A nation-wide beauty pageant has painted a prettier image of india's hijras.
Backstage was all your average pageant stuff. Talcum powder, stray sequins and nervous laughter filled the musty dressing room air. Contestants calmed one another while adjusting their hair and bra straps. "Don't worry, na," one contestant cooed. "You're a beautiful woman, the audience will love you."
The venue may have been a lavish Mumbai five star hotel, and the contestants as ravishing as any Bollywood starlet, but the watchful gaze of Lord Ardhanarishwar – in the form of a kaleidoscopic effigy looming over the stage – reminded everyone how unique this event really was.
Just as the statue of Ardhanarishwar represented the synthesis of masculine and feminine energies, one could say that the pageant did the same. While all the contestants identified as female, most were biologically male. These dolled-up hopefuls were hijras, members of India's third gender, competing in the country's first transgender beauty pageant held earlier this year.
"Indian Super Queen," organized by hijra personality Laxmi Narayan Tripathi and sponsored by business conglomerate V-Care, was no modest affair. Auditions were held in ten Indian locations, from Mumbai to Manipur and judging the final round were Bollywood actresses Zeenat Aman and Celina Jaitley. Contestants participated in personality development seminars and were given nutritional advice.
When the first contestant hit the ramp, she dazzled the audience. Her hair and makeup were flawless, the red sari accentuated feminine curves and her strut was confident. The same held true for the other 15 finalists. In their moment onstage, one could forget the negative stereotypes often associated with India's hijra community. They were resplendent, poised, unfettered – in short, they were stars in their own right.
"This is a dream come true," exclaimed one hijra during the question-answer round. "This is a platform we have never seen before in our community. It gives us a chance to show [mainstream] society that we too can look beautiful."
Laxmi, who goes by her first name, agreed that this was a primary aim of the competition.
"I have been working as an activist for the community for many years now. At the end of the day, what is activism but creating new spaces for people to shine? This pageant has helped the girls become much more confident, which is more than I could have ever asked for."
Perhaps the largest difference between the "Indian Super Queen" and a standard beauty pageant was the emphasis on community. Throughout the competition, contestants were asked how they would use the title to help uplift fellow hijras. When the top five finalists were chosen, the remaining contestants were asked to remain on stage. "Everyone stay put!" instructed Laxmi, as a new layer of confetti coated the ramp. "We are all in this together, and even though the judges have to choose a winner, you have all made it so far."
This level of kinship runs deep. Having been marginalized for centuries, the hijra community has responded by creating a parallel society. They live in matriarchal households headed by nayaks who, among other things, appoint gurus. When new hijras enter the community, they are assigned to a guru through whom they learn all there is to know about hijra life.
"My guru taught me how to cook, how to dress, and how to act," says Santoshi Gauri, 39, of her time as a chela or disciple. "Without her, I wouldn't be standing here today."
Over time, chelas become like sisters, gurus like mothers, and nayaks their grandmothers.
"Many hijras were either kicked out or ran away from home at a young age, so you can imagine how difficult life would be without a strong support network," explains hijra activist Gauri Kanchana. "Of course, we have disagreements from time to time, and some people rebel against the hierarchy entirely. But the important thing is that for better or for worse, we're bound to each other like family."