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Play traces a lost space that embraced everyone

Begum Mahal is today a bus stand in Bengaluru. Neither the building nor the woman it is named after is in sight, but fond memories remain of a warm, inclusive space that welcomed everyone
Last Updated : 16 July 2019, 13:06 IST
Last Updated : 16 July 2019, 13:06 IST

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Where is Begum Mahal? A researcher’s quest for an answer had led her to several transpeople with stories to share.

Begum Mahal is both a place and a person, we are told, but where are they? Whether they solely exist as a figment of the collective imagination or whether the bungalow and the Begum truly existed, no one knows. All that remains is a bus stop named Begum Mahal in Bengaluru.

For Rumi Harish, author of a new play titled Freedom Begum, Begum Mahal symbolises the memories and nostalgia associated with queer spaces.

“Trans people need spaces to meet and be themselves. Transmen more than transwomen need the space as we are doubly marginalised,” she says.

Sunil Mohan, who co-wrote the paper with Radhika Raj and Rumi Harish, suggested the research be transformed into a play.

“A research paper ends up as a report. We wanted to find a way to give back to the community. Instead of creating something that would be limited to academic circles, we wanted to break down what we had learnt in a way that everyone could access,” he muses.

The choice to make the play multilingual came out of the narratives they had collected in five languages—Kannada, English, Hindi, Dakhani Urdu, Tamil, and Malayalam. They wanted the play to truly reflect the life around Begum Mahal.

“We wanted it to provide a true reflection of the people we spoke to. We interviewed people from the trans community to labourers, scrap dealers, tea sellers, auto drivers, and people who have settled around the place. We wanted the narrative to portray the myriad of perceptions about the Begum, her son and the Mahal while also tracing our quest for the Begum,” adds Rumi.

Along with the nostalgia and anxiety of a lost space comes the question of recreating it. Would it be possible to create a space that does not discriminate? Can we imagine a place where barriers cease to exist? The story of Begum Mahal rests on the hope for such a utopia.

That a research paper could be adapted so skilfully into a play is the result of the genius of A Mangai, director. At a rehearsal on Monday, elements of street theatre meshed wonderfully with stories that read like folklore. The music stirs emotions, and Freedom Begum is a must watch.

A talented cast of 11 and a drummer make for an enthralling watch. The hour-long play creates a conversation that is relevant for many in times of intolerance towards sexual minorities.

While we may have come a long way with decriminalising homosexuality, not much has changed when it comes to accepting the community as part of the mainstream society. The creators of the play are voicing their dream for a world where marginalised genders and sexualities live a life free of violence and discrimination.

Begum Mahal is a production of Raahi, an organisation formed by a community of activists from marginalised sexualities and genders.

Stories of inclusiveness

The play began as a research paper on public discrimination for the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. A conversation with a trans activist brought to the researchers the story of Begum Mahal, an elusive spirit that breathed love, freedom, and inclusiveness. As they stitched together anecdotes, they realised they wanted to share these experiences.

Raahi presents Freedom Mahal, multi-lingual play, July 30, Ravindra Kala Kshetra, 6.30 pm.

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Published 16 July 2019, 12:43 IST

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