Transgenders from all over Tamil Nadu — and some from outside — dress up, dance, and compete in a beauty contest that's not the one you usually hear about.

Behind a marriage hall in Villupuram — named, somewhat ironically, Sri Anjaneya, after a deity who opted to remain wifeless — I run into Shakila, a startlingly tall and statuesque transgender who has snuck out with a cigarette. Perhaps it's nerves. She is here to participate in the dance competition, the first cultural event of the day that will witness the coronation of Miss Koovagam 2012. But she answers me patiently through clouds of acrid smoke. Yes, she loves being here. She has been attending these celebrations for 15 years. And yes, this dress is new. She made it herself, over a single day. No, she won't wear it next year. She will fashion something new. The costume is a spectacular eruption of orange and green, as if the sun were going down in a rainforest. Only the tails, streaming downwards from the waist, seem unnecessary — until Shakila, on stage, makes a compelling case for their existence.

She deserves a better stage than this one with its scrim of faded-blue canvas stretched across with two tired lengths of rope, like something hanging off a clothesline in someone's terrace. The chief guests have made their addresses and inaugurated the event. The judges, pencil and pad in hand, have seated themselves on stage, to the left, and a semi-circle of chairs extends from them all the way to the right-hand side. These chairs are occupied by the nayaks of the various districts in Tamil Nadu, the local chieftains of the transgender community. Shakila stands with her back to the audience and waits for someone to begin playing the song that she has burnt into a CD for this moment: the thumping Ringa Ringa from the Telugu film “Arya 2”. She hears the opening strains and begins to sway, and as her hips move, the tails come alive, like the blades of a rotor. As if anticipating the absence of props and lighting, Shakila has arrived with her own special effects.

But she needn't have bothered. The transgenders assembled here do not seem to have any expectations of a professionally conducted show. They hoot and holler for Shakila as much as they do for the next dancer, attired in a white silk sari with a distinctive gold border — something that could have been picked off a counter in any shop in Kerala. They do not care that, owing to time constraints, subsequent dancers are cut off midway through their songs and stop meekly, as if a switch had been turned off. They do not care that men are gathering in the peanut gallery to gawk, despite assurances by the organiser, N. Ramamurthi, that the only outsiders are “approved” journalists. They do not care that the winner of the beauty contest will be crowned by a relatively unknown Tamil actress, listed on the invitation pamphlet as Madhumita of “Oru Kal Oru Kannadi” fame. They only care that they will get married tomorrow. Today's festivities are the sangeet.

***

Every year in the Tamil month of Chittirai (approximately mid-April to mid-May), transgenders from around Tamil Nadu — and a few from outside — head to the village of Koovagam to marry the deity named Koothandavar (the son of Arjuna), who, according to legend, married Krishna in the Mohini avatar. Before this, however, they gather at Villupuram, the town nearest Koovagam, to celebrate — and today's event is a cross between a high-school reunion, a talent contest and, mostly, a Tamil wedding. A reception committee welcomes visitors with rose petals, sandalwood paste and crystals of sugar. Inside, people draw up plastic chairs and aggregate in circles of good-humoured conversation, shrinking from the incandescent glare of the videographer's flash as he mills around, recording these happenings. There's even lunch, served on a plantain leaf and comprising the traditional vadai and payasam.

E. Venugopal, the portly, 43-year-old owner of the marriage hall, is smiling. Yesterday, the hall played host to an austere assembly that felicitated Paavendar Bharatidasan, the Tamil patriot and writer. Tomorrow, May Day, will see a function involving extremely vocal building contractors. Venugopal's smile, today, suggests someone who stumbled upon a gulab jamun in his gruel. He is most amused by the stream of calls from the Collector's PA, enquiring if the Collector can leave his house. The Collector is ready — the transgenders aren't, especially those competing for the title, who still are applying makeup and getting fitted into specially designed saris. Venugopal says that his charges for the day are a third of the usual rates. He sees this as social service for these “paper flowers” that neither bloom nor die. The previous day's rhetoric seems to have rubbed off on him.

When these pre-Koovagam celebrations began some 20 years ago, at this hall, there were no beauty contests, no cultural programmes. There were also fewer people, fewer drunks. These days, Venugopal says, ten in a hundred show up drunk and precipitate a disturbance, which explains the dozen cops in the vicinity. But the commotion now is innocuous, the result of Madhumita finally appearing on stage, interrupting the dance competition that is showing no signs of coming to a close. The actress compliments the transgenders' costumes, encourages them to cheer the competitors, and leaves them with the earnest platitude that it's not about winning or losing. The audience bursts into applause. As Madhumita leaves, Preethisha, the mistress of ceremonies, has discovered a problem. The next contestant has signed up as Ganga, which happens to be the name of the nayak from Vellore. Preethisha tells me, later, about an understanding in the community that juniors will not adopt the names of seniors, though this rule cannot be enforced. Fortunately, the contestant volunteers to change her name. She will now dance as Latha.

