Dr Yoga S. NambiarFounder, India's First Trans person with a PhD in Mental Health,
Classical Dancer, Social Reformer, Orator.
Shaping UpThere are some among us who are not only able to find themselves but help others find themselves. One such person is Dr Yoga S Nambiar. Dr Yoga was born on 9 May, 1984, as Sreelesh Nambiar. Ideally, gender should not be a point of discussion when it comes to a person. But if you were born as a trans in India before the NALSA judgement, then gender has been an unavoidable part of your journey. Where Dr Yoga’s story stands out is that in through her achievements, she was able to go beyond the gender boundaries that divide us and get acceptance and recognition from either side of the boundary—one that she wishes to dissolve one day.
Dr Yoga grew up in a typical middle class household near Mumbai. Because of the cruel biases in society against transgender people, she had to face many hardships including denigration and abuse from her own relatives. Many naysayers told her parents not to send her to college, as people like her would have only one fate, they said. However, Dr Yoga was good-fortune when it came to her parents who encouraged her to focus on her studies and also invested in her higher education. She felt that her achievements would be the ultimate comeback to the naysayers, and so she put all her energies into getting her qualifications in both academics and the arts.
Through diligence and inner strength, she has earned the distinction of being the first transgender person in India to receive a PhD in mental health. Dr Yoga is also an accomplished performer who has received multiple Indian and international awards for her contribution to arts & culture. But her biggest achievement is her advocacy and activism for the transgender community as well as sex workers and migrant workers in India.
The Global Rights Foundation (founded in 2012) advocates for transgender rights and dignity. Under GRF, she has conducted several activities including sexual and reproductive health programmes, trans rights awareness programmes, and has worked towards providing the community better access to social security, including camps for creation of Aadhar cards and bank accounts. Having experienced discrimination herself, she has shown immense empathy towards others in the transgender community, following up with those who were ostracized by their parents and society, and making sure that they received the rights and entitlements as well as security and acceptance.
The KalaSiri Academy of Art & Culture also contributes to the cause of upliftment of transgenders by giving a direction and motivation to those youngsters who do not have the means to pursue performance arts. Through its programmes and events, it raises funds for GRF, which in turn used the funds for the betterment of the transgender community. While being transgender, she also shown empathy for other vulnerable groups such as sex workers and their children as well as migrant workers. During the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, she helped thousands from the transgender community, sex workers as well as migrant workers in Maharashtra by providing them with groceries, medical kits, and financial help.Because of her in-depth understanding of Badhai, Basti and Toli traditions of the community, she has been invited to be a part of many prestigious think-tanks and is often consulted at institutions such as TISS, FPAI, MDACS, FHI 360 and Praxis. Despite the rejection and spite she received from society, Dr Yoga exuded immense strength and resolve to achieve her dreams and use her knowledge and experience to uplift others, and that is exactly what she has set out to do with I Am Trans.
Art can often be the best means of self-expression. It can be the medium to find the inner strength required to go through a challenging life. And thus it was for Dr Yoga Nambiar too. By adopting dance as her art, Dr Yoga was able to tap into immense inner strength. By portraying female characters, she felt liberated. Through dance, she also found the opportunity to create awareness about the transgender community, and gather funds for the causes that were close to her heart. Dr Yoga is trained in several dance forms including Indian folk dance, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, contemporary and neo-classical dance. Having been trained in single-man ballets, theatre and dance, she has choregraphed performances for many international and Indian shows. She founded the KalaSiri Academy of Art & Culture (KSAC) almost 18 years ago and has trained many students in the classical dance forms.
She has herself performed on more than 200 stages in India and abroad. Some of the well-known Indian and international festivals such as SIFAS Singapore Fine Arts Society ,Thailand Festival, Dubai Festival, Natyanjali Festival, Kalaghoda Festival, Konark Festival, Elephanta Festival, Global Shanti Hyderabad, Maha Utsav Mumbai, Kumbakonam Festival, Tanjavore Festival, etc., have celebrated her performances. She has portrayed male, female as well as transgender characters. Her performance of the ‘Ardhanareshwara’ (Purusha and Prakriti) have gained her fame and accolades in India. Dr Yoga has also created the ‘Bhutashudhi’, a meditation which combined principles from Indian classical dance, dance movement therapy and mental health. This meditation has been created especially for people living with HIV and helped increase the CD4 count in many cases.
While she enjoys performing and choreography, her aim has always been to create awareness and sensitization for marginalized and neglected communities. Through dance, she has created awareness for people suffering with HIV, Women & Children’s rights, transgender rights and more. Her venues can range from street performances to schools to corporates.
Birth of a Social ReformerNritya Out Of Poverty
Nritya Out of Poverty is a multimedia dance theatre initiative started by Dr Yoga and conducted in association with The International AIDS Association. Under the initiative, underprivileged children who wish to pursue dance but do not have the means to do us, get training for free under the KSAC (KalaSiri Academy of Art Culture). Apart from dance, the children also receive all-round development in subjects such as fitness, nutrition, audio and video editing, etc. The aim is to give them a means of living through their passion for dance. Students from the KSAC are given an opportunity to showcase their talents at various events and festivals attending by large audiences and celebrities.
Tap For A Cause
Tap For A Cause is a performance programme which was launched in 2011 under KSAC to raise funds for street orphans and people living with HIV AIDS or PLHIV in Mumbai and Pune. The programme also raises funds for the Global Rights Foundation to support professional dancers, choreographers or related administrators in the transgender community that are victim to HIV. Grants are given to individuals in the form of rent, utilities, medical or travel expenses and insurance. On the occasion of KSAC’s 15th year in 2017, the students of the academy as well as Dr Yoga performed pieces from the Shiva Purana and Mahabharata. It was declared the largest dance-based fundraiser that year.
