Bangalore-based Akkai Padmashali was drawn to Carnatic classical music when she was 14. Her grandmother, a vocalist herself, taught music to the neighbouring children. But when Padmashali wanted to learn, her grandmother refused to teach. "She was slowly becoming aware of my transgender identity and was forcing me to play with boys. But I wanted to learn," says Padmashali, who was also turned away by her teacher, felt that her presence made other disciples uncomfortable. But Padmashali went back to a recording that she had heard many years ago. It was MS Subbulaxmi's recital of Bhagyada Laxmi, a Kannada bhajan written by saint Purandar Dasa and rendered in the legend's euphonic voice that Padmashali had heard many years ago. Her throaty alaaps paired with the gamaks (glides) and her trademark nasal twang had Padmashali hooked. The song was the embodiment of bhakti bhava for her.
So when Delhi-based Anubhav Gupta, director of NGO Jeevan Trust that works for the underprivileged, decided to give representation to the third gender through an album — comprising songs by members of the transgender community and roped in Padmashali to sing — she chose Bhagyada Laxmi. "I felt really close to the song as goddess Laxmi is valued by diverse Indian communities. She is not worshiped as a Hindu goddess alone," says Padmashali, who has sung in Songs of the Caravan, arguably India's first album sung by transgender women, which not only celebrates the singing talent from the Indian transgender community but allows the participants to put in their love, longing and faith in the music. The album has 13 songs in nine regional languages.
According to Gupta, who has created this album in collaboration with Delhi's Abhivyakti Foundation and PlanetRomeo Foundation, Netherlands, the project was essential. "If you look at mainstream cinema or any other mainstream music platform, transgenders are not represented. This will not just represent them, but give them an opportunity to hone their talent," says Gupta, who began the project by writing to various organisations working to improve the third gender communities and conducted auditions over the phone. "The singers in the album hail from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds. Having fought the societal stereotypes they have now established themselves in their various fields," he adds. Many of the singers on the album are activists and have travelled across the world to promote transgender rights.