An art space for queer-trans people in the middle of conflict and turmoil? This might sound like a contradiction, especially in the context of Manipur, where we continue to face repercussions of a communal conflict now almost a year old. But it’s real and not a mirage.

On March 14, 2024, Community Art Space – A Space for and by LGBTQ+ Folks and Allies was opened in Moirang Lamkhai in the Bishnupur district of Manipur. For now, the space is meant to serve as a music and art practice site that can also be used to facilitate queer-trans meetups and workshops. The space has already been used to plan a mental health workshop and a queer community football match in Moirang town.

The creators of the space tell me that its significance lies not just in that it’s located in a conflict-torn part of the nation, but also that it’s in a place in Manipur where queer-trans people and their allies have been visible for a long time. In the last two decades, many queer-trans folks have continued resisting heteronormativity in Moirang Lamkhai. Though that resistance is either dying or has evolved into different forms, it has made Moirang Lamkhai an important part of queer-trans heritage in Manipur.

This photograph is a daytime medium range shot of a stall in the food market at the Moirang Lamkhai junction. It shows an assortment of foods displayed in a covered stall run by a woman. In the foreground are green and black grapes, oranges, coconuts, a range of savouries and sweetmeats, and sauces packed in small plastic bags. Behind these, near the counter, are more sweetmeats, packeted foods, and a variety of beverages. A customer can be seen to the left side of the photograph. The shopkeeper, wearing a red blouse, is behind the counter, her face partially lit up with the dim daylight entering the stall from the right side. As mentioned in the article, the stall presents an array of foods that would be a weary traveller’s delight. Photo credit: Saki

A stall in the food market at Moriang Lamkhai. Photo credit: Saki

Moirang Lamkhai, lying on Tiddim Road (a highway in Manipur), is probably the most famous junction in Bishnupur district. A road diverges from the junction towards Moirang town, which is 2 km away. The junction is a landmark food market where travellers moving between Aizawl in Mizoram and Imphal in Manipur valley via Churachandpur town (less than 20 km away) and tourists coming to Loktak Lake (4 km away) halt to feast on the delicacies of the culturally rich region.

For someone like me from Imphal, Moirang was always famous for two things – Loktak and its folklore, and trans women. “Moirang di homo na wai chaibane” (Moirang is inundated with homos) is a prejudiced statement I heard growing up, knowing that the town is famous for the abundance of visible trans people. I continue to discover how there are certain aspects of the local culture that fosters gender non-conformity in Moirang. It makes this place unique and important for many queer-trans people in this part of the world.

In Moirang Lamkhai, rice hotels and traditional street food stalls line the highway, lit up with bright lights even at night calling for tourists and travellers to stop at the junction. Though Manipur has been a dry state for much of the recent past, this is also one of the unique spots in the state where liquor was infamously available. The availability of alcohol in these rice hotels was detested by some people, especially if they were run by women. At the same time, women and other marginalized communities have always expressed solidarity with the women-run rice hotels. For instance, Kutthabi, which is run solely by widows. It was conceived through the united workforce of the marginalized, and has become a space that many queer-trans people feel safe and powerful in.

Kumam Davidson, a resident of Moirang Lamkhai and founder of NGO Matai Society, which also has its registered office here, tells me a story about one of the large street food and snacks stalls which used to be run by two queer individuals. “Neither looked completely like a woman, but they were also not so much like typical men,” he explains. He tells me how these individuals with their short hair and beat face “were really queer.” They don’t run the stall anymore but continue to live in Moirang Lamkhai.

The nearby Bishnupur Bazar in the district’s headquarters and its neighbouring tribal village also have their own forms of gathering amongst queer-trans folks, but Moirang Lamkhai’s ambience provides everyone from the region a place to interact with each other on a larger scale. With the visibility of queer-trans people in the junction and the diversity that the area offers as a crossroad for different communities, the junction has become a ‘happening’ area of the town. Here, queer and trans people have long been visible, actively engaging with larger society. “Discrimination may have happened since society here continues to be extremely conservative, but I also imagine them being freer here because it’s always been a unique place,’’ says Rupabati, a trans man and a member of the trauma response team of Matai Society, which is assisting the internally displaced people in Moirang Lamkhai.

