Hijda (The Transgender), written and directed by Saggherr Loadhii, an alumnus of the Department of Performing Arts, University of Pune, State of Maharashtra, India. Premiere November 2013.
It is not often that one dares to—or should I more aptly say, cares to—represent the sexual minorities through a performance on the Indian stage. One such play is struggling to wrangle itself free from the censor board in the state of Maharashtra on one hand, and ostracisation from the transgender community it highlights, on the other. The play in mention is Hijda (“The Transgender”), written and directed by young actor/director Saggherr Loadhii at the University of Pune.
The transgender community in India is neither a lost tribe, nor does it show any signs of disappearing into oblivion. Rather, they are important players backstage, their cause being strengthened by the call of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) agenda. They are seen regularly cruising the streets, though the element of fear, in encountering and confronting them, is unanimous. This trepidation, this uneasiness, this tainted image of this community, which is largely a result of ignorance about them, is something the play attempts to clear up. It talks of the human side of these‒as commonly viewed in India‒unwanted and unsavoury members of our society. Not that this play is trying to generate sympathy for the Hijdas, rather it opens a channel of communication and understanding of their existence, skilfully skirting the temptation to be preachy and clichéd, or to indulge in inadvertent advocacy to their cause. It is a story, and a story well told.
Years ago, noted director Waman Kendre, now the Director of the premium theatre teaching institute in India, The National School of Drama, had staged a similar venture, a production called Janeman, to critical approval. It was followed by sporadic and scrawny attempts to portray the transgender people, in scattered productions. But this new play comes with a blast of fresh air and a critical look at the transgender people and their plight, enough to celebrate in the thought that it is audacious enough to come to stage.
There was a sense of apprehension even before the play started. The title of the play Hijda was suggestive enough, but what was in store was uncertain. The curtains were raised to something that came as a complete shocker.
The first thing that hits you is the set. It depicts, realistically, the interiors of the house where the transgender characters reside. Contrary to belief, it could pass as any other family home, with the sitting area, a bed, paintings and pictures on the walls. But two additional things strike you: first, the prayer area, with ‘their’ goddess Murgadevi (a goddess traveling astride a rooster) with all her finery and elaborate decorations. With the Hindu mythology enlisting thirty three core Gods and Goddesses, this one is unique to the transgender community. The second striking thing is the dressing area, where the Hijdas dress and transform themselves from their male bodies into luscious, bejewelled, gaudily dressed females. Later on in the play, a part of the performing space in transformed into the cruising area of the Hijdas, complete with the frequently visited public toilet with its suggestive graffiti and references to shady cruising areas, to complete the picture.
Technically speaking there is no single protagonist in the play, though the story of two young boys being drawn into, and later initiated into, this cult presents itself in a strong undercurrent. It is multilayered, each layer a different story, but each interconnected and ripping to shreds the myopic and malicious outlook of society towards the Hijdas. It is an intricate weaving of stories, which each of the characters carries as a heavy burden within themselves. The larger “blanket” takes us into a journey of their lives before and after. The hierarchy in which their society exists, complete with the presiding eunuch, who controls the community and takes major decisions, followed by the lesser gurus who are in charge of smaller groups of their transgender followers, each being responsible and obedient to the seniors.
The play focuses on highlighting such case studies of the transgender people. It talks of some who are here with a deliberate intent to join the cult; some of them effeminate from childhood, shunned and ridiculed by society, strained by poverty and finally resorting to this lifestyle; some victims of sexual abuse and forced induction into the transgender family. But the underlying pathos of their lives, their initial reluctance to come to terms with their providence, their sorrows of having had to leave their families, their exploitation at the hands of society and their families and then their final acquiescence to their fate, gets one restive. At one end, it evokes a sense of compassion and sympathy, but at the other, anger, putting the blame squarely on their shoulders. The play also introduces us to their rituals as in prayer and invitation to participate in festivities, their daily routine as they solicit clients, the sleaze and muck they have to tolerate as sex workers, their cruising areas and ways of beguiling customers, their predominantly male sex partner (Panti), who looks after them, while satisfying his sexual urges, their emotional and physical rape, their grievances and personal problems.
And woven gently into this fabric are two stories, of two young friends. One, Dimple, effeminate, is all set to step into this world of the Hijdas. He has no inhibitions and is ready to go all out to be a part of the family; be it cruising the streets, having a Panti, undergoing castration (Nirwani), or then getting silicone breast implants. The other, Kiran, has always liked to cross-dress, is attracted towards boys but is confused of his sexual orientation, unsure whether he is gay or transgender. He is introduced to the cult, stays their way for a while after leaving home, walks the streets, but finally realises that this is not the life he craved—something he realises while staying in their ghetto. Fortunate for him, his mother, who had earlier shunned him for his “strange and girlish mannerisms,” accepts his orientation and welcomes him home.
Though this is the canvas that the play paints, it has many undertones that command attention, probably as a result of the ignorance about them. But what is remarkable and calls for a standing ovation is the manner in which the actors have trained themselves to be the eunuchs. Their style of dress and the way they carry themselves, their brash and vulgar talk, their demeanour, their loudness and much more, have been emulated to perfection. Saggherr has made no attempt to iron out the roughness of their language, which adds authenticity and an added bounce to the situations.
There is a strange sense of sensuality in the play. Not the sensuality in the conventional sense of the word, but with a brazenness and carefree attitude. It is titillating but rude and coarse. Each of the situations, compounded by brilliant and suggestive sets, vibrancy and riot of colours in costumes, and a text rich in its insinuations, sketches a realistic picture. This community has a grammar of its own and songs which are sung by the members, something that has been left untouched, adding to the authenticity of this depiction.
I will not make false promises and place the writing of this play on a high mantle, as some contemporary classic, or brag of its direction being flawless, but undoubtedly take cognisance of the sincere efforts put in to bring it to life. There are some glitches in the production, but the brave and bold attempt to take, head on, this scripting, is commendable. Intricate details have been overlooked, but they could be tucked under the carpet. Saggherr Loadhii and his band of actors have shaken the conservative, we-don’t-know-anything-about-such-things society, and rattled a hornet’s nest. What is laudable is the larger picture that emerges and lays bare before us to contemplate, a part of our own society, but one indubitably demeaned, shunned, ostracised.
 Dr Ajay Joshi is a practicing Dentist, with a PhD in theatre criticism, and a Masters in journalism and mass communication, having freelanced with major Indian and international newspaper, magazines and journals on theatre and culture. He has been involved in theatre festivals as media person, organiser, coordinator and jury member. He has translated many Marathi plays into English. He has numerous papers on theatre in national and International seminars to his credit. He is visiting lecturer on theatre and journalism at Symbiosis University, University of Pune and Flame School of Performing Arts. Currently he writes on theatre for Saakal Times, E-Rang and Critical Stages.