Acting Out

The transgender beauty queens of Manipur

A contestant protests against the Supreme Court’s ruling on section 377 during the 3rd Trans Queen Contest North East. TIKEN THOKCHOM
Elections 2024
01 February, 2014

AT SUNSET ON 13 DECEMBER 2013, most residents of Imphal, the Manipuri capital, retreated behind the locked doors of their homes just as they do every day, leaving the heavily policed streets largely deserted. This is a long-standing habit, a consequence of Manipur’s prolonged armed conflict. But on that December night, over 2,000 people packed into Imphal’s Bheigyachandra Open Air Theatre, where 31 contestants—two from Arunachal Pradesh, one from Meghalaya, and 28 from Manipur—took the stage for the 3rd Trans Queen Contest North East.

Onstage, 24-year-old Rajkumar Nippon, her petite frame draped in a red gown, heard the crowd’s whistles of appreciation and felt an icy winter wind swirling past. After the show, she told me that as she stood there she remembered her father’s words from a decade ago: “Fine, if you insist on being what you say you are, then make sure that you stand out.” Those words of reluctant acceptance, Nippon said, came after years of reprimands and beatings had failed to rid her of the knowledge that she is a woman with a man’s body.

The beauty pageant, an annual solidarity event for the transgender community, was organised by the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMaNA), in partnership with several AIDS-awareness organisations and other groups. Nupi maanbi, loosely translated as “being like a woman”, is the current preferred Manipuri term for male-to-female transgender people. An earlier term, nupi sabi (“behaving like a woman”) can be traced back to the early days of the hugely popular, traditional open-air theatre called Shumang Leela, in which men have played female roles for more than a century.

According to Makhonmani Mongsaba, a theatre activist and writer, until relatively recently Shumang Leela actors did not use “make-up, [apply] rouge or lipsticks to look like females”. Over morning tea in his drawing room, Mongsaba told me that that custom changed in the 1980s when Shumang Leela found itself competing against newer performance forms such as Basok, which features beautiful women singing and dancing in traditional Meitei style. Shumang Leela practitioners found that casting actors perceived to be more feminine brought in larger crowds, and so invited more transgender performers to the stage.

Nupi maanbis are now an integral part of Shumang Leela. Their prominence on stage is an indication of Manipur’s relatively relaxed attitude towards transgender people, allowing them a degree of social acceptance. “Yes, we have a place for us in Manipur, but it is [mostly] within the confines of beauty parlours or HIV/AIDS [work],” said Thangjam Shanta (popularly known as Shanta Khurai), secretary of AMaNA and a transgender herself, when we met in her office. There are still many, she said, who are “school drop-outs, who are sexually exploited, who struggle to hide”.

According to Shanta, beauty pageants are an opportunity for the transgender community to speak up for their rights; the latest pageant, for instance, included a protest against the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Constitution, which criminalises intercourse between men. Transgender pageants are now a regular occurrence in Manipur—the first was organised in 2000, and there have since been about three every year.

Twenty-seven-year-old Huirem Bishesh participated in that first pageant in 2000, when she was barely 14 years old. “I stole out in the night when [my parents] were asleep, just to show them that there is also a place where I was accepted and on equal footing,” she told me one afternoon in January. When she returned home she was beaten and told to behave the way her parents thought boys should. But she refused, and has since won six crowns in transgender beauty contests. Bishesh is now also one of Manipur’s most sought-after Shumang Leela actors, and is well known for being completely open about her sexuality. Unlike her, many nupi maanbis still adopt mannish mannerisms in public, and bow to pressure to marry women and produce children.

Today, Bishesh’s family respects her sexuality, something she says is easier now that she helps provide for them. But doing so as a nupi maanbi is not easy: in addition to her acting, Bishesh also works as a potloi dresser (potloi is the traditional wedding dress of Meitei brides) and runs her own beauty parlour. She knows that outside these occupations, there is little chance of acceptance.

Nippon, though, told me she was happy with her current work as a tailor and a beautician, and was glad to participate in the latest pageant. When the results were announced shortly after midnight on that night in December, she was declared the first runner-up. Shanta admitted that the organisers had been nervous in the days leading up to the event, held only two days after the Supreme Court’s 377 ruling. “We were quite tense but felt that, more than ever, we need to do this,” she said. “This event is for [our] identity.”