Photo series: Chaturabhanga by Alekhya Grace
Updated: May 24, 2022
When I was a child, I used to fantasy to dress up as gods, Mythological characters. Being born in a Hindu family the idea of religion couldn’t never take a side for me. As and when I grow up, my idea of belief transcended from Agnostic to Pantheist. Pantheism helped me see the world of believes as a spectrum and not as a stagnant structure of a rule book. This thought also helped me relook and seek inspirations from mythologies of different cultures, religions, and tribes.
Being a queer person, we are always told that Queerness is anti-religion, Time and again governments, institutions and organizations play their “religion” card for accepting people from LGBTQIA+ communities. These cards of religion come from a surface level and heteronormative notions of their texts they hardly intent to study, but just mug up some lines and use them to silence queer voices. These were the instances which made me disown the idea of the religion I was born in. my belief was stuck up and rejected to accept a heterosexual god. I wanted a god who is like me, queer and powerful.
As I was in me on and off relationship with my belief, I came across a book, “Shikandi and the stories Untold” wonderfully written by Devdutt Patnaik helped me investigate some references of so-called queer gods of Hindu Mythology. As I started exploring my gender/sexuality with drag this was something I wanted to reflect and make a creative take on.
In 2014, I worked on a dance production called as “Pancha Pandhakas” the five queer characters from Hindu Mythology and toured the production in multiple national and international avenues. I really loved the reception it got and hence the concept of integration with mythology made me get a different take. As the time passed my perspective shifted towards drag and this time when I thought of creating a conceptual art, Pancha Pandhakas were into my mind. However, I thought it is important to take a closer look. This time I wanted to be specific with Mahabharata, a story which is been told many times, breaking many stereotypes it has been overlooked. Mahabharata itself has multiple queer storylines within the very context. These were mainstream queer characters celebrated and been crucial in the entire epic.
As I pick my brain, I met Alekhya Grace, a photographer friend who has been watching my performances for a while. As we break into a conversation of doing a photoshoot of the same, we tend to rethink why do we do it in first place. We couldn’t get a strong motive. It was the same time when a court hearing on Gay Marriages were opposed by the running government on the grounds of “NOT BEING THE ETHOS OF HINDUSIM, OR HINDU CULTURE” and that was the moment we understood this work needs to be highlighted as to show ancient India was more inclusive of queer, bi, pan and trans inclusion. With that in mind we worked with queer characters of Mahabharata and recreated them one by one. We wanted to title the work as “Chaturabhanga” which means “four unbreakable”
We planned to pick up for major characters falling into the gender/sexuality spectrum. All the four characters are gender non confirming, sometimes interluded with trans umbrella with sexuality varying from multiple gender across the entire myth. Alekya helped in capturing the story bound emotion via her photography and recreate the image as listed below.
Shikhandi, a character in the Mahabharata. He was originally born as a girl named 'Shikhandini' to Drupada, the king of Panchala. In a previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named Amba, who was rendered unmarriageable by the hero Bhishma. Humiliated, Amba undertook great austerities, and the gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma's death. Amba was then reborn as Shikhandini. A divine voice told Drupada to raise Shikhandini as a son; so Drupada raised her like a man, trained her in warfare and arranged for her to marry a female. On the wedding night, Shikhandini's wife discovered that her "husband" was female, and insulted her. Shikhandini fled but met a yaksha who exchanged his sex with her. Shikhandini returned as a man with the name 'Shikhandi' and led a happy married life with his wife and children. During the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma recognized him as Amba reborn and refused to fight 'a woman'. Accordingly, Arjuna hid behind Shikhandi to defeat the almost invincible Bhishma. In the Javanese telling, Srikandi (as she is known) never becomes a man, but is a woman equal to men, and is the wife of Arjuna. After his death, Shikhandi's masculinity was transferred back to the yaksha.
According to Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, the god Krishna – an incarnation of Vishnu – also took the form of Mohini and married Aravan. This was to give Aravan the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed. Krishna remained in mourning in the Mohini form for some time after Aravan's death. This marriage and death of Aravan are commemorated annually in a rite known as Thali, during which Hijra (Indian "third gender") take on the role of Krishna-Mohini and "marry" Aravan in a mass-wedding, followed by an 18-day festival. The festival ends with a ritual burial of Aravan, while the Hijras mourn in Tamil style: by beating their chests in ritual dances, breaking their bangles, and changing into white mourning clothes. I wanted to name this piece as Aravani as that is the cult followed post the myth associated with this character. However ARAVANI is a word adapted by the Hijra community as an identity and hence me being a non-hijra person using that for a photo representation would make it senseless with disregards the entire community who identify with that name. I also thought to call it as Amohini as this image is more about the pain and sorry. Mohini meaning the enchantress is here Depectied as non-enchanter as she is not "mangal" As she is filled with sorry. I didn't want to use that too, because that not only discriminated the idea of widowhood as unsacred, but it also makes the purpose more cliche.
Arjuna himself is an example of gender variance. When Arjuna refused her amorous advances, the nymph Urvashi cursed Arjuna; he would become a "Gandharva" a cross dressing man. Krishna assured Arjuna that this curse would serve as the perfect disguise for Arjuna during his last year of exile. Arjuna took the name Brihannala and dressed in women's clothes, causing the curse to take effect. Thus, Arjuna entered the city ruled by king Virata, where he taught the arts of music, singing and dancing to the princess Uttarā and her female attendees. In the Padma Purana, Arjuna is also physically transformed into a woman when he requests permission to take part in Krishna's mystical dance, which only women may attend.
Ali was a warrior woman who was raised as a man, she was also called Ali Rani. Arjuna was bestowed by her beauty that he wanted to marry her. She is being self-sufficient refused to marry him but Arjuna was so besotted that he sought Krishna’s help. Krishna turned him into a snake, and he slipped into Ali’s bed at night and frightened her to become his wife. Some say he forced her to be his wife as he managed to spend the night in bed with her in the form of a snake. Ali fell in love with the way Arjuna spent the night with are and agrees him as her husband losing her masculine traits to accept femininity. This clandestinely erotic folktale alludes to Pisacha-vivah, or the marriage by way of ghosts, that is condemned in the Puranas.
These imageries definity helped me relook into the larger aspect of seeing queerness and religion and reinstate the thought that its not always religion which needs to be seen something as submissive or seeking. It was a high time to rethink and reflect the art with progressive thinking of religion as a holistic system and its important to read all the lines cause no religion discriminates and this project enabled me to tap into the same