Gender proclaiming beyond the binaries

In the Bhagavata Purana, she performs her Mohiniattam to steal Amrit, the nectar of immortality, from the Rakshasas and offers it to the Devas.

Gender proclaiming beyond the binaries

In the Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, by Peruntevanar and later by Villiputtur and Nallappillai, Arjuna’s son Aravan offers himself as a sacrifice to Kali to ensure victory for Pandavas. He asks for three boons before he dies, of which one is to get married before death. Since no parent would agree to get their daughter married just to be a widow the next day, Krishna appears as Mohini and marries Aravan for a night. This festival is now celebrated annually by the modern hijras in Tamil Nadu, since Mohini is identified as the transgendered Krishna — wrote Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai in their book Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature.

In the Bhagavata Purana, she performs her Mohiniattam to steal Amrit, the nectar of immortality, from the Rakshasas and offers it to the Devas.

Where Gods already had powers of transformation and did not require any other secretive place to undergo a sex change, the common human did not have that luxury. Amba, for instance, in the Mahabharata, performed austerities, received a boon and was reborn as Shikhandi.


Gender fluidity and machineries of discrimination and marginalisation based on gender and religion have always been the most noticeable topics in Indian society, yet they are not actively talked about.

Therefore, awareness and understanding of gender issues among the youth of the country should be necessary to understand how common gender stereotypes affect the growth of a given space or atmosphere and how being sensitised can help in achieving individual goals in a balanced manner, creating a win-win situation for all.

The Centre of Gender Studies of St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata, held a gender sensitisation event titled “Beyond Binary” which successfully enhanced society’s commitment to fostering a more inclusive and equitable society through the youth. This occasion had the active mentorship of the advisory member of the centre for gender studies, Dr Panchali Sen, and her co-organisers, Dr Zaid Al Baset and Dr Shenjuti Dutta.

The inaugural ceremony was graced by the presence of Rev. Fr Jeyaraj Veluswamy, Rector, Rev. Dr Dominic Savio SJ, the principal, and other dignitaries of the college. The principal began his speech with a warm welcome and further explained the benefits of a gender-neutral environment.

“In the vast landscape of education, it is imperative that we transcend conventional boundaries and address the multifaceted dimensions of human existence. Today’s workshop, focusing on gender sensitisation, is a crucial step towards creating an environment that respects and appreciates the diversity of gender identities. Our commitment to promoting equality aligns with the larger societal context, particularly in India, where the discourse on gender has undergone significant transformations,” he said, giving a smile of satisfaction.

The programme started with an enriching session by the NGO, Samuho, presenting Atho Hidimba Kotha, a play that deconstructs the single, peripheral character of Hidimba.

It seems that the great poet Vyasa did not have enough space for Hidimba after writing eighteen ‘parva’s praising Pandavas, the righteous ones against the evil Kauravas. In Atho Hidimba Katha, Hidimba, as an ‘indigenous woman’ or a marginal human being herself, comes up with her own version of the epic on behalf of the marginalised people whose presence is never acknowledged in the course of history.

The play opens with the seven-member cast pretending to be itinerant, disgruntled rural kathaks. They present a script devised through improvisation, taking liberties with and even misreading Hidimba’s story in the source. The play’s purpose is to expose the racism and sexism in the original, that is, the labelling of Adivasis and non-Aryans as Rakshasas, and the scant regard paid to Hidimba, mother of Ghatotkacha, eldest son of the Pandavas.

As the play progresses, the differences between the actors and the characters start to blend. There comes a time when the collective consciousness chooses a side within the play. Hidimba’s real story is witnessed by the villagers, the porters, the servants of the palaces, or the soldiers running away from the battle field. Together, they tell a quite opposite story that lies beneath the epic glory of righteousness of the great Mahabharata and brings out the parallel story of her mistrust, pain, and deprivation, which do not agree with the most accepted narrative of the epic itself.

This play silently questions the freedom and rights of a woman in 21st-century India, where society validates a woman colonised inside their homes, toiling with household chores all day long. It juxtaposes with those women who work outside and develops the quality of “Rakshasa”.

Anushka Mazumdar, a student from the English department, in conversation with The Statesman, gave her insights about the double marginalisation in context with this play: “Women, be it in ancient or modern times, in urban or rural areas, are doubly colonised almost in every sector. We should hence educate the discriminated group of people (mostly women, transgender people, and hijras) about their rights against the consistent crimes due to gender discrimination happening for over generations.”.

“According to my experience, metropolises also keep their women marginalised, just like they do in our rural areas. The difference is that these urban areas hide it better than the rural area,” added Titikha Mondol, a student of the Bengali department and a resident of a village in the Sundarbans.

Soumyadeep Chowdhury, a student from the political science department, argued, “We have environmental regulations, but how many of them are really following them? Similarly, gender sensitisation will not be accepted easily, though initiatives are gradually being taken on gender-neutral laws such as the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to make them regulated on the ground.”

The play was followed by profound insights from the renowned endocrinologist, Dr Debmalya Sanyal of KPC Medical College, Kolkata, on the medical aspects of gender. He focused on the issues of gender-affirming hormone therapy, either suppressing or inciting oestrogen or testosterone hormones. He enlightened the audiences about the benefits, effects, and side-effects of intaking hormonal medication as part of a gender transition to help their bodies and appearance align with their gender identity.

“We never agree to change the sex of someone who is still an adolescent or in their twenties, as 80–85 per cent of them do not remain persistent about their decision and might again feel the need to change the sex all over again. This is due to the reason that gender-affirming hormone therapy may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in transgender individuals,” he addresses his audiences.

He answered the query of a fellow student regarding the unjust participation of transgender females among cis-women in sports because of differences in human physiology. The muscle mass increases during male puberty, making the body stronger, thereby making them less strong than cis-men and more strong than cis-women.

Lastly, he explained the androgen insensitivity syndrome, where one becomes resistant to hormones that produce a male appearance (called androgens). As a result, the person will have the physical traits of a female but the genetic makeup of a male. He explains it as having the key but the wrong lock on it.

The event was finally wrapped up by the NGO Varta presenting a play ‘Kothi Ki Atma’ and a lecture by Dr Meenakshi Bansal from the International Association for Political Science students.