India’s most successful transgender dance troupe on how they battled discrimination
art and culture Updated: Dec 10, 2015 18:43 IST
The year 2014 was pivotal for the hijra community in India. After existing on the fringes of society for centuries, the Supreme Court passed an order recognising them as an official third gender. But for India’s most popular transgender dance group — Dancing Queens — the law matters little. They had already established their identity in 2010 when they came on stage at Damodar Hall in Parel and gave a sizzling Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon-themed performance.
They danced for hours to the Bollywood diva’s songs and the conservative auditorium in the heart of Mumbai erupted with applause and hoots. For the founders — Abhina Aher, Urmi Jadhav and Madhuri Sarode — that night gave them their biggest victory yet: their individuality.
Name and fame
“Dancing Queens gave me the strength to come in front of mainstream society as what I am, and get acceptance through my talent,” says Aher. A post-graduate in social work and a software engineer, Aher is the national programmer manager with India HIV/AIDS Alliance and heads the Asia Pacific Transgender Network. “Dance initially helped me come close to my mother, who is a Kathak dancer, and help her overcome her inhibitions to dance with transgender dancers,” says Aher.
Sarode owes her very name to Dancing Queens: “I am Madhuri Dixit’s biggest fan, and I used to perform to her songs. So, that’s the name I was given by my audience.” She adds shyly that her fans call her “our community’s Madhuri Dixit”.
Jadhav, too, struggled before she became part of Dancing Queens. “When I was little, I used to cross-dress and perform in our chawl. Whenever I used to watch a heroine dancing on screen, I used to relate with her more than myself as a boy. People now don’t need to be told who I am; through Dancing Queens, they know me well.”
The trio has carved a niche for themselves thanks to this platform. But their journey started when they joined the Humsafar Trust in the early noughties. Around 2002, they became friends while working together.
“Before we joined, we used to only cross-dress for functions because we liked to dance. We were unsure of who or what we are,” recalls Sarode, who trained in Kathak under the tutelage of Guru Girish Pardesi. “But when we joined Humsafar, we understood what LGBTQ is and what various categories mean. We were unsure of where we fit in that world. It is only over time and through massive introspection that we have realised that we fall in the T (transgender) category,” says Sarode, who acquired a new identity and stopped cross-dressing. In the bargain, though, she lost her guru. “Now that I am a full transgender, I can no longer dance with him and the troupe. But I visit him often,” she says.
Dancing Queens was initially established to push the envelope of the Maharashtrian dance form of lavani. Their original avatar, Natle Tumcha Saathi, was a troupe performing lavani shows in urban and rural communities across Maharashtra. People would come in scores to watch them perform.
But Jadhav says something was amiss. “We were doing what any other lavani performer would do. There were straight women, another group of straight men who would cross-dress to perform, and there was us. People would be confused, not knowing how to define us. For us to be able to make a difference, we needed to do something that defined us.”
Echoes Sarode, “We wanted to do other styles — like mujra, Bollywood, cabaret and kathak — something that celebrated the hijra love for dance. People in the community call us ‘queen’, so we thought we should be Dancing Queens.”
Their first few shows were a hit. Dancing Queens has also been performing a fundraiser for Queer Azadi’s annual Pride Walk and at the Gulaabi Mela. Over the years, their performances have gotten grander. Today, they are a well-established troupe of 25 dancers, choreographers, make-up artists, stylists and stage managers. But the journey has not been easy.
Jump over hurdles
Aher recounts, “Sustaining the performances was a challenge since it required a lot of money. I used to sell my gold or take a loan from my mother to do shows and was in huge debt. The dancers gave small amounts to organise shows in theatres. We used to perform sometimes for money and sometimes for none.”
Discrimination and molestation was another challenge they braved. “During one of our performances, a transphobic crowd threw pebbles at us. Another time, one of the dancers was molested by the organisers. But those experiences made our commitment stronger,” says an undeterred Aher.
Aside from performances, Dancing Queens’s biggest mandate is empowerment of the community. “We have started a campaign called Job with Dignity, under which we intend to initiate entrepreneurship where transgenders can employ others from the community to make them financially independent. It could involve initiatives such as beauty parlours or a garment factory. We are in the process of organising Dancing Queens as a trust that can provide shelter to needy transgender people,” says Aher.
Their biggest show has been the one that was held for the top management of Godrej Industries at the India Culture Lab last month. “People do not realise that even in a corporate culture, we face a lot of discrimination. The fact that one of the biggest organisations in India wanted to watch us perform was a big step up,” says Sarode.
What: Dancing Queens will perform on December 20, 8.30pm onward as part of the Hive Community Festival
Where: The Hive, Huma Mansion, Chuim Village Road, Khar (W)
Call: 96199 62969
Tickets: Rs 500 on bookmyshow.com