IN JULY LAST YEAR, twenty-three-year-old Kunal Punekar went shopping for saris, jewellery and cosmetics near his home in Kothrud, an upmarket suburb of Pune. Elsewhere in the city, six other young men did the same. Afterwards, the men, all of them Marathi theatre actors, gathered to discuss the experience at a practice studio. When we met two months ago, Punekar told me the other actors “said they found it awkward to enter the stores.” Punekar, though, had not felt out of place. “I made the purchases matter-of-factly,” he said.
The shopping expeditions were one step in the group’s preparation to act in Hijda, a Marathi play that presents, with pathos and humour, the everyday lives and private traditions of hijras—India’s famed yet often feared transgender people, who traditionally earn a living by dancing at children’s naming ceremonies and weddings. Hijras customarily live in intensely private “family” groups, and are estimated to number at least half a million in India today.
Hijda tells the story of two young men who befriend and join a family of hijras; one of them eventually returns to live with his mother, while the other remains and undergoes nirvani, a surgical procedure to remove his sexual organs. Saggherr Loadhii, the play’s writer and director, said his aim was to address the deep public prejudice against hijras, who are often considered grotesque and less than human, and to express in public “what the hijra community is unable to.” The play premiered in Pune last August, and was shown there fourteen times before a single additional performance in Mumbai in December. The Mumbai show received mixed reviews, but in March Hijda won nine awards at the Maharashtra state theatre awards, including an award for the best director. Loadhii is now in talks for a proper Mumbai tour.