lipi says, “She is a dancer, and I have had singing sessions as a child. So I made a sound piece using an instrument. One can hear her dancing to that song here.”
Lipi recreated Anonnya’s wig with copper wires. To the artist’s surprise, she couldn’t find a single toy that Anonnya had as a child. “It was because her family kept moving house. People didn’t want to rent houses to her family,” she says. Instead, Lipi decided to work on Anonnya’s favourite bag. She made one with gold-plated safety pins, a metaphor for Anonnya’s everyday struggles. The pins are seen as an intrinsic part of women’s daily lives, used to pin saris or as a replacement for buttons. The installation is called Anonnya’s Privacy. Lipi used her shoes for another installation, Long Walk.
In one of her works, Destination, Lipi deals with the topic of suicides among the transgender community. “In Bangladesh, many from the community end up working as sex workers, and a lot of them commit suicide once they have crossed their prime,” says Lipi. Anonnya, however, has a partner whom she wants to marry. But she has often told the artist that if her boyfriend were to leave her, she would not know what to do. The work showcases two large caskets made of duplicate blades, placed on the floor mat at the centre of the gallery.
Lipi’s fascination with blades is not new. In her 2012 work, Love Bed, an entire bed, made with razors, was acquired by the Guggenheim Museum, New York. She uses them to address themes of female identity and gender-specific violence. The use of blades can be traced to one of her strongest memories of childhood, where she saw a woman in her family giving birth at home and blades were used to deliver the baby.
Anonnya sums up her everyday struggles in a blend of English and Hindi. “Our daily life is a struggle. At home, our landlords harass us. When we enter buses, the conductors harass us. Doctors ask us why we have come to the hospital. We can’t live with our own families. My brothers ask me to give up my share of the property, and try to assure me that they will take care of me. Do we have no claim because we have no children? We don’t get jobs. Where do we go?” asks Anonnya.
Lipi feels the society is doing nothing to improve their lives. “Though Anonnya is educated and has managed to find work at an NGO, there are others who are bullied at schools and are eventually forced to drop out. Ninety per cent of them are not even educated. I want to make people aware of the human being behind every transgender, and their basic rights to live with dignity,” says the artist.