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Exploring Transformation and Countering LGBTQ Stereotypes in India

The ability to be whoever you want for a day. That’s what lies at the center of “Truth Dream,” an interactive photo exhibition featuring 12 transgender people and sexual minorities from India’s Karnataka state. Through portraits and video of the participants reimagined as mythical figures and cultural icons, the project provides a rare opportunity for often-marginalized LGBTQ people to fulfill a fantasy and share their beauty and collective histories. Created by LGBTQ group Payana in partnership with Maraa, an arts and media collective based in Bangalore, the exhibit launched in December 2021 with the Fund’s support.

Participant Shobhana was inspired by the Ardhanaishvara, a half-female, half-male form of the deity Shiva

Envisioned by Chandini, one of Payana’s founding members, every part of the exhibit—from set design to costumes and makeup choices—came from the dreams and fantasies of the participants themselves. Her goal was to give her generation of LGBTQ and particularly trans people a rare platform for free expression without limits and to help the broader public see them in a new light. For many middle-aged transgender people in India, survival often meant sex work or begging, limitations which have shaped many people’s views of their community. She says, “We always discuss the problems we’re facing. But people don’t know what our lives are really like. This can introduce us to mainstream society. For older transgender people—they’ve never had this opportunity.”

Revathi became Andal, a key character in the classic Tamil film “Thirumal Perumal”

Through the portraits and videos that compose the exhibit, they became goddesses, film stars, and well-known cabaret performers while also celebrating their own personal identity journeys. A book of their poems and essays exploring their dreams and realities was also made available.

Payana partnered with Maraa, an arts-based collective based in Bangalore, to create the exhibit. For those working on the photo shoot, the process of collaboration and seeing the participants’ joy was transformative. Ekta, one of Maraa’s leaders, hopes this journey is reflected in the audience’s experience. “I really want the audience to get lost in a web of dreams to the degree where they can go back to asking fundamental questions like what does gender mean? To reflect on our own everyday judgments. What did it take for us to not make these people’s dreams come true in life?” she says.

Bernie envisioned himself as a drag king

Payana was launched in 2009 by LGBTQ activists in Karnataka to promote their communities’ rights, including access to vital resources. They focus on ensuring that working-class sexual minorities have better employment opportunities, healthcare, and HIV/AIDS prevention resources. In 2021, the Fund’s financial support was key to helping Payana develop and launch “Truth Dream” as a new way to elevate the profile of LGBTQ community leaders and their voices.

Payana co-founder Chandini as mythological icon Shakuntala

Chandini and Payana hopes to bring “Truth Dream” to more exhibition spaces throughout India as well as internationally, giving members of her community the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time while opening eyes and hearts to the lived experience of their community and to using the message of transformation to counter anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans stereotypes. “Why does discrimination exist when I just want to change my gender? For real social change, we all need to transform from within.”


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