What Lies at the End of the Rainbow: the story of Vannamʼs growth

“Vannam was the first thing I chose in insti for myself, you know…. everything else I chose had a career oriented purpose…. Vannam I chose for myself… And because itʼs something Iʼve done for myself – and watching it grow, itʼll always hold such a special place in my heart,ˮ – an outgoing vertical head
Organisers of the Vanavil festival pictured with Prof. V Kamakoti

A place for sharing art and poetry. A collective to celebrate self expression. A space where one can speak about their experiences without the fear of judgement. All these are phrases that have been used by the community that calls Vannamʼs weekly CLT foyer meets home.

The story of Vannamʼs growth, especially over the last year, is touching. It isnʼt easy for a body to go in the span of four years from a closed community that met quietly and in apprehension of the price paid for association to a group that can meet openly in public places like HSB. This progress is showcased by the flurry of events over the last year – movie screenings, karaoke nights, a queer prom, a P&G and admin-supported Pride festival Vanavil, and, after many years in the making, instiʼs first Pride March on 9th September 2023.

Vannam had existed for years before the abrogation of Article 377, primarily spearheaded by a group of forty-five committed individuals keeping the community alive. They strived to create a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people in insti to help them shoulder the burden of existing as a queer individual in an unwelcoming space. The group met impromptu and quietly due to the stigma of being associated with the body – a sharp contrast to the weekly agendas and regularly scheduled meets over the last year. What has remained constant is that people can come to meetings and talk about absolutely anything under the sun, share compositions, and art, or play the occasional game of Antakshari.

Sometime in 2021, the Vannam heads had the realisation that if they were to succeed in their goals of spreading visibility and awareness – not to mention growing the space that was a refuge to many – they would have to adopt a formal organisational structure. So, after a few weeks of conferring with a pan-India panel comprising different college-based queer collectives, a mission statement and charter was drawn up, primarily inspired by Saathi from IIT Bombay. The statement was then submitted to the DOST, and after a moment of bated breath, it was approved – Vannam had finally become an ISB (Independent Student Body). Since then, Vannam has, in turn, helped and supported fledgling queer collectives across different colleges in India, a testimony to the power of solidarity. 

Since 2021, the organisation has burgeoned. It has grown in its community of allies and queer-identifying people, and in the range of events conducted.

One of the new initiatives that have been implemented is Vannathirai. Each month, a film is picked with careful precision, one that celebrates queer lives and offers validation to queer student watchers. Different dimensions of existing as a queer individual are represented on the big screen. Each film screening is followed by a discussion with the attendees, sparking lively debate and kind commiserations. This initiative has gone beyond Vannam’s traditional following and acted as a way to sensitise a wider audience. Another such initiative was Radio Gay Gay, a karaoke night. As a former team member reports, the event initially began awkwardly but morphed into a success as people let loose and engaged in the communal pleasures of singing together as a group.

Vanavil, too, was a standout event this year. Advertised as Vannam’s flagship queer fest, it took place between March 1st and 3rd, 2024. Despite frustrations at the event being postponed three times, the team finally pulled through. The initiative largely came about as a result of sponsorship from Procter & Gamble’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) fund. The institute director himself came to the event, signifying the official institute recognition the team had gained. Vanavil featured a movie screening along with its director Jeo Baby, as well as a range of panels on queer issues. On a more creative note, arts and crafts sessions and a fashion walk were conducted, providing outlets for self-expression. Several of the keynote speakers were high-profile advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community, whom many had come to hear; this marked the success of the event with good participation from both within IITM and external groups.

The last event of the tenure was Queer Prom, and as people slow-danced in the classrooms of HSB, it served as a fitting end to a busy year. Of course, one can only talk about Vannam’s activities this year if talking about the feather in its rainbow cap: Insti Pride March.

“It was incredible that it (Pride March) happenedˮ – a team member, reminiscing.

Pride March was something that was several tenures in the planning. It had been initially envisioned as far back as 2019, but negotiations with the administration proved unfruitful. The Vannam team did not drop the idea, though, and four years later, they finally achieved their goal when the request for an Insti Pride March was finally granted.

It was a difficult task for the team to pull off the march. There were constant fears and worries amidst the teams that interlopers would ruin the event, or participants would face harassment during the march. Yet the team persevered, hoping things would work out in the end, smoothing out the various moving parts of organising a large-scale event.

As team members tell me, one fun aspect was the process of making the flags to represent several orientations. Be it stitching from old blouses or using balls of yarn, the flags and the placards emerged over several sittings from the beginning of the semester. They would be front and centre in days to come.

Another endeavour that acted as a lightning rod for the team’s creative energies was the flurry of reels that emerged and made the waves on Instagram. Whether running around Insti with a pride flag or elaborately choreographed dance sequences, the Vannam social media offered an inside look into the Pride March. As the final security arrangements were getting sorted out, the team had to wait and hope things would go smoothly.

On the 9th of September, 2023, their efforts came to fruition. The event welcomed around 200 participants, with a diverse range of participation – notably several B.Tech students, a demographic otherwise sparse at Vannam meets. Many participants afterward reported feeling affirmed and overwhelmed with positive emotions. 

Of course, this was with its challenges. Insti can be a stressful place, and involvement in organisations like Vannam comes at the cost of doing other things that could be “resume points”. Moreover, there has always been a price that one pays for associating with Vannam – be it attending meets or the mere act of being part of the WhatsApp Group. As community members reveal, this price has percolated several aspects of insti life, from disparaging questions from classmates to the scale of affecting Institute Elections. Former allies of the movement who have stood for elections have paid the price for this association.

Several unsavoury incidents include queerphobic replies to almost every post and email that is sent out, as well as examples of Vannam members being followed and harassed for their participation and hecklers during film screenings. All these incidents are exacerbated if the person in question comes from the B.Tech majority of the student body. A former member reveals, “You are made to feel bad for being a part of this.” B.Tech students, unlike their MA counterparts in the HS department, face higher barriers of social ostracisation, something that keeps many B.Tech students from being a part of Vannam. This poses an existential threat to the organisation, with the recently announced conclusion of the BA program for Humanities students, as the team must now reconcile how to increase awareness among the STEM students while still preserving the ideal of a safe space for the community.

But as a former member tells me with a wry smile, “Even for every 100 hate comments, if there is one person in insti whose life we are able to make a difference in, we’ll fight for that.” 

The community is confident they can keep doing just that. Vannam has provided a safe space for queer people on campus, and by all accounts, they are just getting started.

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