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Cultural Embassy

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By Natalie Dixon

Millions of Indian pilgrims descend on the city of Ujjain to bathe in the city’s Shipra river. This is the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious pilgrimage, held every 12 years. Now consider this: in 2016 for the first time in history, a transgender (hijra) congregation joins the pilgrimage and the high priestess at the head of this congregation is dancer-turned-movie-star-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-social-activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. The journalist Marnel Breure calls her inclusion in this ancient Vedic tradition, ‘a religious and transgender revolution’ in India.

Like most revolutionaries, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi has commanding presence. As she enters the Lloyd Hotel restaurant heads turn. She sashays past guests in a canary-yellow sari, adorned with jewellery lightly tinkling as she weaves in between tables. In the time leading up to our interview I planned our shoot in the hotel, detailing areas with the best lighting and where the backdrops work well. But, within minutes of meeting, Laxmi is orchestrating where and how we photograph, often charging off in a direction with calls of “Come, come!”

''Like most revolutionaries, Laxmi has commanding presence''

This kind of single-minded steely demeanour has served Laxmi well, not only in the context of photoshoots (which she excels at, by the way) but also at high-level meetings at The United Nations. It’s here in 2008 that she presented the plight of sexual minorities, claiming the first ever Asian Pacific transgender representation at the assembly. More recently she was called up for a high-level meeting at the United Nations on HIV/AIDS by UNAID on the issues surrounding the disease.

Outside of multi-national meetings, Laxmi’s colourful and fierce personality has attracted thousands of fans in India. Amongst them was 20-year-old college student Viky Thomas (photographed here) who professed his love for her via Facebook; three-and-a-half years later they are still together. As we charge outside for a final shot in front of the Lloyd, Laxmi swirls her sari around in playful twists and turns in the night air, Viky joins her and they start laughing.

Moments of brevity are few though. In her home country, Laxmi has been securing the roll out of a 2014 Indian Supreme Court verdict on transgender. The verdict which she championed, sees the state and federal government commit to restoring the lost dignity of transgender people in society. “I was born to take care of people,” she says. “I am reclaiming transgender rights, Indian culture never discriminated against transgender, lesbian and gay people. It was a morality introduced by the British in our society.”

Part of this reclamation is about changing what Laxmi calls the “invisibility” of the transgender community. The biggest obstacle in making the community more visible is lack of inclusion, she says, “Policy makers can’t sit in rooms and decide policies for the transgender community without us”. Also, transgender debates can’t stay on the level of transgender bathrooms she argues, consider “proper workplace policies for the transgender community.” She stresses, “The most important thing is your constitutional right, the basic human rights cannot be taken away from you.”

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi’s third book “The Portrayal of the Patriarchy of Manhood” is due out in January 2017.