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Framed
June 23, 2017

A Thought-Provoking Narrative Of The Transgender Community In Bhopal

Text by Wyanet Vaz. Photographed by Akshay Mahajan

Almost two decades into the millennium, the marginalised kinnar community in central India is still fighting for equality and its place in society…

His work, relevant to the cultural and social fabric of India, focuses on the local ethos and identity. A chance encounter led Akshay Mahajan to the kinnars in Bhopal — and the immense impact this community has on classical dance, theatre and music. The lensman shares his new and immersive visual perspective with Verve….

What brought this community to your attention?
I was working on a story that chronicled the love affair between Sanjana, a young intelligent transgender who worked in an NGO, and Shadab, a truck driver, in Bhopal. During my time there I was introduced to the kinnars in the area. They narrated to me an old fable about a devastating drought that threatened the city of Bhopal. Fearing tragedy, the begum and her sisters took out a procession from the masjid to the temple, carrying saplings of millet on their heads. They danced and the rain gods obliged. Since then, every August they dress in their finest, and walk the same route. They rued that they would only have pictures taken when they could afford to pay for a shoot at a local studio. So I decided to take the studio to them.

Describe your experience shooting with them.
I loved how the poses referenced Indian classical and semiclassical dance. The subtle hand gestures, the kohl-rimmed eyes and hip movements are reminiscent of the mujras performed by generations of tawaifs (courtesans). For a moment I felt like I was in the Bhopali version of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Among the queens, who has left a lasting impact on you?
Ruksanna begum is a favourite. Posing in a performative manner for the camera, she would say, “Call me Roxy…my friends call me Roxy!” She used her colour-coordinated umbrella as a prop. Ruksanna is from Budhwara where she lives with her fellow kinnars.

What was the motive behind capturing this community on camera?
The existence of ethnic transgender groups in India shows that we have a long and rich history of accepting of sexuality in all its forms. But the number of assaults, rapes and murders of hijras are much higher than other elements of society, and employment is often limited to begging or sex work. I am hoping to show the community in a modern light and celebrate them for who they are, in the hope that they will soon be accepted as part of mainstream society.

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