Ms. Manjamma Jogati is a first trans woman to head a cultural academy. She continues to head the Karnataka Janapada Academy. Ms. Manjamma is a renowned folk artiste of a particular dance form performed in the regions of Maharashta and Karnataka called Jogati Nritya. She is one of the Padma Shri recipients for the year 2021.
I did not differentiate between male and female while I was young. We all moved together and I spent a great amount of time with girls. My mother would make us the boys do household chores like washing utensils and customary smearing the floor of the front yard of the house with cow dung. Girls of the house are generally expected to take care of such chores. So, our household differentiated very little between the boys and girls.
Our school used to stage plays regularly. When I was studying in the sixth grade they staged a play called Tiruneelakantha. I played the role of the ‘supreme power’ in the play. It was just one scene. I recollect bits and parts of the story. Neelakantha would be approaching the house of a sex worker and it so happens that she without noticing him there throws dirty water at him. Upon realising what she has done, she apologises to Neelakantha and welcomes him into her house. She washes the sullied clothes of him, gives him a bath, adores him with sandalwood paste and touches his feet to apologise and sees him off. This enrages his wife who later fights with him for visiting the home of a sex worker. This further leads to their separation. They take the blessings of lord shiva and decide to go their separate ways. It was in this play that, for the first time ever I dressed myself in woman’s clothes and danced, once my role in the play was over. I had danced for the song Kaapadu Sri Satyanarayana (save me oh lord sri satyanarayana).
Back in the days, in the village, girls were not allowed to appear on stage. Boys would clean shave their faces and wrap themselves in sarees and play the female roles. A play called Sangyabaalya was being promoted on a large scale. My father had played the role of Dhronacharya in the play called Kurukshetra. I had played the role of a female friend. The number of girls in the schools back then was very little. Even my own younger sisters did not study. They did not come to school regularly. They would step out of the house in the pretext of going to school but would roam around the village instead. They would spend their time in the sugar cane processing factory and return home after the school time. My younger sister- elder most of my younger sisters would threaten us by saying she would kill herself if asked to attend the school. She never studied. She could not learn at all.
My elder brother was very short tempered. Once, he was home from his hostel and was eating. He asked me to get another glass of water. I refused and called him a son of a bitch. He threatened me to come and hurt me. I was scared. I just went to fetch him a glass of water. While taking water from the large earthen part, enraged by me calling him a son of a bitch, my brother held my neck and pinned my head into the water pot and told me not to ever dare to speak back to him. I wasn’t able to breathe. I called out for help. I also broke my tooth. I was in deep pain and could not stand it. I still have the marks of that wound. That day was the last day of me scolding anyone or calling anyone a name. I wouldn’t even by mistake call anyone, a son of a bitch.
Those days we would collect our clothes for laundry and tie them up in a bundle and carry this bundle with us to the school. We would keep this bundle in a corner of our classroom. During the lunch break, we would go to the lake behind our school, eat food, wash clothes and dry them up on the trees around. In the interval post lunch we would collect our dried clothes and fold them into a bundle and carry the bundle with us to the classroom. I would carry this bundle with me and walk back home with my younger sisters. We would help a bit at home with carrying out the chores and go to attend tuition classes in the village.
Once my family refused to pay for the school excursion, I very badly wanted to go for this excursion. I decided to earn the required amount and pay for it by myself. I started working at a factory and was helping with moving the raw materials there. They would mix water to the sugarcane bagasse. They called this mixture bakaasu. We would carry this mixture and feed it into a machine. The machine would let out bricks of the bagasse. They apparently used to send these bricks to make paper. We would work all night; starting from eight in the evening we would work till four in the early morning. They paid us six to seven rupees.
A teacher named Basavarajappa saw me working there. He asked me what I was doing there. I had told him that I wanted to go to the excursion and was working there in the factory to pay for it. Hearing this, the teacher had scolded my father for letting me work all night in a factory. My father told me not to work. By then I had saved seventy rupees. I went on the excursion using the same money.
While I was studying in sixth or seventh grade the number of boys in my class was large. There was a teacher who was muslim. She was in love with a factory manager. Back then, I had no idea about love and things like that. Our teacher would hand us over letters to give it to the manager. We used to do the same. The manager would give us a letter in the morning and we would give the letter to the teacher. I never read those letters. Our teacher would wear a taali (a symbol marking married women that is worn around the neck) the way muslim women did while coming from Davangere and would wear it the way Hindu women did, once in our village. I didn’t understand why she did that.
While I was studying in the seventh grade, I started developing feminine bodily features. I had played the female roles in the plays staged in the village. Many had remarked that I looked exactly like a woman. Once I played a girl’s role in a play directed by a Basavarajappa teacher. He would call upon my role onto the stage in the name of Bengaluru Lata. It was during this time that I started developing my feminine features. I remember being elated by all the praise I received from the audience and was joyous about being called Bengaluru Lata and for dancing in female clothing.
A drama company had set up a stage in the village. On one table, I would lose my senses. My hands would get burnt; I would bite my tongue; there would be foam in my mouth; I would be rushed to a hospital. It was said that I had fits (seizure), however the doctors would say there was nothing serious. This would happen once in three months. My parents consulted an astrologer who told them that I was getting possessed by a certain deity. My family refused to believe this and had accused me of putting on a show on purpose.
As days passed by I developed an acute interest in carrying out daily chores and worshiping. I started worshiping. My mother stopped worshiping altogether because I would do it. I was better than her in offering prayers. We had portraits of several deities like Chowdamma, Eeranna, Venkateshwara Swamy and of our caste goddess, Kannika Parameshwari. My mother was an ardent devotee of Chowdamma. In our home in Kukkuwada, there was a wall. On the wall were five lingas (stone worshiped in the name of lord shiva) in the shape of a child drinking milk and an anthill that was seven feet tall. We were often visited by a large snake. So our home was blessed by the Devi (the divine femininity). People of the village would say I had been blessed by the same goddess.
First published in Nyayapatha, the Kannada weekly. The excerpt is from the biography of Manjamma Jogati. Titled Naduve Suliva Hennu, this biography is published by Pallava Prakashana and is narrated by Arun Joladakodligi. Translated by Yogesh S.