The ‘Third’ Sex’
Two Views – Aravanis
Text by Devika Bakshi
An identity can be assigned or elected, sought in community or discovered in isolation. And when a body is unable to locate itself in an identity, when an identity is ‘absent’, or denied – it can be forged. Viewed together, two bodies of work that look at the Aravanis of South India suggest that identity – the idea and its physical manifestation– are both embodied and imagined.
Ryan Lobo’s The ‘Third’ Sex and Yannick Cormier’s Aravanis – Between Man and Woman offer two vantages on a community of people whose gendered identity is often understood in fraught terms. Through its intimate focus on the individual, Cormier’s work emphasizes the identity of the individual, the sense of personhood often subsumed in the more pressing needs of community rights and representation.
As a counterpoint, Lobo’s work seeks to provide a compassionate documentarian view of the community. Together, they may serve as a dual portrait – interior and exterior, individual and collective – not merely of a community, but of the manifestation of an identity.
A visual exploration of this immediately reveals the site of its performance. But if the body and the community are shown, in Cormier and Lobo’s work, to be the twin sites for the performance of gender, they are also the source of its generation.
Cormier’s work closes in on the way identity is created in the body, while Lobo’s sees it taking shape within community. Cormier’s work in particular exposes the part played by the medium– the aesthetics and mechanics of photography, its concern for shape and light and mood, are as much involved in the creation of gender as its subject. A body then is only what you call it, how you photograph it.
In itself, a body’s identity lies simply in its existence. Its articulation, being embodied, may not be translatable, but it is recognisable. And photography, though somewhat of an unreliable translator too, is perhaps our best bet at recognition.
Attendees at a fashion show for Aravanis held in the town of Villupuram pose for a photograph. In attendance are thousands of hermaphrodites, homosexuals, transsexuals and castrated men, who travel from all over India to Koovagam, to be married to the warrior deity Aravan.
‘My family’: An Aravani couple pose for a photograph in the lodge they stay in during the festival.
‘Winners’: The winners of the Miss Koovagam fashion show.
‘Dancers’: Dancers in the lobby of their hotel prepare to go a cultural program. In recent years Aravanis have organized themselves into professional troupes providing traditional dance services for weddings and festivals
A young couple in Koovagam village.
‘No name friend’: A couple at Koovagam. Ravi is an auto rickshaw driver. His companion who he has met a few days previously ‘has no name’.
An Aravani buys a mangalsutra for her imminent marriage to the deity Aravanan.
‘Angel’: An Aravani dressed as an angel poses in the midst of a group of policewomen during a cultural program.
‘Bother’: Two Aravanis tease the photographer while a policeman watches the proceedings.
Four attendees in a paddy field, at the Aligal Thiruvizha festival.