In conversation with Reshma Elizabeth Thomas on work and her latest art collection
While waiting at the Chennai Central railway station, Reshma noticed a man getting up from his seat as a lady sat down next to him. The lady, a transgender, seemed visually upset at the man’s reaction. Reshma’s heart skipped a beat and she followed her to one of the slums in Chennai. There she met an entire LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community. Each of them had a distressing story to share, tales of abuse, neglect, depression and loneliness. She knew instantly that she had to help them. “If you give them respect, they will return the same respect. It’s not their fault that they have become what they are and it’s not fair to ignore them. They are people like you and me who have feelings, heartaches and pain. There is a need to create awareness about their plight,” explains Reshma Elizabeth Thomas. She chose to work for the cause and through art, she has tried to bring light to their darkness. RITZ talk to this dynamic young crusader who is all set to launch her new collection, ‘Imprints’ that showcases images of different facets of life, of people, who have left deep imprints on her own life
Even as a child, Reshma had a strong inclination towards painting. She actively participated in school and college events that involved colours. Her surroundings became her inspiration – nature, people, places and even emotions. Being a self-taught artist, she has no inhibitions and enjoys exploring and trying different colours, media and textures for her art. She could do up to five paintings a day or not paint at all for a week. Her exotic painting tools include everything from sea shells and sand to kitchen accessories.
Her first painting exhibition, ‘A for Art’, was in support of the LGBT community and had 200 canvases depicting their struggles and trauma. Her work was noticed by the department of social justice who took the show to Calicut under the banner of ‘Identity.’ “At every show, people would come to me and share their tears, questions and experiences. They spoke to me as friends would, which meant I had succeeded in reaching out to them,” smiles Reshma.
Drawing inspiration from one of nature’s most beautiful creations – the firefly, her next show, ‘Mind Network’ focussed on people who were suffering from depression. For this, she used a dark gallery with paintings that were backlit using UV light. She explains, “Even when people are going through a dark phase, deep within, there is still a light. We just need to help them focus their energies, and they will glow in the dark.”
When asked if she ever had a difficult experience working with the LGBT community, she recalls an incident when one of them called her for help in the middle of the night. “When I reached the spot, she was drenched in blood. Someone had attacked her brutally and when we took her to the hospital, there were no proper doctors to treat the transwoman, some even refused to take her in. It was very disheartening. My challenge has not been in working with this community but in convincing society as to why we need to help them. There were times when people refused to talk to me. They even asked my parents if I were a transwoman too. But my parents have been my strong pillars of support through it all.”
Reshma was a part of the team under the department of social justice that undertook a survey of transgenders in Kerala. “Earlier, such a group of people were not even recognised in the state but now they are slowly being accepted and I am proud to say that they have a special place in the survey now”. So when do we know that a child is different? “From a very young age of 7 or 9 years, the child starts to feel the difference. Having listened to a lot of them sharing their experiences, I find that boys start opting to play with dolls and wearing girls’ dresses, while girls prefer playing with cars and guns since they feel more male than female. By the time they reached their mid-teens, most of them are harassed or abused by teachers, friends and often, even by their own family. Most are forced to discontinue education and leave their homes, especially the ones from weaker economic backgrounds. Eventually when they don’t have jobs and are abused, many of them are forced into prostitution” she says. “We can help them when they are young by counselling them, supporting them and by understanding the issues that haunt them. We have to accept them as they are and also inform the school about the child’s position so that they are not treated differently.”
Reshma, who is currently pursuing her Phd on ‘A comparative study of transgenders in Kerala and Tamil Nadu’, hopes to associate with an international agency in the future. “As an artist, through my art, I try to create a change in our social outlook. As someone interested in humanity, I strive to do it with sensitivity, I try to expose our social life through my work. My art not only speaks for myself but for people who are silenced.”