Rescuing traditional queerness: An interview with Santa Khurai

A Meitei indigenous Nupi Maanbi from Manipur exposed her hair after washing the hair with Chenghi (Rice water boiled with local herbs). Photo by Mitkhubi Haobijam (Nupi Maanbi)
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A Meitei indigenous Nupi Maanbi from Manipur exposed her hair after washing the hair with Chenghi (Rice water boiled with local herbs). Photo by Mitkhubi Haobijam (Nupi Maanbi)

In the context of the field research carried out from November 2019 to February 2020 within the ‘gender democracy’ programme of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India Office, one of the projects has been collecting interviews, voices and witnesses from members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Among the interviewees was Santa Khurai from Imphal in Manipur, one of the eight states within the NorthEastern Region (NER) of India. Santa Khurai represents the queer people and the transgender community of Manipur, having been their spokesperson for years. The most prominent theme in our discussion was a universal feeling by the people of Northeast India of being ‘left out’ – a sense of detachment caused by different factors. Northeast India’s history is controversial since this region has always been a contested territory, linked with the Indian ‘mainland’ only through a 22 km stretch of border and surrounded by other South Asian countries, China and today’s Myanmar. The state of Manipur itself was ruled by the Burmese kingdom until the early 19thcentury and successively branched out to British India after the Anglo-Burmese rule. Geographical morphology and the annexed problems of limited connections creates an actual sense of disconnect, a liminal geographic space of fluid identities for the region and its people.

When I called Santa Khurai to discuss the interview, she resolutely asserted on the phone: “I am not going to compromise my indigeneity! I feel so detached from mainland India. Why don’t people within the LGBTQIA+ community talk about queer people in their periphery?”

As we spoke with each other, Santa led the conversation to the topic of traditional queerness and the difficulties that indigenous queer communities in Manipur endured daily jeopardising their very existence. Through her in-depth research of ancient texts related to the region, she found legitimacy to their existence. Having learned the alphabet of Meitei Mayek, an ancient script of the Meitei indigenous community, she referred to these texts that, unlike modern writings, mentioned of the communities in this region. During our discussion, we explored the issue of networking faced by these communities.

With regard to queer identities, the focus of my research has been on understanding peoples’ connection within the Indian queer community at large, especially the means of communication and of social media as tools for strategic reunion and aggregation. The underlying message guiding me throughout the research was Foucault’s words, “the body is the site to analyse the shape of power”1. This thinking alludes to the idea that the physical body of a person is born with determines, be it by ethnicity or sex, their social roles and secures their existence in the world. The term coined “body politics” is a focal point for many researchers and civil society activists who engage with identities. Bodies have become a place of political control, regulating them in terms of sexuality, health, violence, as well as sexual rights2. Yet, while acknowledging the inquired about aspects of social media and networking, Santa shed light on another controversial fact and our discussion took an unexpected turn: Some queer identities in Manipur are compromised by social organisations, non-state actors led by men. Those hierarchies of power are unquestionably linked to ‘body politics’.

Me: I am researching how queer identities network among themselves here in India, starting from South India and moving North. You are the only person I know in the Northeast who belongs to the queer community, as of now. What is your experience?

Santa: Talking about queer networking and queer union in India means to state that we are fighting for a common cause, regardless of religion and other social affiliations. You know how diverse India is. But in my experience, when it comes to the queer culture, looking at a national scenario, I think that communities from the Northeast are less represented because of the geographical location. We are isolated and have reduced access to transportation, first and foremost. Then we have a linguistic problem, as Northeastern languages are different and complex. Sometimes, I struggle to connect with people, as there are more than 30 languages only in Manipur3. The networking shrinks as we do not fit in the mainstream queer culture.

Considering our appearance, we have small eyes, flat noses, and other physical features that distinguish us. This leads to prejudice and discrimination. But within a region, language, food, appearance and clothing are commonalities that connect people, enabling them to come together and give them a sense of belongingness. Outside the region, we are less represented. At any event of national scale, I do not encounter many representatives from the Northeast. On such occasions, I often feel left out of the networking and hardly get a chance to address the reality of the region. Queerness is not the only topic being excluded from the conversation, as the feeling stems from the overall exclusion of Northeastern issues in public education, to the extent that generally the rest of the Indian people are not even familiar with us. This creates a sort of prejudice, a disconnect, and the potential for networking is lost.  This divide also extends to Northeast queer people and the mainstream queer.

Santa Khurei in the library of a Puya (Meitei old scriptures) curator and translator of Meitei old script into modern Manipuri (Chanam Hemchandra, Naorenthong, Imphal West. Photo by: Bonita Pebam (Assist. Researcher, Pheida – Gender at the Periphery)
Santa Khurei in the library of a Puya (Meitei old scriptures) curator and translator of Meitei old script into modern Manipuri (Chanam Hemchandra, Naorenthong, Imphal West. Photo by Bonita Pebam (Assist. Researcher, Pheida – Gender at the Periphery)

Me: Can you tell me something about the challenges of your everyday life as a queer person and as an activist?

Santa: As a queer person, my identity is challenging, because people question my body. People question queer bodies. People question queer identities, people question my life, my food, and how I sleep with my husband. Beyond me and my personal issues, young queer groups, which we call Nupi-Maanbi, who generally wear female make up and attires, get questioned and attacked.

Me: What does ‘Nupi-Maanbi’ mean?

Santa: ‘Nupi’ means ‘girl, woman’, and ‘Maanbi’ means ‘alike, similar’. It is a Meitei4 term.

