The artistry of ‘hijra’ music

Despite being known for their singing and dancing, their musicianship has never been taken seriously


The hijras usually present badhais or songs of felicitation. Photo: Arko Datta/Reuters
The hijras usually present badhais or songs of felicitation. Photo: Arko Datta/Reuters

Hierarchical structures exist, flourish and are evident in many segments of Indian society. In the world of music too, hierarchies have existed, with some amount of restructuring and reorganizing in response to changes that are inevitable with the passage of time. Among some of the most marginalized of communities that have conventionally been professionally associated with singing and dancing is possibly the hijra community of transgender individuals. Although references to hijras in India date back several centuries, it is in the early part of the 19th century that they are mentioned as performers who sing and dance at auspicious occasions like weddings, the birth of a child, or trade-related events like the opening of a new store. Sadly, despite being associated with music and dance, hijras, khusras or pavaiyaas, different sociocultural communities of transgender individuals, have rarely been considered true “artistes” by practitioners of classical music and dance.

Scholar Kira Hall cites John Shortt from an 1873 report on “eunuchs”, as they were then called, as saying, “They go about the bazaars in groups of half-a-dozen or more singing songs with the hope of receiving a trifle. They are not only persistent but impudent beggars, rude and vulgar in the extreme, singing filthy, obscene, and abusive songs to compel the bazaarmen to give them something.” This description in many ways matches the experience many of us may have had of hijras who descend in groups at weddings and other festivities singing raucous and sometimes vulgar songs to the accompaniment of a dholak. The music of the hijras therefore may not consist of tracks you might like to download to your favourite playlist.

The hijras usually present badhais or songs of felicitation that “…serve as performative blessings of fertility and financial prosperity for willing patrons…”, in the words of Jeff Roy, a lecturer at the department of ethnomusicology at the University of California, US. Roy explains (in his paper titled “The Dancing Queens: Negotiating Hijra Pehchān From India’s Streets Onto The Global Stage”) that when singing badhai songs, the hijras invoke the blessings of the goddess Bahuchara Mata, a deity whose main shrine is situated in Bechraji town in Gujarat. Roy shares the following video recording of a typical badhai song invoking Bahuchara Mata.

The line “gale mean aan samaao re” in this badhai urges the goddess to inhabit the hijra singer’s voice such that her divine benediction may be passed on to the patron.

Roy’s study offers valuable information on a variety of subjects related to hijra culture, including the manner in which earnings are shared by badhai performers. In some cases, the lead singers retain double the amount received by other members of the troupe, while others share the earnings equally. His research also reveals that as the custom of badhai itself becomes redundant in a changing society, the hijras are finding other means of supporting themselves. Some abandon music and dance altogether as a means of livelihood, to take up jobs with non-profits and other organizations. Others retain connections with hijra culture while earning a livelihood through full-time jobs.

In north India, the music of the hijras has usually not been taken seriously. Perhaps one of the reasons for this could be that few attempts have been made by them to acquire training or improve the quality of musicianship. Recently, attempts have been made to market a transgender band called the Six Pack Band through a series of tracks with accompanying music videos that feature a variety of celebrity singers, including Sonu Nigam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. But despite its apparent and admirable attempt at inclusiveness, the music component remains bereft of any major contribution by the transgender band. They dance, rap a little, appear in the video, but the singing remains minimal. In contrast, prominent Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna’s collaboration with five Jogappas, members of a traditional community of trans women musicians, remains deeply respectful of the music of the community. But will the Jogappas themselves ever find an audience, without the magic of Krishna’s presence? The answer would probably lie in our own willingness to accept the transgender community and their music for what it is, or reject it as we have in the past.

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

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