Being with Others: Language and Ethical Relationality among Thirunangai Transgender Women in Chennai, India

Feb 9, 2021, 12:00 pm12:00 pm
Event Description

The Tamil word ‘Thirunangai’ is currently the most preferred and widely used identity label among transgender women in Chennai. Free of pejorative meanings, indexing linguistic and cultural specificity, eschewing religious connotations, and commanding juridical recognition, ‘Thirunangai’ has had a remarkable uptake as a label of collective self-representation over just the past decade. One of the many pejorative Tamil words that predates such positive linguistic assertion of Tamil trans women’s identity is ‘pottai.’ At once misogynist, transphobic, and homophobic in its wider social uses, this word figures in many trans and queer self-narratives as a term of abuse but also as one of endearment, inclusion, and mutual recognition. T​hrough a close ethnographic attention to the contextual and ethical valences of the word ‘pottai,’ this talk will explore forms of intimacy and solidarity that are considered meaningful in the thirunangai lifeworld. The focus will be on the kinds of ethical labor it takes to attend to the relationships that matter, including the relationship to the self. 

Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a sociocultural anthropologist whose research focuses on the intersections of gender and sexuality, religion, and ethics of relationality and care. He recently completed his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation is an ethnographic study of religious and communal life among a group of thirunangai transgender women in Chennai, India, and it details the place that attachment to goddess Angalamman holds in shaping ethical life for these actors. His research was supported by fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Taraknath Das Foundation, and multiple centers at UT-Austin.

Vasudevan's broader and ongoing interests are towards understanding how people form structures of care outside of traditional forms of family and community; how they commit to such visions of belonging; what rituals, practices, and narratives anchor such visions and commitments; and how such projects of world-making relate to logics of state, capital, and political action. At Princeton, Vasudevan will work on a number of journal articles, an edited volume on queer/trans friendship and intimacy, and a monograph based on his dissertation research. He is also a translator of celebrated works of fiction by Tamil authors Ambai and Perumal Murugan. In fall 2020, he will teach a course in queer anthropology and ethnography. 

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