50-year-old Shalini is a software engineer, working at a Bangalore-based IT company. On January 18th, she took off from work to attend an event. A special event where she walked the ramp. Well, what was so special about the event? It was the auditions of the Bangalore leg of ‘Indian Super Queen’, claimed to be India’s first ever hunt for the most talented transgender.
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Yes, Shalini is a transgender. A cross-dresser, to be specific. “I’m participating just for fun”, she says, dressed in an elegant black saree, black halter and a clutch to match. “This is just one of my 1100 sarees”, she adds, laughing. In the ‘regular’ world including her workplace, Shalini is a male. She is married and has two children, a 15-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Her family is aware of her identity. “My daughter wanted to come for the event today. I said no”, she says, casually.
Mrinalini Saxena, all of 35, is also a cross-dresser. But unlike Shalini, her family and colleagues are unaware of her cross-dressing ways. “I have done my MBA. I work with a software company here. I am married and have a kid”, she says. Ask her why she hasn’t told her family about her identity, she says, “I don’t see the point of telling them now. I should have told them ten years ago”.
Shalini and Mrinalini were among over 15 transgenders who participated in this one-of-a-kind event. The contest is being held across eleven cities. Three winners will be chosen from each city, after which they will undergo rigorous training for the semi-finals and finals, slated to be held next month in New Delhi.
Says Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a hijra, "The purpose of this event is to bring out hijras from the closet they are hiding in. I want the bureaucracy of India to look at these people with dignity". Laxmi has been travelling across the country with her media company Twelve Noon Entertainment hunting for talented transgenders. She is also the founder-member of APTN – Asia Pacific Transgender Network.
This contest is being sponsored by business conglomerate VCare International. Sunil Saldanha, Managing Director, Vcare Group of Companies, said, “I believe that we always think that hijras/transgenders should be given a chance but never take the initiative ourselves. I met Laxmi and felt that something should be done for them and when we discussed, this idea came up and felt this was the chance and went ahead with it”.
On their website, Vcare describes itself as having diversified operations in agro-products, healthcare, schools, broadcasting, marketing, IT solutions, travels, real estate, and more.
The event saw each of the contestants dressed in their best, walking the ramp, introducing themselves and then answering questions from the judges. Laxmi, Akkai from Sangama (a Bangalore-based sexuality minority human rights organisation) and Joshua Nuywai of Bangalore-based Time Out magazine were the judges. The pageant had no defined rules and the contestants could speak in the language they were comfortable in. Contestants were judged on their confidence and speaking ability. At the start of the event, the judges explicitly stated that the contest was not a beauty pageant, but a platform for the transgender community to come out and be themselves.
Says Zara, one of the contestants, “I’m happy to be here. This is the first time it has ever happened in India”. During the question-answer round, when asked what was the one thing she would like to abolish with regard to society’s views towards the transgender community, she said, “Discrimination is what I want to abolish. We breathe the same oxygen and breathe out the same carbon dioxide. Actually I’m a little more special than all of you”.
Most of the contestants also nursed the dream of making it big in the modeling world. “I want to be a model”, said Monisha, a hijra. On asked what she would do if she became the President of India one day, she said, “Firstly, I will do good things for our community people. I will speak to the police and ask them not to harass the hijras. I also want to give the community an opportunity to act in films”. She, however, also felt that the community should not give leeway for the police to behave the way they do.
Dasarahalli-based Meghna also felt that this event was an opportunity for her to showcase her talent. “We don’t get any opportunity anywhere outside. This is the stage for us”, she says, adding, “We are not just into sex work or begging. We also have the capacity to do more”. Meghna works with Samara, an NGO. Dressed in a skirt and blouse, she says she spent about Rs 2000 for the event, shopping at Commercial Street and Brigade Road.
Another contestant, Yaana, a hijra, was applauded at the event for coming out and saying, “I am a sex worker”, while introducing herself. Yaana is also a social worker and loves to dance.
Most of the contestants also saw this event as a platform to voice their opinion about the lack of opportunities for members of their community. Saldanha of Vcare Group of Companies says, "There are many people (among the transgender community) who are shrewd, talented and educated. We want to groom them and give them jobs in administration".
The winners of the Bangalore leg were Natasha, Tanushree, Monisha and Zara, who will now go to New Delhi to prepare for the semi-finals. The winners of the ‘Indian Super Queen’ contest will receive cash prizes of Rs 10 lakhs, Rs 8 lakhs and Rs 5 lakhs for the first, second and third place respectively.