As Manjamma Jogati was presented with the Padma Shri Award on 9 November by President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, she thanked him with a unique and elegant gesture.
When her name was called on stage, the folk dancer, draped in a saree, held the pallu (fringe) of her saree and made a sweeping gesture three times before Kovind in an up-and-down manner, before circling her hands on either side of him. People on social media have termed this gesture, which was met with thunderous applause, as a means to wish him good luck.
Manjamma is the first transperson to preside over the Karnataka Janapada Academy. The 60-year-old has mastered several art forms such as the Jogati Nritya, a ritual dance performed by the Jogappa community, and Janapada songs, and is well known for her melodious sonnets in Kannada, sung in praise of female deities.
As Manjamma received the fourth-highest civilian honour in the country for her work, we remember the struggles she faced as a transwoman, and how she overcame them to get where she is today.
Left to fend for herself
Watch Manjamma performing dance.
Manjamma was born in a middle-class family in the Ballari district of Karnataka. She studied till Class 10, and it was during her early teens that she began identifying as a woman.
“My brothers would beat me and my family tried hard to get rid of my feminine tendencies. When I decided to embrace my identity as a woman, my father cursed me and said that I was dead to him. I have even tried to consume poison,” Manjamma told Star of Mysore.
“They took me to a doctor and later a priest convinced my parents to leave me alone as I have been blessed by some divine power,” she added.
And so, at the age of 15, her parents took her to Huligeyamma’s temple in Hospet for jogappa, a ritual in which devotees marry a god or goddess.
This ritual involved Manjamma marrying goddess Renuka Yellama and thereby dedicating her services to other community members. After this ceremony, the devotee is not allowed to return home, and so she was left to fend for herself on the road.
This incident pushed her to extreme poverty, and she took to begging for alms on the streets to survive. The tipping point came when social abandonment and sexual abuse pushed her to take her own life.
At this point, she met Mattikal Basappa, a folk artist. From him, she learned the Jogati Nritya, and alongside, met Jogati performer Kalavva Jogati.
Thanks to her discovery of this art form, Manjamma was pulled back from the brink of giving up completely. From hereon, she mastered the art of Jogati Nritya. After Kallava’s demise, Manjamma took over the troupe to popularise the dance form.
Later on, she became the first trans president of the Karnataka Janapada Academy, the state’s most prestigious body dedicated to performing arts.
President Kovind presents Padma Shri to Matha B. Manjamma Jogati for Art. She is the Chairman of Karnataka Janapada (Folklore) Academy. She has been instrumental in popularizing the folk art forms practised in rural Karnataka, Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh. pic.twitter.com/bXslLbHwli
— President of India (@rashtrapatibhvn) November 9, 2021
Meanwhile, even as Manjamma’s gesture to the President was widely shared by netizens, some within the trans community have not taken it in a positive light. Akkai Padmashali, a noted trans activist, said that she appreciates that a member of the community was honoured with the award. However, she felt that Manjamma should not have made the gesture.
“There are already a lot of myths and misconception prevailing in society about the transgender community and when she is at the forum, getting honoured by the first citizen of the country (president), she should not have done it. The constitutional values are above the belief system, immaterial of whether one believes in the rituals or not. If society respects only the cultural status, where is our social, economic, political and human rights status?”
Manjamma is among 102 Padma Shri awardees and the only transperson to receive the honour this year.
Edited by Divya Sethu