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Theater company shines a light on the oppression of India’s third gender

A scene from SETU's 2016 performance of "Ramayana" at Belmont Town Hall Theater. The troupe's upcoming production, "Seven Steps Around the Fire," opens at Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown Friday.Fotu Duniya and Maria Fonseca

South Asian community theater group SETU is not afraid of difficult conversations. The Boston-area group aims to uphold India’s rich theatrical traditions while also addressing ongoing cultural issues of caste, religion, colorism, and sexism, among others. In “Seven Steps Around the Fire,” to be presented at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown this weekend, the group is highlighting the experiences of an often-marginalized group: the Hijra.

In India, Hijra is the term that has been used to describe India’s gender-nonconforming community for thousands of years. Though the majority of Hijra are assigned male at birth, the term is not interchangeable with “trans women”; Hijra largely identify as a third gender.


Hijra are often marginalized and forced to live on the outskirts of society. Because of the stigma and lack of opportunities, they are often forced out of their homes and communities, and make money by performing blessings but also engaging in sex work.

“Seven Steps Around the Fire” was originally a 1999 BBC radio show written by Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani. It follows a police officer’s wife who begins investigating the murder of a Hijra and gains insight into the oppression and violence that the community experiences.

The Globe spoke with SETU cofounder and director Subrata Das to discuss the theater company’s mission, cultural attitudes around the Hijra community, and the legal and social progress that has been made on issues of gender and identity over the past several years.

Q. Can you tell me a little bit about SETU’s mission?

A. We were founded back in 2003. So the mission is to bridge what we call the cultural gap, because India is a vast country and there’s so many things going on, and we want to project both the good and bad [aspects] of Indian culture. Our plays are performed in English.


Q. Why did you pick “Seven Steps Around the Fire” to perform at SETU?

A. We deal with a lot of social issues here, and this one falls right into it. And this is also a very important issue in the sense that in 2014, the Indian Supreme Court recognized a third gender. I grew up in India in a village, and when I grew up, I witnessed firsthand how [Hijra] were treated, how they are not part of the society. I always felt that that was wrong, but I couldn’t do anything. A couple of years ago, I came across this play. This is written by Mahesh Dattani; he’s a very famous playwright in India. So I contacted Mahesh, and he came to Boston and he stayed with me. I said to him, “This is the play of yours I like most because it projects very nicely the oppressed society that they go through.”

Q. What are some of the major distinctions between the Hijra community in India and the transgender community in the United States?

A. There are a lot of distinctions because Hijra is a very broad term, in a way. It includes the transgender, transexual, and intersex communities. Then there are people who are castrated who are part of the Hijra community, and then also the gay community. So it’s a very broad term. But when we grew up in India, the way we used it is that Hijras are mostly, 99.9 percent, people [assigned] male who become Hijras. In fact, when you grow up in India, you may see them all the time because they come and they bless the newly born [kids] and they come during the weddings. So they come and they ask for money, but they are also involved in sex work. So it’s a broader term than “transgender” itself.


Q. What are some of the challenges that the Hijra community typically have to face?

A. The society was not accepting, or is not accepting of them. So that’s why they are discriminated against in employment and everything else. They’re not getting jobs, so they’re forced to do prostitution. It’s a very contradictory situation, in the sense that whenever a child is born, you need the blessing from the Hijras, but they’re not accepted as part of the community. And so the major challenge is that they have not got a proper way of earning money, because they’re not integrated within the society itself.

Q. I’m also curious how the legacy of British colonialism impacted attitudes around the Hijra community.

A. You would think that [the] British would take a different stance while they were ruling India. In fact, they made them the villains of the society. They brought the penal code, which was abolished by the government in 1986, that being transgender or Hijra is a crime. Now the situation’s getting a little better.

Q. So as you said, India has officially recognized a third gender since 2014. I’m wondering how that influenced cultural attitudes around the Hijra community, since they now have legal recognition.


A. It’s such a vast country, it changes very slowly. I go to India once or twice every year, so I’m very close in the sense that I know what’s going on politically. I come from a state which is more liberal than many other states, but change is very difficult in India. For many people, Hijras are a kind of mystical thing. So the information has to start at a very grassroots level.

On Nov. 12, SETU will host a panel discussion with Anjali Rimi and Lana Patel about the marginalization that Hijras and transgender South Asian Americans face. The panel will be moderated by SETU cofounder Jayanti Bandyopadhyay. Interview was edited and condensed.


At Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Nov. 11-13. $25. setu.us

Maya Homan can be reached at maya.homan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MayaHoman.