Sunday, 6 March 2011

My Work: Chandrika, A Hijra of Becharaji

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved

One of our photo-shoots on the itinerary of the In Search of the Sufis of Gujarat Photo Expedition™ involved the eunuchs of Becharaji. This required one of the longest pre-photo shoot negotiations of the trip, since eunuchs (or hijras, as they're known in the sub-continent) are usually reticent about being photographed.

The history of the hijras is rooted both in ancient Hinduism, where eunuchs are mentioned in a variety of texts, including the epic Mahabharata, and in Islam, where eunuchs served in the harems of the Mogul rulers. Hijra is considered a derogatory term, and I was told by Rehman, our fixer, that they preferred being addressed as 'masi'. Be it what it may, the word "hijra" is an Arabic word which found its way into Urdu, and it means "migrant"...for someone who has left his or her tribe.

I chose Becharaji as a photo shoot site because of its Hindu temple, devoted to the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata. Hijras are usually devotees of Bahuchara Mata. She is considered as a patroness of their community, and is devoutly worshiped. In fact, I witnessed many Hindu pilgrims arriving to the temple, and asking for the blessings of a group of hijras, almost as if they were recognized as being especially close to the goddess.

There are many books that deal with the culture of hijras, and apart from The Invisibles by Zia Jaffrey, I found many pages about them in City of Djinns by my favorite author William Dalrymple. He writes:
"Yet despite their frequent appearances in public, very little is actually known about the Indian eunuchs. They are fiercely secretive and of their own choice inhabit a dim world of ambiguity and half-truths. They trust no one, and hate being questioned about their lives."

We were allowed to visit Chandrika at her home (which she shares with other hijras), not far from the temple itself, and where the bottom two photographs were made (the top one was made at the temple), and the house was spotless, comfortable and well-tended to. An older transgender, introduced as her guru, was there, who gave permission before we could come in. Hearing and seeing the commotion, many neighbors eventually dropped by for some tea, and it ended up being a sort of a social event.

Chandrika is an extrovert, and she reveled in the attention from this handful of foreign photographers. It was difficult to photograph her in the setting of our choice, especially as she also wanted her friends and neighbors to be in the pictures. She also seemed to have a short attention span, and a mercurial temperament...so we had to make do with what we had.