The Aravani art collective likes to go big when they have something to say. They’re responsible for a four-storey mural in Chennai. The face of a sex worker painted across a wall in Sonagachi, Kolkata. And 2,200-sq-ft art work to honour Covid-19 frontline workers outside a metro station in Bengaluru.

The cis woman and trans woman collective has, for four years, used the streets as both medium and metaphor, engaging with the public through their art, and sustaining themselves through corporate projects and private commissions. The streets are a place where that the bodies of transgender people attract violence, so the project is also a way to reclaim them.

“While we’re painting, passersby wave or applaud. It’s fun,” says Shanthi Muniswamy, 39, one of the nine trans artists from Bengaluru. In all, the collective has 30 trans artists from Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, Jaipur, Kolkata and Delhi. The cis members typically serve as mentors and facilitators.

A self-portrait by trans artist Jyothi H.

A self-portrait by trans artist Jyothi H.

The pandemic, however, has meant the collective can’t go out and paint. It also means large art projects are harder to come by. And so the artists have shifted mediums. They’re now putting their messages on canvas, in acrylic, and retailing their art via social media, for use in home and office spaces.

“Painting canvases has been like life support in so many ways,” says Muniswamy. “Our interaction with the city continues; we get a lot of appreciation on Instagram. And our work is now beautifying people’s personal spaces. In this new normal, I feel grateful to still be able to do the thing I love.”

The canvases are usually vibrant portraits of the self or others from the community, or paintings of powerful trans symbols like clapping hands or the hermaphroditic hibiscus flower. One is titled Naavu Idhivi (Kannada for We Exist); another is Bloom; a third, Pride.

Each piece is sold with a note on the painter. “Since June, we’ve sold about 200,” says Aditi Patkar, a mentor. “The prices vary depending on size and complexity, but generally range from Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000.” Half the proceeds from each artwork go to the artist, the other half go towards collective expenses.

The group meets weekly at their studio space in Bengaluru. Learning to paint on canvas has added more discipline to their lives, says Patkar. “It’s almost art as therapy. Some of the artists come, sit down, paint at their own pace and leave at the end of the day.” It’s more internal, with little of the boisterousness of a day outdoors, painting a wall.

Painting on smaller canvases, the artists say, has allowed them to zoom out and refine their skill. “It’s helped me a lot in these times, financially and emotionally,” says Jyothi H, 40. “It has given me confidence too. I have learned how to take help and help others.”