The online world now has a new forum for queer conversations in Bengali. In March this year, YouTube channel Calcalling launched LGBT Online, a Bengali weekly talk show anchored by well known elocutionist, performance installation artist and queer activist Anurag Maitrayee. The show has already aired interviews with a number of transgender public figures from Kolkata, including Ranjita Sinha and Tista Das among others.
Given the absence of a sustained and nuanced discourse on queer issues in the Bengali commercial media – print, audio-visual or on the web – LGBT Online has made a promising start in addressing a crucial gap.
With full creative control (including the naming of the talk show) in Anurag Maitrayee’s hands, LGBT Online is a good example of queer people telling their own stories in the media and steering the discourse in a direction that commercial media rarely ventures into. Besides, with this venture, Anurag Maitrayee has become one of the very few transgender media personalities visible in the Indian electronic media, walking in the footsteps of Chennai’s Rose Venkatesan, who is said to be the first Indian TV anchor who is openly transgender.
Bengal, of course, is no stranger to such self-help initiatives, given its long years of queer activism that has produced several queer-themed journals and films. But these have almost all been initiatives led or supported by NGOs. LGBT Online, on the other hand, is part of a commercial venture Calcalling started by senior journalist Shyamalendu Mitra who till recently was with the Ananda Bazar Patrika Group since many years.
Speaking about how LGBT Online started, Anurag Maitrayee says, “I was invited to talk about LGBT issues as a guest speaker by Calcalling. After the programme was over, I got an opportunity to speak to Shyamalendu Mitra at length. For long I had felt that the commercial media covered queer people’s issues only through one-off news items. But why should that be? Why shouldn’t there be a more in-depth and continuous coverage of our issues? I shared these thoughts as well as my personal journey of happiness, alienation and solitude. I spoke about the difficulties and failures queer people face as well as their successes. So when I suggested the idea of a queer-focussed talk show, Shyamalendu Mitra agreed but on the condition that I would have to anchor the show.”
In the couple of months since the show started, it has already led to some memorable moments for Anurag Maitrayee as well as the speakers invited to the show. She recalls how actor Jubie Chatterjee was elated after her interview was recorded because it had provided her an opportunity to speak her heart out. The interview was not just cathartic but also imbued a sense of confidence in her. See interview with Jubie Chatterjee here.
Apart from making the concerns of queer people in Bengal visible on YouTube, LGBT Online has other potential as well. Providing a sense of empowerment among queer individuals, as in Jubie Chatterjee’s case, is definitely part of it. But so also is the archival value of the interviews in terms of documenting queer lives. Equally, these interviews can serve as useful audio-visual resources when queer support groups or NGOs need to sensitize students and teachers in schools and colleges on gender and sexuality issues. “Indeed, these interviews can convey or explain many of the issues in simple language,” agrees Anurag Maitrayee.
On the potential of documenting individual stories, she is emphatic that LGBT Online will not be only about the problems and denials that queer people endure. “By now it’s well established that queer people are oppressed. But I want to highlight the celebrations around our families, relationships, work and other domains as much as the challenges, and present different dimensions of our lives,” she elaborates. And this assertion seems closely related to the ups and downs she herself has experienced, including in her career.
She left a corporate job to start work as an anchor, but more than television anchoring, it was outdoor anchoring that fascinated Anurag Maitrayee. The experience of direct audience interaction was heady, and there is a quiet glow on her face as she mentions that her gender fluid sense of dressing never proved to be a problem. For a change, the focus was on her elocution and anchoring skills: “Some time back, after an event in North Kolkata, an elderly woman came up to me and said I hardly manage to get out of home now, but I wait the entire year just to hear you recite at this event!”
For the coming days, Anurag Maitrayee has several plans for LGBT Online: “I plan to have programming that will engage queer individuals in speaking about larger social issues, be it politics or the economy. Why the pigeonholing that one comes across all the time? People may be well intended, but why are they surprised to see me in a procession on political issues? Can’t transgender people have an interest or stake in issues other than their gender identity?”
She also wants to introduce English sub-titling into the interviews so that they gain an audience beyond Bengal and India.
As the conversation with Anurag Maitrayee winds up, there is a display of that sharp wit she’s known for: “The one thing I don’t want to promote is the ‘Olympics of Oppression’! There is this trend now among queer communities about whose oppression is greater and whose privilege is lesser. But for any queer person, when they come out, where is the question of privilege? Many among those who are well-to-do also suffer a fall in their social status if and when they come out. So let’s not belittle anyone’s situation in order to project our need for support!”
Read here how Anurag Maitrayee tackled harassment by goons and the police in an incident during Durga Puja in 2015 – this article was published in Varta in April 2016 – Editor.
Main photo courtesy: Anurag Maitrayee.