They come from very different backgrounds, but they are all trailblazers. This month, Parmesh Shahani encounters three divas of change

I have brought in 2018 on a very good note, dear readers. Let me tell you about three amazing women I have already met in the first month of the New Year. The first is my friend and Yale World Fellows senior Chetna Sinha who, through her Mann Deshi Foundation in rural Maharashtra, has already changed the lives of more than about 4,00,000 women who live around the Mann taluka in rural Maharashtra. Mann Deshi’s multitude of activities include an all-women-run bank, some business schools for rural women, the first chambers of commerce for rural micro entrepreneurs, a community radio service and water conservation and sports programmes…and they are only just about getting started!

This year, Chetna has made news by being one of the seven women co-chairs at Davos’ World Economic Forum, and we are proud of her. But I love that each year around January, Chetna brings a little bit of the Mann taluka to Mumbai through their annual exhibition that celebrates their culture, food and products. This time, more than 20,000 people attended the exhibition held recently at Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi and met up with the 90 phenomenal rural entrepreneurs selling their wares. As I walked around with my friend the artist Durga Gawde, we chatted with friendly farmers in Marathi and bought many yummy items like pulses, jaggery, dry fruits, atta, pickles, and fresh vegetables. It was cool to see how the khakhras they were selling had exotic flavours like gobi-Manchurian! I have never seen this flavour before even in Mumbai stores, but I’m sure they will soon catch up.

Given that hipster farmers markets in Bandra have become the norm, I was pleased to see the Mann Deshi mahotsav get a very good response from our city’s stylish set. I shared a mouth-watering dahi-pohe lunch with star architect Kapil Gupta and as I walked about laden with bags on each shoulder and two in each hand, Bungalow Eight’s Maithili Ahluwalia walked in. Knowing her, I knew that it was going to be a rather good day of shopping for her too! I also loved watching the bara balutedars, or local artisans, and their live demonstrations at the fair. You could make your own clay pot or wooden belan, learn to tie a turban, or just watch as cobblers, blacksmiths and weavers displayed their skills. I did all of these! Kantaben the blacksmith was my absolute favourite. The tools she made were extraordinary — anywhere in Europe or the US they would easily go for 1,000 dollars a pop — but here they were being sold for a ridiculously cheap 1,000 rupees or so. Such is life.

The second woman I want to tell you about in this column, dear readers, is Anjali Lama, the first transgender model to walk at Lakmé Fashion Week. Anjali made history last LFW season and news of her walking was written about all over the world but she had never really spoken about her journey from Nepal to India and from anonymity to superstardom before. So it was a coup to have her on my panel at Queer Fashion Now — the collaborative multimedia installation and event organised by Verve, LFW and Godrej India Culture Lab.

At our panel, Anjali really opened up about her struggle. She told us about the countless rejections at each step of the way, and how she made it through the LFW auditions only on the third attempt. She shared with us that even after all this success and acclaim, life as a professional model in Mumbai is a struggle. If you are transgender — or different in any way — even something as basic as getting a home on rent becomes a Herculean task. Anjali has chosen to fight this big struggle bravely and wants to pave a path for others to follow. She received a standing ovation, and rightfully so. She is my queer superhero.

Gautam Vazirani has been doing so much good through LFW’s commitment to sustainable and indigenous fashion. But how can a society be sustainable when it excludes people from its midst based on something as basic as their gender or who they choose to love? I am glad that Gautam committed from the conversation on our platform that LFW would do more and more over the years to explore the intersection of gender and sexuality through both their programming on the ramp as well as initiatives off the ramp. I feel that this kind of commitment is exactly what we need as we celebrate the 10th year of pride. Intersectionality is the need of the hour. Different organisations coming together to fight for equality, and different struggles recognising their common purpose will bring about a more just and equitable society.

Our joint event comprised an installation as well as the conversation. The installation displayed six young designers who are expressing queerness through their work. Kaleekal by Alan Alexander, Bobo Calcutta by Ayushman Mitra, Two Point Two by Anvita Sharma and Asit Barik, Anaam by Sumiran Kabir Sharma, The Pot Plant by Resham Karmchandani and Sanya Suri, and Kristy De Cunha. It was interesting to see how gender-fluid most of the garments were, and the designers told us that they were getting orders galore. Clearly, both the designers and consumers of the future are looking beyond gender binaries and the folks who are not recognising this huge shift in the new Indian mindset are really like ostriches which have their heads buried in the sand! Wake up, folks. #TimesUp.

Our Queer Fashion Now event was preceded by a pop-up and Kashish LGBT film festival and followed by a grand closing performance by Dancing Queens, India’s leading transgender dance group. And by the time you read this, about 20,000 people will have marched in the Mumbai Pride March for the constitutional right to equality that we are all guaranteed. I hope that this will have included some of you, dear readers.

I want to end with a big shout-out to another inspiring woman — Nandi Shah, who is, in her own way, creating a small revolution out of Chennai — a food revolution. Her cult blog Indulge at Restore is something that all food lovers across the world follow. Her rich Tamil Nadu upbringing, her Gujarati heritage, her training in macrobiotics and her love of travel all come together in her stories and recipes on the blog and the accompanying Instagram account. As I read her last blog post, the way she lovingly talks about tradition — about making chakara pongal using millets instead of rice — I am transported instantly to Chetna Sinha’s Mann taluka in Maharashtra. I am glad that we have such custodians of our culture — both in rural and urban India. I was lucky to visit Nandi’s home studio in Chennai on a recent visit and I devoured her almond cake in just two bites. This Valentine’s Day — I urge you — to look around. I have told you about just three — but I am sure if each of you look around you will find three, 30, 300 women that you know, who are creating a better world for all of us — a world that is full of love and goodness.


*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder that appears in Verve magazine each month.