Ritu is a Mumbai girl brought up in Goregaon and Mira Road. She was born a man but as an adolescent she realized that being in a man’s body did not make her one. Luckily for Ritu, her south Indian parents were supportive and understanding—they didn’t tell her not to dress like a woman and her mother often helps her pick out which sari to wear.
Dancing queens: (clockwise from top left) Contestants getting ready to go on stage; a contestant strikes a pose before the judges; Tripathi, the organizer of the show; the focus was more on the contestants’ moves than their responses in the question-and-answer round. Photographs by Shriya Patil / Mint
Ritu, who loves dancing, became a bar dancer and was one till the ban on dancers in 2005. Recently, she got the chance she had been waiting for—to walk the ramp.
Indian Super Queen, a transgender beauty pageant, was meant to be a way for hijras (eunuchs) to take pride in themselves and show their unity. At first, it smelt like a revolution. For people who had been feared and marginalized for decades, what better way to assert their humanity than by having an in-your-face celebration of their uniqueness?
For Ritu (she auditioned for the contest in New Delhi, not Mumbai), it resulted in learning how to walk the ramp properly. “The way we walked earlier wasn’t the right way. It was what we saw on TV. But we were taught to do it right—walk, turn and make eye contact,” she says. The 23-year-old, who lives with her parents and younger sister, has reached the finals of the contest. Even if she doesn’t win, she says she is happy she could go through the training sessions, learn how to answer questions, walk well and make new friends.
The pageant has been organized by Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, considered an icon by some of the city’s and country’s eunuchs. Tripathi wants the winner to be her heir of sorts, to unite and represent the community, spread awareness about its problems and be a role model. Auditions have taken place in 10 cities and the finale will be in Mumbai on Sunday, where 16 contestants will try their luck. Ritu will be one of them.
Yet, what could have been a meaningful way to raise awareness and cultivate sensitivity hasn’t quite done that.
At the Mumbai audition on 24 January to select semi-finalists, Shabana, elegant in a black salwar-kurta, walked out slowly, with one arm extended. Her eyes were beautifully made-up, but she could not conceal the greenish shadow of stubble on her face. She is part of a Marathi Lavni orchestra and sang for the judges in a beautiful voice. She seemed older than the rest of the girls; almost old-worldly. It was easier to imagine her in an orchestra than on a ramp, though she said she was happy to be there.
Neha, a giggly young contestant, made everyone smile when she joked about the guy whose initials she had tattooed near her heart before he left her.
Runners-up: (from left) Muskaan Bhosale, Nishi Sheikh and Tamanna Sheikh did not make it to the final. Shriya Patil / Mint
Thirty-year-old Tripathi has worked for years to raise awareness about her people. She was the first transgender to represent Asia Pacific in the United Nations general assembly’s president’s office as a Civil Society Task Force member and runs an NGO, Astitva, to support sexual minorities. She’s also a celebrity who has been a contestant on game shows such as Dus Ka Dam and Sach Ka Saamna. Tripathi adores the media and the attention it bestows on her. She’s flamboyant, controversial, funny and titillating. A celebrity fighting for a cause is irresistible to news channels and that applies to Tripathi also—she’s an unofficial spokesperson of sorts for the eunuch community.
The Mumbai audition started a couple of hours late, presumably because the organizers were waiting for more contestants than the six who showed up initially—the figure rose to 20 eventually. The judges included Bollywood actor Nauheed Cyrusi; models/actors Vandana Gupta and Archana Gupta; Rohini Ramnathan, a radio jockey on 93.5 Red FM; Yogesh Bharadwaj, director of Border Hindustan Ka, and social worker S. Gauri, who runs Sakhi for Chowky, an NGO. They were an encouraging, boisterous lot; they saw themselves as enthusiastic cheerleaders rather than discerning judges.
For half an hour till the contestants came in, Tripathi held court, dressed in a red and gold sari and a halter blouse. She entertained the audience with suggestive jokes and witty repartee. Though Tripathi is earnestly trying to make the pageant a success, she seems wistful at the prospect of giving up her throne. “I should not have had this pageant. I should have just crowned myself and declared myself the winner. I am the queen, I don’t want to give it up,” she says. It was an attempt at humour, but it was telling nonetheless.
She walked the ramp to Fashion ka jalwa to show the contestants how it was done. Theatrically twirling, shimmying and blowing kisses, she earned screeches of approval from the judges.
Finally, the contestants took the stage. Some of them, such as Tamanna Sheikh, who was picked as one of the three semi-finalists, had been waiting for this opportunity. “My quest to do a ramp show is over,” she told the judges, after a slow, seductive entrance and come-hither looks at the audience. She was in a short purple tunic with an ornamental maang tikka on her forehead.
She and her friend Nazia Sheikh are social workers at Triveni Samaj Vikas Kendra. Nazia was tall and plump with a pretty face and dressed in a demure bridesmaid’s dress. The duo had been “preparing (for the) catwalk and interview” rounds for the past few days. Many of the contestants were beautiful, and like Thailand’s “ladyboys”, it would be difficult at first to identify them as men.
Tripathi kept making cameo appearances and sometime during the proceedings, she coined the term “hijrotic”. Most of the contestants were eager, but there were a few who didn’t seem so happy to be there. Some said they had been ordered to take part in the contest; others walked the ramp with indifference or extreme nervousness.
Despite Tripathi’s beliefs, the show seemed to be objectifying the very people she was trying to liberate. The question-and- answer round was quick and pointless and the three semi-finalists—Tamanna, Nishi Sheikh and Muskaan Bhosale— were the most flamboyant, but not necessarily the most dedicated to the cause.
Ritu is honest about what she will do if she wins. “I’d like to take part in more contests, enter Bollywood or hopefully do something similar,” she says. She doesn’t want to save India from HIV like some others. Ritu just wants hijras to be respected when they walk on the street.
“This contest has its pros and cons,” says Ashok Row Kavi, one of India’s most prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, founder of Humsafar Trust and editor-in-chief, Bombay Dost. “The real problem transgenders face is violence by the police, stigma and discrimination. The question of self-worth is a different one,” says Kavi, who is also the technical officer, sexual minorities, UNAIDS, Delhi. Tripathi has overcome those problems but other hijras have not. “Laxmi feels she’s made it. She’s involved in film and dance, and she has a disposable income,” says Kavi.
Kavi and Tripathi are friends, but he is also sensitive to voices from the community who are not in favour of the contest. One of them is Sita Kinnar, president of Kinnar Bharti, an NGO she started in 2009. The most important thing for a hijra, according to her is, “Samaj me rehne ka, na ki make-up karke nautanki karna” (To live in society, not apply make-up and put on a show). She says the contest will only benefit the winner, not thousands of repressed hijras.
For Tripathi, her work has just begun if she is still serious about serving her community. What hijras need are workers, not just queen bees.