Transgender Portrayals in Indian Art

Indian art has a long and diverse history, and it has evolved to reflect the changing cultural and social norms of different periods. In the context of trans people's representation in Indian art, it is worth noting that those who identify as transgender have a unique and longstanding place in Hindu mythology. Trans individuals have a rich history of recognition and acceptance in Hindu culture, and they play important roles in certain Hindu rituals and ceremonies. Furthermore, transwomen are often associated with spiritual power and are even revered as deities in some parts of India.

Indian art has evidence of transgender identities which can be traced back to ancient religious texts and classical literature. These identities have not only made appearances in literature but have also been portrayed in various art forms across different mediums. Robert Goldman, a distinguished professor of Sanskrit notes, "Few cultures have given this phenomenon such a prominent place in the realms of mythology and religion as traditional India has." This article explores the various ways in which Indian literature, mythology, and art have portrayed the trans community over time, including their historic representation in art.

An example of the depiction of transgender identities in Indian art can be seen in the Mahabharata. The character Aravan, son of Arjuna and Nagakanya, offers himself to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali but requests to spend his last night in marriage. When no woman comes forward to marry him, Krishna takes on the form of the beautiful woman Mohini and weds Aravan. This tale has inspired hijras in Tamil Nadu to identify Aravan as their forefather and call themselves Aravanis. Another character in the Mahabharata, Shikhandi, who is of mixed gender and has close ties to the Pandavas, is also present. Shikhandi is the reincarnation of Amba, the daughter of the king of Kashi, and fights alongside the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war, ultimately aiding in their triumph. Shikhandi also blesses Arjuna's son Abhimanyu at his wedding. These scenes have been portrayed in numerous art forms in India.


Mohini on a swing painted by Raja Ravi Varma


The portrayal of Ardhanarishvara is yet another example of transgender representation in Indian art. This androgynous figure represents the perfect balance of male and female qualities that emerge when the characteristics of Shiva and Parvati are combined. Shiva is considered the god of destruction and rebirth, while Parvati is the goddess of love, fertility, and devotion. In some cultures, androgyny is seen as an ideal state because it symbolizes the harmonious balance of the masculine and feminine aspects of the universe. The concept of Ardhanarishvara is portrayed in various forms of art, including Madhubani art and the famous three-armed bronze Ardhanarishvara sculpture in the south. The intriguing aspect of the depiction is that it challenges traditional gender stereotypes, making it a revered symbol among the transgender community.


Gouache painting of Ardhanarisvara from The British Museum archives


The term hijra is often used to describe a traditional and cultural third gender identity in South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan. The term comprises of eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people. During the Ottoman and Mughal empires, 'hijras' played crucial roles in royal courts as trusted political advisors, administrators, generals, and guardians of the harems. Renowned for their intelligence, loyalty, and discretion, they had unrestricted access to all strata of society. Hijras played a significant part in the politics of empire-building during the Mughal period, as depicted in Mughal Miniature Paintings that feature them in courtly activities and standing in the presence of the emperor. These depictions serve as a testament to the significant and prominent role that hijras held in court and society during the Mughal era.


Portrait of Khwas Khan


Throughout India's rich artistic heritage, depictions of trans individuals have been featured in various forms of art, including literature, sculptures, and paintings. Over the centuries, these depictions have showcased the trans community's essential role in shaping and contributing to India's culture, tradition, and spirituality. The diversity and complexity of Indian art in representing trans individuals highlight the country's multifaceted cultural landscape and its acceptance of diverse identities.


Editor's Note: It is important to note that the history of transgender and non-binary identities is long and comprehensive, and their existence has been documented in various cultures throughout history. This article explores some representations of transgender individuals in Indian art, but it is by no means an exhaustive representation of the diverse experiences and cultural contexts of transgender individuals in the Indian subcontinent.



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