***

Radha Nayak, Ramamurthi's “mother” (she adopted him six years ago, in a sentimental gesture, according to the community's customs) and head of the Villupuram District Transgenders (Women) Welfare Association, says that these celebrations cost Rs. 2 to 3 lakhs, of which Rs. 1 lakh comes from the government. The rest is collected within the community, with each transgender contributing what she can. (This claim is disputed by others who contend that the money is coerced from local businessmen and politicians.) The funds thus garnered go not only towards logistical expenses (today's lunch alone will cost Rs. 50,000) but also for the transportation and accommodation of indigent transgenders from elsewhere. Radha Nayak's dream is to expand this annual gathering to embrace transgenders from every district in the state, and even beyond — most of those here are regulars from the bigger districts in Tamil Nadu — and she has engineered, to this effect, something of a rebellion in the ranks of TANSAC (Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society).

Miss Koovagam, before Radha Nayak began to operate the strings, was conducted by TANSAC and a number of other NGOs, and the glamorous contest was essentially the sugar coating over the bitter pill of education programmes. A. Bhaktavatchalam, executive director of ARM (Association for Rural Mass India) and a consultant with TANSAC, says that the beauty contest, as instituted in 2000, was a means of empowering the community, creating awareness, and easing its acceptance by mainstream society. But in 2009, Radha Nayak decided that her organisation would also conduct a beauty contest, also titled Miss Koovagam. Not wishing a dilution of the brand, ARM and its associated agencies decided to back off from the beauty contest the next year. Their event was named, instead, Miss Aravani (after the local term for transgenders). In 2011, the two factions set aside their differences and jointly conducted Miss Koovagam.

This year, TANSAC decided that ARM and its associates would conduct the beauty contest while Radha Nayak's organisation would host the cultural programmes, but after agreeing, Radha Nayak went ahead and announced a Miss Koovagam of her own.

Bhaktavatchalam understands Radha Nayak's conviction that an event for transgenders should be organised and conducted by the community and not by people outside. What he doesn't get is why they announced their event, this year, only after ARM's event was advertised, people were invited, cards were printed, and the venue was booked, the marriage hall across the street where he is currently overseeing preparations for the evening's Miss Koovagam contest. Had they informed him of their decision earlier, he says with mild exasperation, he would have stepped aside.

That is what he plans to do next year if a jointly hosted event does not materialise, preferring to concentrate, instead, on awareness programmes for the community's development.

***

Why has something as trivial-sounding as a beauty contest brewed into a small political storm? For one, Miss Koovagam attracts the most press coverage. Besides, the transgenders feel that winning this event will augment their acceptance within the community (and without) — the crown, in other words, is at once a source of pride and a shot of self esteem. Priyanka, from Chennai, perhaps speaks for everyone when she says this event is their Deepavali, their Pongal, their everything, which justifies the Rs. 6,000 she spent on the ink-blue sari that clings to her person as if pasted on it. Priyanka, like everyone else, is waiting for the dance competition to end (she is here to participate in the beauty contest), and a few restless souls have already gravitated to the dining hall for lunch. An undaunted Aishu, from Bhubaneshwar, in a black ghagra-choli patterned with silver-sequin flowers, begins dancing to the title track from “Aaja Nachle”, emulating perfectly Madhuri Dixit's choreographed sinuousness.

Around 12.30 pm, Ramamurthi makes the announcement that Miss Koovagam will commence shortly. I ask Aishu if she isn't going to compete in the beauty contest, and she shakes her head. She's annoyed when I bring up Madhuri Dixit's moves. She hasn't watched the film, she says — she's an MA in Kuchipudi from Andhra University. She's won the dancing competition six years in a row, and is awaiting the results. The last dancer leaves, and Preethisha, without preamble, calls upon the first beauty-contest contender, Reema from Tuticorin, who smiles and sashays up and down an imaginary catwalk in the centre of the stage. With the photographers crowding in front, there is hardly any room — she takes four steps forward and then she has to turn back. But the smile never slips. The names of other contestants are called out, along with the names of their districts, and home-team supporters in different pockets of the hall chime in with exhortatory cheer.

It's horribly hot, and the contestants have wilted since morning, their make-up riven by rivulets of sweat that run down and settle in damp patches all over their painstaking costuming. Ramamurthi announces that 10 people will be selected for the second round, and rattles off the names. When he turns to look at the shortlisted contestants, huddled behind him, there are twelve. He makes a weak joke about a round dozen, and this number dwindles to the final five, who are quizzed about safe sex and the changes they'd like to usher in. The prizes are announced. Harini from Thiruvannamalai bows lightly to accept a glittering tiara, but my attention is elsewhere, where it has been since the results of the dance competition were announced just a few minutes ago and Aishu was called on stage and placed third. I'm no expert, but she was really the best of the bunch.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012