Bringing Untold Stories to Light. Transgender Activist & Artist Kalki Wins Plan India Impact Awards
The color red commands a sense of urgency, as does Kalki Subramaniam's Red Wall Project. This is a new-age ‘artivism’ project to raise the voices of the underprivileged women, non-binary and gender-diverse people in India facing sexual abuse and assault.
Kalki and Her Story
Born and raised in Pollachi, Tamilnadu Kalki struggled with expressing her identity in a small town. Owing to her effeminate nature, she was bullied in school by her peers and her teachers. However, at the age of 14, she found support from Apsara, a transsexual woman who also faced stigma and discrimination.
Since then, Kalki has always been open about her gender identity and has been accepted by her family too. According to her, the family's acceptance has positively shaped her life and personality. It allowed her to become the person she is today!
After completing her Bachelor’s degree in English, Kalki enrolled for a Master’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication at Madurai Kamaraj University. While this was not a career move, it was a way for Kalki to sensitize gender issues through the power of media.
During her time in college, she began publishing a monthly magazine in Tamil for transgender women called - ‘Sahodari’ which translates to sister in Tamil.
In an interview, she says, “It was a great platform for voicing our needs, advocating for our rights, telling the world who we are. There were wide appreciations from all. The Indian media too wrote about it. I gained support from college and university students from Tamilnadu. Some of my best friends were those who have been with me in my struggles and battle for equality for transgender people.”
College life exposed Kalki to the power of storytelling and the media. But it also brought some traumatic experiences that changed her life.
Wielding the power of stories
During one of her interviews, Kalki shared how she was sexually abused while in college by one of her seniors. She was unable to open up about the incident to others, and it haunted her for years. Her only outlet for her emotions was art. She would paint, write stories or poetry and slowly began healing.
Expression through art
In 2008, she launched a transgender sisterhood named Sahodhari Foundation to support the less fortunate in the community. The foundation offers counselling and acts as a voice for transgender and non-binary and aims to promote equality, establish justice, end discrimination, and fight for the civil and legal rights of the transgender.
Through this organization, Kalki decided she wanted to provide a similar opportunity to others in her community – expression through art. In 2018, she launched the Red Wall Project to empower underprivileged women, non-binary and gender diverse people of India to speak up about the sexual abuse and assault they have faced.
“ It would allow people to come out, talk about their experiences, and initiate a healing process. At the same time, it would sensitize the community,” says Kalki.
As the name suggests, the project creates a wall of horrifying stories hand-written by transgender people. If one cannot write, it would be written for them. Finally, the paper is stamped with a red handprint and strung together.
The project started with two years of research and interviews. During this time, the team interacted with more than 500 transgender and gender non-binary people including People Living with HIV (PLHIV).
The Red Wall Project
“People spoke about their lives in depth. They shared stories of rejection, painful experiences of violence, hatred and abuse from their biological families, extended families, and partners. Some even shared painful experiences of being homeless and the unfair treatment received from the public. All of this was documented by the team,” says Kalki.
The project is showcased as an exhibition in various places including art galleries and academic institutions.
“We invite the public and the media to come and read the testimonials to understand and empathize with the experiences of transgender people. They can learn about what they have endured in their life journeys because of their gender expressions,” says Kalki.
Being a media graduate, Kalki also decided to share her work on social media through Facebook and Instagram. Her pages went viral and are followed by many. While the Facebook page garnered over 12,000 followers, the Instagram handle has over 5,000 followers.
To date, team Sahodari continues to capture untold stories and bring them to the general public. Recently she was also recognized with the Silver Wings Award in the Digital Champion for Girls’ Rights Category at the Plan India Impact Awards 2022.
She says, “The award has given me the much-needed encouragement and support to extend the Red Wall Project all over India. The prize amount will be utilized to travel, meet and document the discrimination, stigma and violence faced by transgender women in urban and rural areas.”