SAC Research Intern and SAC Pulitzer Student Fellow Reflects on Her Time in West Bengal

Siyona Ravi graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2017, where she earned a B.A. in Visual Studies. Her research interests included contemporary art and social movements, and she hopes to further explore the intersections between art, social justice, and education after Penn. In summer 2017 she traveled to India, as a particpant in the SAC Research Internship Program where she worked with  Anandam, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Kothi and Hijra (LGBTKH) organization in Kolkata.  During her time with Anandam she assisted the oganization in the creation of an advocacy video and online media campaign. Siyona was also the South Asia Center Pulitzer Fellow and recently published the article, "Transgender Communities in West Bengal: Navigating Public and Private Spaces," on the Pulizer Center website. Learn more about her experience as a Pulitzer fellow and SAC Research Intern below:

This past summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Kolkata, West Bengal as a SAC intern for Anandam, an LGBTQ branch of the sex workers’ labor union, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). My project was partially funded by the Pulitzer Center for International Reporting, and as a Student Fellow, I was given the opportunity to work with mentors who guided my research along the way. Having just graduated, I wasn’t quite ready to commit to a full year abroad, as most programs I was eligible for required. The timing of the SAC research internship was perfect, in that, following graduation it felt like the most fitting way to delve into what I felt was the culmination of my academic career.

The goal of my project was to make an advocacy film for Anandam about an anti-sodomy law in India that criminalizes the identity (and profession, in the case of sex workers) of queer individuals. With the close guidance and help of my on-site mentor, Dr. Soma Roy, I worked closely with several members of Anandam in what blossomed into a collaborative community advocacy project. I researched the history and context of the law and interviewed lawyers, scholars, activists, and queer community members.  
Some of the most powerful experiences I had were when I was warmly welcomed into the homes of several Anandam members. “Guest is god,” is a Sanskrit saying that runs through Indian culture. Each visit, as they prepared chai for the crew and me, ensuring my comfort through the lengthy interview days, we were told the phrase. It was also incredibly useful to have guidance from the Pulitzer Center, as they provided an external perspective that posed new questions and kept my work balanced.

I’ve traveled abroad for other classes, but interning after graduation really put my entire experience into a different context. My experience this summer expanded my thinking about these issues beyond an academic framework and into my everyday life and career path. The level of preparedness and engagement I felt which was unlike any other time I have traveled for classes. Much of this had to do with my mindset and openness after graduating, but also the ability to be open to the various possible directions of a collaborative project like mine. Today I am continuing to work with Anandam on the advocacy project, and remain in touch with Dr. Soma. Because of my experience this summer, returning to Kolkata to continue this work feels much more attainable, and I hope to do so in the near future.