By Shambhavi Saxena:
It’s an understatement to say that trans or gender non-conforming people have it hard in India. The common person’s misunderstandings about their nature and an unhealthy interest in their biology are some of the things they have to deal with on a regular basis, and added to that are hate crimes and violence too.
Rudrani Chettri, a trans woman activist, and director of the Mitr Trust, a community-based organisation for MSM, transgender people and Hijras in Delhi, has had to live through her share of horrific incidents that are all too common for trans people in India.
In the weeks that followed the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to re-criminalise homosexuality in 2013, our fears about an increase in homophobic and transphobic crime were realised. Chettri who was in Shimla at that time, celebrating the New Year with her friends, became the target of vicious police brutality. In 2015, the year for progressive changes in the world, Chettri, this time along with her partner was subjected to an attack by unidentified bikers.
But despite these incidents, and perhaps because of them, the activist and model has decided to do something to end the negative ways in which trans people are seen. Starting with a BitGiving fundraiser, Chettri has announced she will be building India’s very first and exclusive transgender modelling agency.
She said she was inspired by “a feeling of frustration seeing [how] many young beautiful TGs (transgenders) are made to feel ugly from a young age. I was one of them and there was no such option open to me when I was young.”
It’s true that when the average Indian hears the word ‘transgender’, he immediately thinks of those who beg at red lights, or those who do sex work, or sing ‘badhai’ at weddings. In response to that sort of typification, Chettri identified “a desperate desire amongst us to be seen, to be accepted into mainstream society and to get jobs like everyone else.”
But why modelling? Isn’t its tendency of objectification a problem? Chettri agrees that “modelling as a profession focuses on bodies, and the fashion industry may have been guilty of the same,” but the aim of the agency is “to make the community realise that they are beautiful,” she said. “For centuries, we have been made to feel ugly and like aberrations. We chose modelling as it’s a way to be seen and bring in much-needed positivity to our image.”
There are more reasons for this choice. “The fashion and art industries are more accepting of a gender fluid world, and as a whole are very open and gratifying,” she went on to say. “You’ll find many people from the TG community working as makeup artists, choreographers, stylists, and designers.”
But when it comes to modelling itself, cisgender beauty standards still reign supreme. Chettri said, “from what I know there aren’t any open TG models in India. They act as women to get the work.”
For those who want to break the mould society has created for them, this project – for trans people, by trans people – could be a great opportunity. As Chettri told us, “the response [to the project] is overwhelming. The younger members of the TG and Hijra community are very excited.” Though the focus, she explained, was more on Delhi, “TGs from all over the country are welcome to audition.” And that includes trans men!
The team has received 70 applications since the campaign went online, but it wasn’t easy getting to this point. They had to enlist the help of noted fashion stylist and image consultant, Rishi Raj.
“Before Rishi came on board we were quite severely rejected,” Chettri said. “I made lots of calls to fashion magazines and photographers and none of them were interested to shoot with us. Since Rishi came on board, the media has been reacting positively, if a bit cautious.”
Changes are afoot, clearly. Today, we have more measures for trans equality in India than ever before, but a tense political situation and persistent stigma against the community is still a huge hurdle. Following the popularity of the country’s first transgender band, Chettri feels, “the media and urban population may be more sensitised towards TGs but we still have a very long way to go, especially under the right-wing national government.”
The government, she said, “has made a 22% cut in AIDS funds, because of which we haven’t been able to pay our employees for eight months now. Hijras who worked in the charity sector are forced back into begging, sex work and ‘Toli’. We even ran out of condoms to give to high-HIV-risk Hijra sex workers. Even though no census has been done, we know that HIV amongst Hijras is on the rise again.”
The modelling agency hopes to be much more than just catwalks and glossy photographs. What the entire team is striving for is visibility and stable, regulated economic opportunities for trans people in India.
“We are hopeful about our dream,” said Chettri. “If a transgender gets space on the front page of a high-end magazine, it will be considered a big achievement.” The agency will start out small, with only five models for now. But who knows, maybe it will launch the next Hari Nef or Andreja Pejić!
To know more about Rudrani Chettri’s project, and to support it, please head over to the BitGiving campaign here.