Undivided gender
Archana Shastri

Ardhanarishvara, the Androgyne
by Alka Pande. Rupa.
Pages 192. Rs 1500.

Ardhanarishvara, the AndrogyneIt was in the autumn of 1984 that I had sighted my classmate in the London's Royal College of Art, with his false eyelashes, desperately trying to tighten his corset for the weekend party. Cross-dressing was common enough, and I remember one of the posters for the weekend bash featured a young man lounging around in lingerie. At the party, one of the rabid feminists ripped open the cross-dresser's clothes — she was violently opposed to such "gender-benders" and their invasion of the feminine domain.

With the metrosexual man in India today busy pruning and preening himself, in anticipation of a future where genetic coding-decoding will deliver his/her chosen shade of fe/maleness, Alka Pande's Ardhanarishvara, the Androgyne is apt and timely.

The book is delightful for the ease with which it makes the linkages and transgressions between the sacred and the profane, high and low art, representation and reality. The book is very much in the genre of contemporary remixes — extremely palatable and appetising in its eye-catching and synthetic packaging. The added glamour of images stems from the obvious connotations with the "icons", the sleazy glitz of street culture and the unacknowledged, unexposed underbelly of society. The gloss and glamour does not take away the merit of the well-researched and well-documented content that Pande has put together so assiduously.

Centred around the Ardhanarishvara myth and image, the book is replete with literary, textual and visual references from the past and present. While tracing the iconic evolution of the image, it unveils a sublimated acknowledgement and acceptance of sexual ambiguity, duality and non-conformist gender identities inherent in communities and societies down the ages.

In the union of man and woman, the image of Ardhanarishvara, when viewed in the elements of Siva and Shakti, underscores the lines in the battle between the sexes. In concept and reality, its ambivalence also proves its status as "neither or nor".

However, it is in the process of transformation, metamorphoses and transgression from one gender to another— both in the myth as well as in practice — that the various nuances and categories of gender identities are made visible. For instance, narrated from the Mahabharata is the story of Aravan, son of Arjuna. Aravan was required to sacrifice his life but he did not want to die a bachelor. Since no father was willing to knowingly lead his daughter to certain widowhood, Krishna, incarnation of Vishnu, transformed himself into Mohini and married Aravan.

To this day, Aravan's wedding to Mohini is enacted every year at Koovagam and Pillaiyarkuppam in Tamil Nadu. Transsexuals, transvestites and eunuchs don the bridal wear for the holy marriage ceremony, only to exchange it, the following morning, for the widow's attire amidst much mourning. Involved in the event is an entire spectrum of gender identities — the hijras or the Alis who identify themselves with Vishnu/Mohini, the heterosexual dangas who become women for the duration of the festival, the kothis or the effeminate and passive of the male partners, and the panthis who are the masculine of the male partners and are sexually given to both men and women.

In this melange of unstereotyped and socially unaccepted identities is inserted a poignant query, voiced by an individual — "So where is the room for the males, hermaphrodites, drag queens, transsexuals, transgenderists, cross-dressers and all other forms of gender-benders, blenders and breakers in our "spectrum" of sexual orientation?"

The subsequent chapters in the book discerningly and sympathetically construct and put in contemporary perspective the concerns of the ambiguous, nonconformist identity in history, visual/plastic and performing arts, multimedia, sports and social psychology. Given the blurring of genders and the range of choices in present-day lifestyle, fashion, society and the arts, gender hopping combined with genetic engineering may well become a lifestyle choice for the inherent, compulsive or willing aberrant in future.