Shared Secrets

A play brings the private world of hijras to the public stage

Hijda, which premiered in Pune in August last year, won nine awards at the Maharashtra state theatre awards in March. SUHIT KELKAR
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01 June, 2014

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.

After their shopping trips, Loadhii asked his actors to imagine how they would cope with the derision they could expect if they wore their purchases in public. Santosh Mahadev, a twenty-four-year-old with a degree in dramatics from Pune University, said the group also visited hijras in their homes “to understand their lives and their speech and gestures.” For him, this meant a strong culture shock. “Preparing for the play was the hardest thing I have done,” he said.

Of all the actors, only Punekar seemed to take it all in his stride. For him, the preparations harkened back to a way of life he already had experience with, and had once considered making his own. A few years ago, while working for an NGO in Pune that promotes safe-sex practices among both female and male sex workers, he was introduced to a hijra family by a friend. Punekar—portly, with shoulder-length hair and a subdued manner—said, “Love for dance led me to them.” In 2009, he started dressing as a woman and dancing with hijras during the day, before changing back into menswear to return to his family at night. “I used to tell my parents I was going out with a dance troupe,” he said.

In 2010, the second year of leading this dual life, Punekar shared the truth with his parents, telling them that he was “only doing it for the dancing.” “I did not want to get an operation and become a hijra,” he said. Still, his parents disapproved, and that year Punekar gave up his hijra family. He felt a need to provide for his parents, and in 2011 took a job in Pune’s water supply department. “I am going to keep the job, and take time out for theatre,” he said.

Punekar was reticent about his life inside the secretive hijra community, saying only that their daily life “moved” him. “They were feared and treated as freaks. Nobody would give them a job. They had no options but dancing and sex work,” he told me. Saying more, he said, “could create problems for me.” Not all hijras are as guarded about their private lives: at the Mumbai show, a group of them came to express their solidarity. The community in Pune, however, opposed the play. “They say, you have shown us as kind and caring folk,” Punekar said. “Now people will stop fearing us and won’t give us any money.”