This photograph presents another daytime scene from the Community Art Space. Two young men, with their back towards the camera, are seated on the floor, watching a wildlife film being projected from an LCD projector on a wall across them. The laptop computer on which the film is running is placed just a few feet away from them, close to the wall on which the film is being projected. A large speaker is placed on the ground next to the wall. On the left side of the photograph is a wall with two windows, both partially curtained. The wall has a shelf space built into it, with assorted files and equipment placed on the shelves. A whiteboard occupies the bottom section of the shelf space. Photo courtesy Matai Society

Recreation at the Community Art Space. Photo courtesy Matai Society

The conversation with Rupabati reminds me of the grim state that Moirang Lamkhai was cast into last year. With the highway indefinitely closed and heavily guarded at Torbung, a village between Moirang and Churachandpur towns, Tiddim Road is now dysfunctional.

I remember travelling to Churachandpur in the hills from Imphal in the valley in my childhood and often stopping at Moirang Lamkhai. An aunt who is Kuki told me about the delicious yerum ngari (egg and fermented fish) found here, which sounded bizarre but tasted fantastic! This was something I later introduced to my Meitei family and friends who didn’t know of such a delicacy though we were native to the valley. Even something mundane like this reminds me how such spaces bind the hills and the valley together, geographically and culturally. This is Manipur.

During my time as a trauma response volunteer in the relief camps run by Matai Society, something most people who fled the Kuki-dominated hilly regions said was how they could ‘feel at ease’ only when they reached Moirang Lamkhai. Churachandpur’s size and population dwarfed every other urban area in the state besides Imphal, but since Moirang was also a decently sized municipality, it assured them that hereon there would be a certain Meitei dominance and they’d finally be safe. Hence, the junction became a gateway for the internally displaced Meteis to enter the central valley from the south-west of Manipur leaving their homes behind. For a moment, the junction would be a symbol of relief for them. As for the Kukis fleeing the valley for the hills, whether the junction provided relief or not would be another story.

With the highway closed, business has been affected intensely. Many shops have shut down, giving the area a deserted look. I remember how buses, Tata Wingers, and vans would be parked on both sides of the road with customers flocking to buy singju (a traditional Meitei salad) and eat a meal here, keeping shopkeepers awake through the night. What keeps people awake now is gunfire that continues in nearby areas. Women from different localities sit sleeplessly through the night in temporarily built shacks around the highway to prevent any untoward incidents. It’s a grim reminder of how communal violence persists.

This year, we had the bleakest of Yaosang (Holi) festivals in recent times as many Meiteis decided not to celebrate as a mark of respect for the lives lost in the conflict. As I sit and interact with the Matai Society trauma response team members in the Community Art Space, we reminisce about the grandeur of the celebration which would last up to 10 days. Moirang Lamkhai used to be a centre to celebrate the festivities, especially Thabal Chongba (a dance traditionally performed in the moonlight during Yaosang) in a very queer-trans oriented way. Besides festivals, Moirang Lamkhai was also well known for get-togethers in beauty parlours run by trans women. Events such as these were important for the community members to find each other and build friendships and relationships that lasted a long time.

Even amidst the conflict, it was in Moirang Lamkhai that I met Jackson and Raju. We became a queer trio often working and hanging out in the area while assisting the internally displaced people in different ways and having our meals together. Our friendship was born when the crossroad brought us together as queer people.

Rohana Moirangthem, a co-founder of Matai Society and a trans pageant queen, tells me that facing prejudice as a trans woman is still a reality. However, she has found strength and has been inspired by many people in Moirang Lamkhai who have challenged the stigma and discrimination against queer-trans people. “It has helped me find a footing in activism and social work,” she says. She recollects how Matai Society worked intensively during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 in the area. Currently, the same team is engaged in livelihood sustenance and trauma response work with those affected by the conflict that broke out in 2023. These efforts are being acknowledged by people in Moirang Lamkhai and elsewhere. People like Davidson, Rohana and their colleagues have made it possible for queer-trans people in Moirang Lamkhai to be visible and breathe easier.

