Representing Diversity

Fulbright-Nehru Scholar Manjula Bharathy’s work captures the complexity of emotion entangled in identity and the journey toward achieving equitable opportunities.

By Natasa Milas

December 2021

Representing Diversity

Manjula Bharathy (right) at a seminar on Dalit Feminisms and Femininity at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo courtesy Manjula Bharathy


Manjula Bharathy is a professor at the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance, School of Habitat Studies (SoHS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. In 2018-19 she was a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, where she studied how elected women representatives in local governance, both in the United States and in India, engage with power structures. Bharathy is interested in the politics of marginalization of women, gender, caste and race.

Bharathy is also a documentary filmmaker. Her documentary film XXWhy, about Kerala’s first out female-to-male transgender person, has been screened at several international film festivals.

Excerpts from an interview:

What are your current teaching and research interests?
My areas of research include democratic decentralization and local governance, where I focus on the multidimensional theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks that engage with the vulnerabilities and the political marginalization of social groups. I also engage with critical discourse analysis of the media and try to explore and understand the mediated governance, its contested terrains, the shifting boundaries, and the multiple ways in which mediascapes inform, form, and set agendas in de/activating the debates on any development interventions or grassroots movements, either at the macro or the micro-levels, in the public sphere.

At the School of Habitat Studies, I teach Qualitative Research Methodology, State, Law and Governance, Socio-Cultural Perspectives, as well as Engendering Urban Local Governance, and the Urban Policy and Governance.

Can you tell us about your research on elected women leaders in the United States and India and their engagement with power structure? What are some similarities and differences in your opinion between the two countries when it comes to ways in which women struggle to overcome marginalization?
Politics in both India and the U.S. treat ‘caste’ and ‘race’ as the hub around which political forces—coalitions and sub-coalitions, alignments and counter-alignments—are organized. Despite the democratization of local governance envisioned to break the spiral and culture of silence among scheduled caste women in India and women of color in the U.S., the deeply embedded social stratification structures are found to weaken the democratization process, causing the results at variance with the envisaged goals.

Closer attention to women’s political effectiveness—the ability to use voice to politicize issues of concern to women; to use electoral leverage to press demands on decision-makers; to trigger more responsiveness from the public sector to their needs; and better enforcement of constitutional commitments to women’s equal rights—reveal that it is not explicitly visible in both countries.

Patriarchal gender ideology is deeply entrenched in the mindset of the players in the governance system and gets manifested, for example, in deprioritizing women’s projects, designing women’s projects to be subsequently used as general projects, being gender insensitive and gender blind to the myriad problems faced by women. In both countries, it was inferred that the standalone power and representation in local bodies, without commensurate power within their families and in their respective political parties, often cause disadvantage to women in exercising power since they have to grapple with the double subordination, ordained by the gender hierarchy as well as the hierarchy within the respective political party.

Your documentary film XXWhy about the coming out of Kerala’s first female-to-male transgender person in India has received international acclaim. Can you tell us what inspired you to make this film? How did the general population in India and the U.S. accept it?
Is transgender born, gendered, or choice by freedom? How well can a female-to-male transgender person root self-identity in a male-female society? What is the sexuality of a female-to-male transgender person while sexually active with a woman? What does it mean to be labeled a lesbian, when you are a female-to-male transgender person?

My film XXWhy on Sree Nandu, a female-to-male transgender person from Kerala, poses many such uncomfortable issues that question the notions of social positionalities and fixed gender identities. Twenty-five-year-old Sree Nandu was the first person in Kerala to come to the public with his transgender identity. That was in 2004. His life was featured as the cover story of SAVVY in the same year, and his biography was published by a leading publishing house. Sree Nandu was caught in a complex web of suffering and redemption, destruction and self-destruction, love and hatred, and pain and joy, while the undercurrent was the accumulating trauma and his determination to survive.

The film won the Best Documentary award at Kashish International Film Festival in 2010, the Saathi Rainbow National Film Festival in 2010, and the SOMS National Film Festival in 2010. The film was screened at 16 international film festivals.

During my Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, the film was screened at 12 universities across the United States. In California, the film was screened five times before different groups, including the transgender student community. The experiences were overwhelming, both emotionally and academically.

At the end of screening the film in San Francisco, a woman stood up crying and said in broken words that she was seeing the pain and suffering of her daughter on screen. In Arizona, after the screening was over, a man requested whether he could kiss my hands for showing him the trauma his son had been through.

You were a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar at Rutgers University in New Jersey. What was that experience like for you and did it help inform your own work in India?
The Fulbright-Nehru Research Scholarship at Rutgers University in New Jersey was an interesting journey that broke the routineness of my academic and personal life. I met new people and reinvented myself. I networked with the most brilliant minds out there and made acquaintances with leading professors and professionals like Professor Mary Hawkesworth and Naomi Klein. I gave lectures and screened my documentary XXWhy in 12 universities across the United States, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York.

I formed a working group on Dalit and Adivasi Research in India at Rutgers comprising of faculty members, researchers, students, and activists and organized a two-day spring panel event on the life experiences of Dalit and Adivasi women in India which were well attended and praised. I presented two papers as part of a mini-conference: the first on Caste as Counterpublic to Gender: Dalit Women and Local Governance in India, and the second on Politics of Being and Non- Being: Tribal Development in India. I also offered lectures in classes for master’s students at the Women and Gender Studies Department and the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literature.

Back in India, I initiated a reading circle among the postgraduate and research scholars of the SoHS, inspired by the informal academic discussions at the Institute for Research on Women, Rutgers and the student community of the SoHS appreciated it as a critical academic space for philosophical cogitations and theoretical discourses.

Fulbright experiences helped me in revisiting my pedagogy, curricula and research; enabled in reimagining the academic spaces to engage with international debates and discourses, and informed me to rephrase the nature of student interactions; and facilitated to redefine the ways with which I engross with the dialectics of my personal and academic spaces.

What are some of your future academic and artistic projects?
As a part of the celebration of commemorating 25 years of decentralized planning in Kerala, the Chief Minister of the Government of Kerala Mr. Pinari Vijayan released my book, “Brick By Brick-Democratising Local Governance: Insights from the People’s Plan,” at a function on August 17, 2021. The book analyzes two critical components: the Women Component Plan (WCP) and the Tribal Sub Plan (TSP), which are designed to empower the most marginalized sections, women and the scheduled tribes.

I am also in the last phase of bringing out my next academic volumes, one on Kudumbashree interventions titled “No one is Here: Gender, Local Governance and Politics of Subjectivity” and the second one, an edited volume on understanding the tribal concerns and politics in India titled “Tribalscapes in India: Shifting Boundaries and Contested Terrains.” I have completed the filming of the next documentary on positive aging and will start its post-production work soon.

Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City


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