Lekshmi Mohan R (aka Sunil Mohan)

Project 560

Grant Period: Six months

Lekshmi Mohan R (also known as Sunil Mohan) is a Bangalore-based activist who has been working on sexuality and gender rights issues for the last 13 years. In each of their projects, Sunil has made an attempt to use theatre as a medium to engage with issues of sexuality, gender, class, caste and colour. From 2016 to 2018, Sunil was part of the team that worked on a research project on non-normative genders and sexualities. This project focussed on the discrimination faced by transgender and queer communities in public spaces in Bangalore. The narratives spoke about the changing contours of Bangalore, rapidly shrinking spaces for the communities and erasure of entire neighbourhoods, histories and lives. Drawing on this study, this grant enables Sunil to theatrically reconstruct the history of the transgender community in Bangalore with specific reference to the life of ‘Begum’.  

People in Bangalore remember Begum, who owned a large piece of land in central Bangalore. A multi-storeyed bungalow stood at the centre of the property, and around it lived working class communities that depended on Begum and her son. While interviewing those who lived in the bylanes around the property, Sunil and his team uncovered a trove of memories of people from communities of  auto drivers, tongawallahs, hijras, sex workers, mechanics, scrap dealers and others that narrate how Begum and her son protected and nurtured them in their inclusive space. For some people, Begum herself was a sex worker, a pimp, a brothel owner and for some others she just provided the space for sexual pleasure. It is believed that the space was destroyed sometime during the 1980s. However, accessing intimate information about her and her property has not been easy. Some people have been reluctant to share memories, especially about the destruction of that space and the involvement of real estate giants in usurping that property. It was at this point that Sunil came up with the idea of turning these narratives into a play that can transverse between facts and fiction, memory and imagination.

The play ‘Freedom Mahal’ will attempt to theatrically imagine and reconstruct the life and times of Begum and her space through the diverse kinds of oral narratives that have been gathered. Part-historical, part fictional in nature, the play will act as a prism that will enable the audience a peek into Begum and her world from different viewpoints. In doing so, the play seeks to explore on the hitherto undocumented and neglected history of transgender people in Bangalore. Emerging out of the cohesion as well as collapse of history, memory, rumours, facts, fiction and imagination, the play is being scripted by Rumi Harish and will use Dakhani Urdu, Kannada, Tamil and English and Hindi – the languages in which the interviewees provided their narratives. Once the script is finalised, there will be a series of six theatre workshops with a mixed group drawn from the sexual and gender minority as well as mainstream communities. Chennai-based theatre director A Mangai will be the mentor for the workshops.

The workshops will eventually lead to a performance. Deliverables from this project will be the play script and still and video documentation of the workshops and performance. The budget is commensurate with the proposal.

This project is made possible with support from India Foundation for the Arts, under the Project 560 programme and partnered by Citi India.