I am TransIn March 2020, when Covid-19 struck the country and Thane district in Maharashtra in particular, it was the very same marginalized communities that Dr Yoga had been working for which became the most affected. While she was already working for the transgender community and sex workers, a third community would soon be added to the efforts—migrant workers. Without rations and transportation, migrant workers were left to fend for themselves. For Dr Yoga, it was a natural reaction to provide them with food and rations while helping them reach their homes.Global Rights Foundation, which was thus far only on paper, began taking a more concrete shape. It began growing into a systematic intervention that would start from the grassroots and reach all the way to the top. I Am Trans is a product of this structure. It is an umbrella initiative under the Global Rights Foundation, where the blueprint for larger impact has been created.
The Anchor OrgansiationThe Maharashtra Social Housing and Action League or MASHAL is a non-governmental organization that has been operating for the last 35 years is now Anchoring Global Rights Foundation. It has been recognized for its tremendous contribution in the development sector, working alongside organizations such as the Government of Maharashtra, Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana, Habitat for Humanity and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among others, to provide shelter and a healthy living environment to the marginalized sections of society.In the last three decades, MASHAL has gained significant goodwill and respect in the social sector. They are now extending their support to work being done by Dr Yoga and Global Rights Foundation. Mashal with their rich expereince is incubating mission led by Dr Yoga so as to ensure that the community achieves their resolve in the area of pride and priveliges.
My intention in supporting I Am Trans is to work for all human beings, and not any particular gender. In society today, many roles are defined by gender, but that need not be the case. In my view, every person should be able to choose what they would like to do with their lives. However, this was not always my thinking. I too was part of the same society that classifies a person into either male or female. My advocacy for diversity and inclusion was restricted to the feminist point of view, focusing on women only. It was only after I spoke to Dr Yoga for the first time, albeit with some fear and hesitation, that I was made aware of this huge blind spot!
Now when I look back on how we first came to know each other it seems like destiny. She sent me an invitation on LinkedIn and soon we got to know each other. Many times I made the mistake of addressing her as him but she was willing to be open and vulnerable with me despite that. I am very fortunate that with Giving Circle, I have the ability to do something for her and the larger transgender community in India.
Speaking to Dr Yoga has opened my eyes to my own biases and wrongdoings in the past, including the way I used to treat a transgender person at a traffic signal or indeed any other occasion. I never made any eye contact nor gave them the slightest consideration as fellow human beings. Whatever I will do here onwards for the community will probably not make up for the all wrong done earlier. But being aware of my insensitivity and admitting it is the first step I am taking towards bringing a change within myself and the larger society on our attitudes and treatment of the transgender community.
Those who created us, created them. That says it all for me. As a person who believes in equality, I see no reason for hierarchies nor exclusion based on age, colour, class, or gender. The world around us, whether professional or person, is full of opportunities for us to improve the lives of other human beings as well as the planet. Yet, many of us close our eyes to the inequality and simply accept the conditioning we have received from society.
Even for those of us who want to action change in the world, the transgender person is probably the last in the list of priorities. As a person who believes in equal rights and dignity for all, I would like to build awareness around the injustice served by society towards transgender people and especially the parents and the relatives. I would like to create an acceptance towards the cause because I believe that acceptance is the key to making a change for the transgender community. From acceptance will come friendship and with friendship will come care.
I would like your support in accepting the transgender community and befriending transgender people so that they are not alienated, so that they have a chance to drop their rough and tough exterior and feel safe enough around us. As the co-founder at Giving Circle, I feel fortune to have the opportunity to support this cause not just at a personal level but to be able to provide institutional support as the cause expands.
There are very few people in India who can say that they have never crossed paths with a transgender person. And equally true is the fact that just a few people can claim that they have had insightful interactions with a transgender person.
The much misunderstood community came to my notice at a serious level when my friend at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) chose to study sexual orientation as a part of her thesis. She was the first one to offer me a glimpse into the lives of the transgender community. A few years later on my way to work, I would meet a transgender person practically every day at a road signal. Irrespective of whether I gave alms, she would shower generous blessings and goodwill on me, which I cherish to this day. Perhaps that too added to my sensitivity towards them.
More than two decades later, while doing relief work during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, our organisation, MASHAL, had the opportunity to interact with a wonderful human being named Dr Yoga Nambiar, who is a transgender herself. Her penchant for learning and enterprise is remarkable. With the help of her chelaas and volunteers our efforts at providing ration kits, running community kitchens and the surakshit safar seva for migrants workers succeeded.
The two months that I worked alongside her triggered the resolve in me to support the transgender community in their efforts at being better understood by the society at large and to ensure that the community too looks inwards to better understand their changing circumstances.
I have been associated with developmental activities for many years. Strangely, none of the groups I worked with were associated with transgender rights. In Mumbai, I used to see transgenders in local trains singing, begging and pestering the passengers. Like all others, I am ashamed to say, I too tried to avoid them. I must admit that it never occurred to me that I should try to understand the problems of transgenders and contribute towards their upliftment.
About 10 years ago, I happened to read the autobiography, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi. It is a powerful story of a person who has been marginalised because he was born a male and wanted to live the life of a woman. It is Revathi’s account of her experience of discrimination, ridicule and pain. I marvelled at how Revathi could endure all those insults, physical and mental pain, isolation, and then have the courage to document them. It traumatised me and shook me up. It made me realise what is meant by ‘marginalised’. After getting to understand them better, I felt compelled to pursue an agenda to demystify the community and their ways.
Fortunately, the opportunity did arrive during the Covid-19 lockdown. My colleagues, Neeta Chalke and Sharad Mahajan of MASHAL, initiated a massive relief programme to help the migrants with food rations and make travel arrangements for them to return to their native places.