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Transgender on song


'Songs of the Caravan' is a unique album in which India's third gender musicians pour out their love, longing and pain.

It's about pain, loneliness, angst, yearning, ambition and, above all, love. Nine individuals who have fought battles not just against the world around them but also with themselves have come together in the first transgender music album - Songs of the Caravan. "The idea is to break the stereotypical portrayal of members of this community in the mainstream. After all, music knows no gender, " says Anubhav Gupta, a 30-year-old activist who heads the Jeewan Trust. Like any other kid in India, he grew up watching members of the hijra community "singing and dancing at social functions and often marvelled at their talent that no one really appreciated and the way they strived to make the most of life".

It's this "compelling positive energy" that he's sure will captivate listeners of the 13 tracks that cover genres as diverse as folk, Hindustani and Carnatic classical, pop and Rabindra Sangeet. "You could well call it a world-music album, " smiles Gupta whose attempt to put it together was not exactly smooth. "I must have written to over 500 organisations but none of them was enthused enough to offer support, " he says. Finally, the Netherlands-based Planet-Romeo Foundation gave him the green signal.
Several queries on the net, letters to NGOs and phone calls to concerned organisations working with transgenders across the country "since we wanted a pan-India presence" threw up "an enthusiastic, talented lot" from Maharashtra to Manipur and Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan. Surprisingly, the list did not include any names from Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. On checking with NGOs in the Valley, Ghosh was told that the transgender community there "remains well hidden most of the time". Keen on the inimitable Punjabi tadka in this project Ghosh was surprised when his search there too drew a blank.

From the 40 artistes shortlisted, nine were finally selected on the "basis of their voice, commitment, and passion for music". Ghosh's initial idea was to get the chosen ones to Delhi to be part of a training workshop with some senior singers, "but when we worked out the logistics, that turned out to be a fairly expensive proposition, " he says. It was decided that the artistes would record and mix tracks in their hometown and the final work, including digitisation, would be done in Delhi.

Despite it being a "long-distance project", the artistes themselves were determined to make a go of it. "This was the first time something like this was happening for us, there was no way we wouldn't make it anything but a success, " says Ankur Patil who, through his self-composed Gujarati song, dreams of flying across clear, open skies like a bird. "You could say that this is a story of my life. Very few would understand what I have gone through, " says the 40-year-old transgender who's always had to fight discrimination, sniggers and comments on account of his sexuality. Little wonder that the news of this album "brought so much happiness" for Patil, who is pursuing his Visharad in music. Out came his poems (" I write poetry in Marathi, Gujarati and sometimes in Hindi too" ) and, with Gupta's help, he "zeroed in on the panchhi (bird) one". He recorded his song in a Baroda studio. "There I was all alone but fortunately the recording artistes there helped me a great deal. With a very discerning ear, they helped me brush up in places they felt needed improvement, " he says.

Thrilled with the result, Patil is keeping his fingers crossed for more such projects - a thought that his co-artiste in the album, Amitava Sarkar, shares. A student of the legendary Rabindra Sangeet artiste, Suchitra Mitra, Sarkar chose to sing Tagore's famous call to conscience, Ekla cholo re. "I felt nothing would be better than Rabindranath Tagore's Jodi tor dak shune keu na aashe (' If no one is willing to give you company, carry on with your journey alone' ) for this album. Through this song, I wanted to give a message to my transgender community that is always in need of encouragement and motivation. "

Sarkar, who prefers being called Amrita (" this name was given to me by a trans-activist from the South" ), works actively with Saathii, an organisation that focuses on HIV-AIDS and gender and sexuality issues. "When I joined a few years ago, I was the only transgender on its staff. Now there are others who've come on board in Manipur and Orissa. This shows how members of my community are slowly but surely finding their feet in society, " she says. That's something Akkai Padmashali, who works with Sangma, an organisation working with sexual minorities, agrees with.

For one who was really keen to learn Carnatic classical, Padmashali was heartbroken when her teacher asked her to discontinue her music classes because of her gender identity. "She said that my classmates were uncomfortable with me around. I was shattered but, fortunately, pulled myself up, " she smiles. And who should step in as her guru but good ol' Doordarshan! "I was an avid watcher of all its classical music programmes and would do my riyaaz alongside and later - especially when there was no one at home, " she laughs. Despite no formal training in music, the 29-year-old was confident enough to agree to be part of Songs of the Caravan. "It's a song dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi that was first sung by my idol, M S Subbulakshmi. My version goes like this, " says Padmashali, breaking into song with a passion that would have done M S proud.

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