Welcome to Mumbai. Mumbai is India’s largest commercial center and most populous city, home to some 20.5 million denizens, though the number is likely to be much higher if you include the dense city slums. It is the fourth largest city in the world, and attracts immigrants from all over South and Central Asia. That, combined with the city’s tropical climate, makes it the true melting pot of India.
Aside from contracting some unbearable allergies, I’ve been transitioning to Mumbai pretty smoothly. Work has, thankfully, distracted me from the lethargy indirectly caused by my incredibly powerful allergy medicines. There has also been a lot of excitement in the air (and loud noises in general) due to Navratri, one of Mumbai’s largest religious festivals celebrating the nine forms of the Hindu Mother Goddess Devi. Mumbai, which was renamed in 1996 from “Bombay”, derives its name from the Goddess Mumbadevi. So, you can imagine how important Navratri is for Hindu city dwellers. On Sunday, I saw the queue (the Indian word for ‘line’) to the Mahalaxmi Temple extend (I kid you not) over 1 kilometer! It was the longest line I have ever seen anywhere–even longer than what I had seen two weeks earlier at a West Hollywood Apple store for the launch of the iPhone 5.
Incidentally, Navratri also happens to be an an auspicious period of time for the transgender and Hijra communities, who celebrate and worship the Mother Goddess. It was probably no coincidence, then, that I found myself en route to film record a dance audition and concert held by India’s premier transgender dance contingent, the “Dancing Queens”. The Dancing Queens were looking to expand their membership in order to prepare for two important events in December. Its founder and chair, Abheena Aher, had organized two nights of auditions, and invited me along to record them.
The audition was hosted by The Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based NGO (non-governmental organization) devoted to HIV/AIDS research and education within the MSM community. In South Asia, the initials “MSM” refer to “Men who have Sex with Men”, though does not necessarily preclude self-identified transgenders, Hijras, or who identify as those who are male-to-female transsexual. The term emphasizes the act of sex, and not personal identification, which is a strategic way to skirt common LGBTQ nomenclature to encompass men who may not necessarily identify as gay, but who nonetheless engage in sex with members of the same sex. According to NGOs who work within this community, this is a very large population.
In Mumbai, I am working within the LGBTQ communities, with an emphasis on those whose sexuality and gender identity is consciously incorporated into the larger fabric of their lives. For these individuals, being LGBTQ means not only that you personally identify as such, but that you belong to a community that celebrates what it means to be LGBTQ. Since the 2009 decriminalization of homosexual acts (a 200 year-old law known as ‘Section 377’), LGBTQ communities in India have been enjoying this newfound freedom of expression, and exercising their rights to the utmost.
The Dancing Queens was formed at the start of this movement, through a joint initiative between The Humsafar Trust and the Queer Azaadi March (‘azaadi’ means ‘freedom’). It was originally started as a means of raising money for their pride march, but later became a permanent fixture for the transgender community. According to Abheena, dance is a very natural art form in the community, and, the “best way we can contribute to our community and mobilize the masses”.
Dancing is an important form of expression for transgenders and Hijras, in particular, who sometimes earn their living through dance. For many, especially those who were classically trained, dance is central to their identity formation and self-esteem. Urmi Jadhav, a transgender activist and dancer, says that “Many people are blind to our good qualities. Dancing Queens shows them that we have many talents… It is how we show society what we are all about”.
The Dancing Queens auditions were put on in quite the same manner as, say, Indian Idol. The judge panel, including Abheena, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (Big Boss contestant and transgender activist), and Pallav Patankar (chief administrator at The Humsafar Trust), delivered constructive (and spicy) comments after each of the performances.
There were 15 contestants in all. Many of them were dressed in stunning Lavani folk and classical Kathak costumes. While all of them performed beautifully (12 out of the 15 made it into the dance troupe), my favorite dances came from both Abheena and Laxmi themselves, who spontaneously capped off the evening with energetic variations of Kathak dance to well-known Bollywood tunes. While you won’t be able to sing along to the pieces for copyright reasons, you’ll be able to watch parts of their dances in the video I made of the evening.
Throughout my nine months in Mumbai, I’ll be following the Dancing Queens to their concerts. I’ll also be paying visits to Laxmi, who has a whole other dance world of her own, and featuring some incredible performances from local lesbian and gay musicians and performers. So, if you like what you see here so far, stay tuned for more.