Pixels and all things purple: reclaiming the digital space with thought-provoking gender narratives

The 2021 chapter of Gender Bender festival goes full-on virtual with a cohort of genre-bending art projects that question patriarchy and shatter stereotypes

A collage of the Gender Bender 2021 grantee showcase

By Reema Gowalla

The #MalashreeChallenge is now a popular activity on MXTakaTak, Josh and Moj. And theatremaker Sharanya Ramprakash is quite upbeat about this social experiment that she is running as part of the latest edition of Bengaluru’s popular gender-arts festival Gender Bender.

“Tell me who isn’t a fan of Malashree! In the 90s when actors like Ambareesh, Shankar Nag and Rajkumar ruled the Kannada film industry, Malashree with her ‘tomboyish’ look and gritty roles carved a niche for herself. For a 10-year-old me, her films like — ‘Rani Maharani’ — were a ray of hope, encouraging me to break gender stereotypes when it comes to art and life. In her prime, she was a cultural icon who redefined gender for those who identify as transmasculine and transfeminine,” says Sharanya

Sharanya Ramprakash

In the showcase, 20 feminists take up the #MalashreeChallenge to co-opt the her filmography into the transfeminine narrative. “Although the digital space is perceived as more egalitarian, secular and free from class and caste distinction, gender narratives are yet to find proper representation in it. This project is an attempt to reclaim that with challenges that are based on the not-so-demure image of Kannada lady superstar KanasinaRani Malashree,” elaborates Sharanya, who is known for her plays like ‘Akshayambara’ and ‘Nava’.

The latest edition of the Gender Bender festival — for which Sandbox Collective is collaborating with Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore — falls within the plethora of the tech-art experiments that the Bengaluru-based collective has been conducting in recent times. Fresh from the success of the ‘Smarter Digital Relaties’ project, Shiva Pathak — Arts Administrator and Co-founder of Sandbox Collective — is buoyant about the festival going fully online this year.

“A virtual space has been created which will lead the audiences to an interactive online festival, much like its in-person avatar — complete with exhibits that are fun, colourful and engaging. This year too, the fest is navigating concepts and discourses around gender and questioning the patriarchal constructs,” she says.

The idea is also to break the fatigue associated with everything going online during the pandemic. “The grantee showcase aside, we have a curated activity line-up — including #GBredcarpetchallenge, Lunar Levitations with Luckamma and Aisa-waisa kuch kyun hota hai saheli? — pixels and the colours pink and purple exemplify the fest’s theme. Far from being slick and perfect, this chapter of Gender Bender is life-like and experiential and interactive. So much so, the audiences will also be given a kit of quirky festival merchandise.”

Vastavikta Bhagat

Another interesting aspect is that this time not all participants are artists. Vastavikta Bhagat, for instance, is an architect, whose interest lies in drawing out narratives, data, language and archives. Her project ‘A home in many pieces’ (an archive of household portraits) looks at archiving from a completely different perspective.

“We always tend to see archiving from an institution’s standpoint — something which is static, patriarchal and that entails caste biases. Our homes, on the other hand, are more heterogeneous in character. This project documents the more tangible household pieces that manifest feelings, imagery, sound and experiences. There are many households that are built on gender solidarities and friendships that can lead to alternative imaginations, changing the very idea of archiving and gender discourses,” she explains. Vastavikta is also an assistant professor at the School of Environment and Architecture in Mumbai.

Johnson Rajkumar

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Johnson Rajkumar joins the line-up with ‘Eigi Wari’ (which translates to ‘My Story’) — an online video archiving project spotlighting Manipur’s indigenous transgender women called ‘Nupi Manbi’. Talking about this ruminative visual anthology that documents gender identities via testimonies, observational moments and fragmentary impressions, Johnson says, “The central idea of ‘Eigi Wari’ is to explore what these trans-women experience while migrating from Manipur to the metros. In the big cities, they mostly find themselves working in the healthcare and makeup industries, slowly building a life of their own far away from home. Cast off by their families, they are constantly in search of a ‘safe space’, while also struggling with the transition inside their bodies.”

Currently, a film conservator and an archivist at Manipur Film Archive (under the Manipur State Film Development Society), his film ‘Fireflies’ focuses on gender dynamics during conflicts and armed violence in the state. His Gender Bender exhibit is a spin-off of another documentary project that he has recently worked on.

Dheeraj Kumar, Adil Kalim, Mitra, Shraddha, Yash, Teresa, Twisha, Kabir, Shagnik, Anurati, Prerit, Saad Khan and Little Boxes are the other grantees of the fest this year. Read more about them here.

Click here to jump into the virtual space.

A snapshot of the virtual space created by Anokhi Shah

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