It may be mentioned that Imphal East district’s Khurai borough and Kakching town in the south-east of the valley are other notable places in Manipur with their own stories of queer-trans cultures and activisms coming up organically and thriving through the years.

The Community Art Space is a two-room area that is tucked behind a pharmacy, which was once the food stall run by the two queer individuals who had enthralled Davidson. I reckon this is a great example of how we can preserve our histories, which should be an important part of queer-trans conversations and activisms.

My last question to the Community Art Space team is whether the space will be open to everyone, irrespective of the community or place they come from, once the situation improves. The team responds in unison: “We understand how exclusion feels. We have faith that it’ll be possible to bring different people together.” At Moirang Lamkhai, it’s already possible.

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About Matai Society’s relief work: Matai Society has been co-running relief camps and conducting trauma response work in Bishnupur district. The organization runs trauma response centres for conflict-affected children and youth in association with various relief camps apart from carrying out general relief work that focuses on meeting the material needs of the displaced. In 2020-21, Matai Society carried out widespread COVID-19 relief in Bishnupur district, as part of which they started a skill development and livelihood generation initiative called Mahei Centre. The centre also acts as a drop-in centre for youth and marginalised persons. These facilities have proved invaluable in the ongoing crisis. Mahei Centre is currently running the School Bag Project in collaboration with Urep and Manipuri Weddings, both based in Imphal. Much of Matai Society’s relief work around provision of rations and education material is being carried out in partnership with NGO Octave Foundation. About Octave Foundation: This NGO was established to provide platforms of convergence to celebrate ethnic diversities that constitute Manipur’s cultural ethos. It was registered in Manipur in 2015. As part of its ongoing relief efforts in the state (through crowdfunding), Octave Foundation has been assisting displaced women and children find refuge in relief camps. Their goal is to reach out to as many as possible among the 18,000 people sheltered in 69 relief camps in Imphal East, Imphal West, and Bishnupur districts.

The author is engaged in relief work being carried out by NGO Matai Society in the Bishnupur district of Manipur (see inset above). Matai Society is a woman, queer and trans-led registered society based in Moirang town in Bishnupur district, and works with youth on SOGIESC, education, health, livelihood, and environmental issues.

If you want to support Matai Society’s relief work, monetary donations can be sent to them via Octave Foundation. Donations in kind can be couriered or dropped off at the Matai Society premises in Moirang. Matai Society is also in touch with other civil society groups carrying out relief work in different districts of Manipur and can connect interested donors to these groups. For more details on how to send your contributions, please contact Kumam Davidson, Founder, Matai Society at 0091 70054 15573.

Inset: About the ‘Manipur Relief’ column: This monthly 'Varta' webzine column brings you news and analysis on how transgender, queer and other civil society groups in Manipur are coping with the impact of the communal conflict which has killed and injured hundreds of people and displaced thousands since early May 2023. The column seeks to highlight the relief work being carried out by the civil society groups, and how individuals and organizations can support the relief work. The column also aims to present personal accounts of survivors of the violence and their efforts to rebuild their lives. Content published under 'Manipur Relief' is contributed by participants in the fourth edition of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (begun August 2023). The programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published articles for community morale building, experience sharing, and advocacy to ensure that the people affected by the conflict gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term sustenance with dignity. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The first edition of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the 'Manipur Diary' column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the 'VCR Diary' column. The third edition covered Assam, Odisha and West Bengal through 2020-21 with the stories generated published under the 'Coronavirus Diary' column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme – Editor.

Read more stories under the ‘Manipur Relief’ column here – Editor.

About the main photo: A gathering at the newly opened Community Art Space. Photo courtesy Matai Society