Kolkata, July 3, 2022: “My dreams have worth too” – this phrase was writ clearly in an artistic creation of queer activist Susanta Pramanik. Today evening saw an innovative gender and sexuality-themed art workshop being hosted at Kalinath Angan gallery located in South Calcutta.
This was the last of three events curated by Varta Trust to commemorate the publication of the 100th monthly issue of Varta webzine in April this year. The two events that preceded this were an adda with Varta members and friends at the Deshaj Café and Store on June 4, 2022, combined with the launch of an online locator on queer-friendly COVID-19 services, and a panel discussion ‘Bridging Academia and Activism: Stories from the Margin’ on May 28, 2022, hosted online.
For today’s event, several artists and social workers gathered for the art workshop and expressed their innermost thoughts and feelings through the medium of paint and paper. The participants used the colours of the rainbow to portray their take of the different themes that feature on the pages of Varta. All the paintings and artworks produced at the workshop have been published online as part of an article written by Pawan Dhall – Varta’s Art Workshop Was Fun and Thought Provoking. Some of the artworks are also going to be reproduced as bookmarks and posters by Varta Trust.
Each participating artist brought to the foray a uniqueness surrounding the themes of gender, sexuality and activism. Souvik Rakshit portrayed the innermost feelings people have around their sexuality and their need for freedom. Ranjay Sarkar portrayed the blending of the masculine and feminine in the same body. Soumyajit Mondal portrayed asexuality in their painting. Shreyatama Dutta, who is also a queer rights activist, brought together the themes of violence, pride and nature in their work. Pawan Dhall, Founding Trustee of Varta Trust, incorporated the pride colours and nature in the painting of a heart, thus pushing forward the message of the need to look after our environment.
Aniruddha Chowdhury and Susanta portrayed the themes of queer people’s dreams of having families and freedom of speech and expression. Swati Das (the author of this article) picked up crayons nearly after three decades and portrayed their desire of bringing all queer people under one umbrella. Painter and graphic artist Rudra Kishore Mandal coordinated the workshop that made for a colourful Sunday evening.
The second event that was curated by Varta Trust to celebrate the 100th issue of Varta was hosted on June 4, 2022, at the Deshaj Café and Store. It was the day that the queer-friendly COVID-19 services online locator was launched. The locator was developed in association with Grindr for Equality, Los Angeles, and SAATHII, Chennai. The locator is currently available in Bengali and English. The event was attended by several authors of the Varta webzine as well as many well-wishers.
Varta Research Associate Susanta Pramanik mentioned, “This locator is highly required for queer people, given the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. The last three COVID-19 waves have shown us how helpless we all are. We need to be better prepared henceforth.” The COVID-19 services locator is an extension of the existing online locator on queer-friendly health and legal aid services hosted by Varta’s website.
The evening started with the launch of the locator. It was followed by an adda session where the different authors associated with Varta spoke about their journey with the webzine. It was a great conversation and was streamed across Facebook Live for the larger Varta family.
Madhuja Nandi, a much-respected Trustee of Varta and someone who has been a part of queer rights activism since the days of the Counsel Club (a queer support group that was operational from 1993 to 2002) shared some memorable experiences. She said that, thanks to Varta’s support, she’s been able to work with several Kothi and transgender people. She’s also keen on being a part of Varta’s journey in the future. The evening ended with a tea party, the highlight of which was a delicious cake baked by Pawan.
The event that had kicked off the celebrations for the 100th issue of Varta was an online panel discussion – ‘Bridging Academia and Activism: Stories from the Margin’ – hosted on May 28, 2022. It was moderated by Professor Kaustav Bakshi of the Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, who’s also a regular contributor for Varta. The panellists were six other contributors to the Varta webzine. The discussion was around how Varta has contributed to the queer rights movements in India. The panellists spoke about their contributions to the webzine, and how the webzine has been helping shape narratives around gender and sexuality. Kaustav emphasized that the most important role played by the webzine has been in bridging the academic world with queer activisms.
Kaustav remembered social activist Urvashi Vaid (1958-2022), who had passed away a few days before the event. Urvashi was a queer activist who, during the 1990s, created several waves in the field of gender equality. She played a vital role in the South Asian queer rights movements.
Pawan Dhall of Varta Trust shared his memories of how the Pravartak magazine (1991-92, 1993-2000) was started. It was one of the first queer journals of India. Pawan himself was the editor of the magazine and was inspired to create Varta from the experience of Pravartak.
Debjyoti Ghosh, a human rights lawyer, and currently a postdoctoral researcher in South Africa, said that queer people are given media attention only when there is something pivotal happening. The daily happenings and the news of the quotidian are overlooked. That is where Varta plays a crucial role, working to highlight such happenings.
Santa Khurai, a trans and queer rights activist and scholar from Manipur as well as the Secretary of All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association thanked Varta for giving her the inspiration and the space to push her passion for writing. She also said that Varta has given space for the voices of Manipuri trans and queer people.
Jia Mata, who’s a queer author and translator, and often writes on queer relationships, mentioned that many relationships that are problematic, controlling and toxic, are barely ever written or spoken about. However, Varta, as a platform, has been very welcoming for us to voice such issues.
The next speaker was Shampa Sengupta, the founder of Sruti Disability Rights Centre. She mentioned that after several years of fighting and advocacy, it was only in 2016 that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was finally passed. Several writers, including herself, have used Varta as a platform to talk about the struggles around disability rights. She has been a part of the disability rights movements for several years, and Varta has truly helped bring disability issues into the spotlight.
The last speaker of the panel was Sudipa Chakraborty, a transgender social worker with several years of experience. She talked about the citizen journalism aspect of Varta’s work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, several challenges faced by various members of the queer communities were brought to the forefront by citizen journalists like Sudipa herself. This brought together a lot of important and relevant data that can be useful for students and researchers working on queer issues.
It was on August 1, 2013, that a few thoughts of queer people were put in words and thus started the Varta blog. In 2016, in the month of August again, the moment the Varta Trust website was launched, the blog turned into a full-fledged webzine. Little by little, the webzine has now reached the milestone of 100 issues.
We hope that in the coming days, Varta reaches more and more queer people, and remains a platform for giving voice to the desires and dreams of the queer community at large.
This article was originally written in Bengali and has been translated into English by Debjyoti Ghosh. Read Bengali version here – Editor.
About the main photograph: Happy faces at the Deshaj Café and Store event on June 4, 2022. Photo credit: Swati Das