They play a part
The transgender community in Manipur has far more social acceptance than their counterparts in most parts of the country
Community plays or Sumang Kumhei are a popular means of local entertainment for the Meiteis of Manipur. The lead roles in these plays are obviously coveted. Baneshwar, who plays the role of a tribal heroine in one such popular play, is a transgender. He is no exception though. In Manipur, women’s roles in community plays are mostly played by transgenders.
Unlike many parts of India, transgenders hardly face social discrimination in the north-eastern State. Not just in community plays, the contribution of the transgenders in the State in the field of arts, fashion and beauty is considerable and has a very few parallel anywhere in the country. Except for a handful, most transgenders lead a normal life. Some even have children. Take Baneshwar, for instance. He has such a fandom for the roles he plays that two girls fell in love with him and both wanted to marry him. With a smile he says, “I married them one after another in quick succession.” Like him, most play the role of women during community plays and cultural activities.
These artistes are also much sought after in other states. Tomba, an accomplished play actor, heartily relates that somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, an elderly woman could not believe that the beautiful heroine of the play was not a woman and pleaded with Tomba to become her daughter in law. Tomba says that when they take the plays to a new State or a new milieu, most people often don’t believe that some of them will be playing the role of girls in them. “But once we shave and undergo some make-up, there is an instant transformation,” he says.
However, the professional life of a transgender actor who plays the role of a girl can be short compared to other actors. Peter, yet another well-known transgender who plays such roles in the plays, states the reason, “Because there is no dearth of young transgenders inching up their way to fame.” Besides, he adds, “We have to use heavy make-up every day since there are at least three shows at different places on one day. These creams, powders and other items affect our skin and many of them develop crow's feet at a very early age.”
Like Sanamacha, the celebrated dancer and singer, almost all of them captivate the hearts of the audience. They are also much coveted during the folk dance Thanbal Chongba, performed in the State during Holi. Transgenders lead the dance for about two hours before boys are allowed to join the celebrations.
Interestingly, since many transgenders are way more talented than many other actors including the local films, there is a genuine fear among small time actors that they will be elbowed out of the ring. So some time ago, the small time actors of digital films, a popular medium in Manipur, came up with an unwritten law that transgenders will not be allowed to act in the medium. However, in the recent past, some transgenders have made inroads into the medium despite the ban andhave helped producers make windfalls.
Besides acting, transgenders are in high demand in the local beauty industry too. Many of them are expert make-up artistes and run popular beauty salons. They are sought after for weddings and other social functions. In fact, transgenders have monopolised the beauty parlour business in Imphal. Parlours run by transgenders have bookings for several days in advance.
Jennifer, a transgender who runs such a commercially successful beauty parlour in Imphal, says their customers, both college girls and housewives, “have no psychological barrier or inhibition about visiting a parlour run by transgenders.”
Also, for several years now, the transgenders of Manipur have been organising fashion shows and one of a kind beauty contests. Though some transgenders, having failed to earn a decent living, have fallen in bad ways and bringing a bad name to the community, most transgenders maintain the respect people bestow on them for their talent. From an early age, many of them typically show a liking for girly dresses and mannerisms. The society never looks down on such ‘girlie boys’. Though some unlettered parents and siblings force some at times to act otherwise, the spread of education has widened their societal and family acceptance. Many are now given a chance by their families to prove their talent. One such transgender is a medical student in Imphal.
In many remote parts of the State, transgenders also run drinking joints and hotels, say in the border town of Moreh, besides setting up cafes along the national highways.
However, some prominent transgenders are not too happy about their state. They feel that despite their commendable contribution to the society, the government and the people have not given them their due. They point at no job reservation for them. Also, same sex marriage is still a taboo in Manipur. Importantly, not all have still been able to make their sexuality public in a decent manner.
(The names have been changed to protect privacy.)
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Imphal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)