Me: In your opinion and experience, with regard to the idea that bodies are a site for political struggle and control, what issues do you think should be raised with decision-makers in politics, with civil society (activists) and with grassroots society/community to address the needs and the challenges you face? In light of this, how would you define ‘body politics’? How does ‘body politics’ affect your life?

Santa: First of all, I feel the need to address an overall issue: That people often conflate gender identity and sexual identity, and this is where confusion on bodies is coming from. Moreover, I think that the international community needs to look at the belief systems of cultures in their respective regions, rather than on a national scale. For example, when you say ‘India’, you cannot look at India through a ‘pan-India’ lens. India is manifold. If we collect narratives of queer indigenous people, those stories could become part of scientific literature that can be disseminated to other countries, and further to do comparative studies. For example, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) came to Manipur as late as 2014 or 2015, but people would decide to identify as men or women, regardless of their sex at birth, without going through surgery or even hormone-therapy. In the early 1990s, when the HIV programmes started, they got the nomenclature ‘MSM - Men having Sex with Men”. At that time questions of privacy and visibility were not considered and NGOs did not ensure confidentiality, making public names of many of the participants to their programmes. Some of the people involved in the HIV programmes thus committed suicide. Before that, there was less visibility of people like me, like ‘Nupi-Maanbi’.

In Manipur, there is a queer community called ‘Shumang Lila’, which is very visible. They claim cross-dress only for performing, and once off the stage are just cisgender5 men. That is why they are treated with a sort of privilege. Then we have the ‘Nupa Amaibi’ transgender shaman peoples, who have a blessed voice. And then the ‘Nupi-Maanbi’, persons like me, who are far less accepted. The ‘Shumang Lila’ are much more accepted because they disguise as men out of the performance and even go for heterosexual marriages, but within the community they share stories about their non-conformity and queerness. ‘Sumang’ literally means ‘courtyard’ because earlier these artists performed their play in courtyards. Now, they have started performing on stages in front of an audience and in films. The actors, the singers, the musicians – all are men. There is also a Shuman Lila female group, who, in turn, dress up as men, but people prefer the play performed by the men, accepting this queer identity less. I questioned myself why the female Shumang Lila groups are less accepted. Women take the role of men and the way they speak and behave shows that they really have male attitudes. This is only my external observation. I never asked them about their sexuality. Likewise, I never was concerned whether the male performers dressing as female. I confirmed that they were non-conforming people. They do not say it openly so that they can be socially accepted.

I feel that when it comes to researching queer communities, academicians treat us as ‘specimen’ for their studies. They ask questions, which they are not supposed to ask to an individual about their bodies. They ask about the privacy and intimacy of my romantic life instead of asking me about politics, social issues, or traditions. They often depict us as victims, but I am a person who enjoys my identity. I love the way I talk with my trans-sisters, lifting eyebrow, using code languages, moving hands to show delicacy; how transgender people express is beautiful to me. These expressions reflect our liveliness and freedom and I feel less ostracised from society. The questions that academicians have posed to me are totally out of context. There is a lot more to know about the language that we use, for example. Those are the aspects we need to explore more. Universities need to meet people from whom they can get great inspiration. International academic debates over multiple topics must be expanded to indigenous groups.

Before Christianity spread over the region, as far as I know – for sure in Manipur and Mizoram6 – there was inclusion of gender plurality and multiplicity in the belief system. Northeast India is very disconnected from other South Asian countries, given that India belongs to South Asia. However, I think that universities in the Philippines or in Indonesia would be very interested in studying the Northeastern Indian queer culture. But I have no connection to Southeast Asia.

Me: Why did you mention the Philippines and Indonesia?

Santa: Because we are rooted with them. We are remarkably similar. For instance, New Year’s Eve falls in the same month having close dates. There may also many other similarities that need in-depth research.

Me: Yes, right. The communication with the eyebrows you were mentioning, it is actually common in the Philippines now that you make me think about it.

Santa: Manipur was for a long time under the province of Burma. I suspect that there is a lot of literature to find in Yangon University. I want to deepen the research about Manipur’s ancient history of queer communities. In Myanmar there is a figure called ‘Nat Kadaw’. They are queer shamans who possess/ get possessed by 30 spirits. When they get possessed by those spirits, people offer the possessed shamans alcohol and chicken, and then when they feel that the spirits are around them, they smoke and spread the smoke around, to chase them out.

The ‘Nupa-Amaibi’ are gradually excluded from their ritual-occupation by certain cultural organisations. They are endangered. They are losing community. That is why I want to divulge knowledge about them. I want to at least keep their stories as art if I am not able to do anything to keep these traditions alive, or to make universities research on them. There are only a few clips of the documentary I made on them7. They call the god from underneath the water.

Me: What would you like to say to academicians and universities?

Santa: There are female and male Shamans in Manipur and researchers always do studies on female shamanism. In the meantime, in the recent years, an organisation has started to threaten them and have instructed them not to wear female attire. So, because of that these people have started going back to the cloister. Male shamans hardly come out. Their dance is different from the dance performed by the female shamans. People like their dance very much. ‘Lai Haroba’ is a celebration for young people but because of this organisation, the shamans have certain restrictions in performing in ‘Lai Haroba.’ The importance of the ritual is gradually declining. This is a warning to our culture. If we were able to preserve this culture, the male shaman culture, at least this could be another clue for the international community on how different peoples, different queer people, occupy spaces and how the natural behaviour within shamanism is connected to the queer people.

****

The leafs of the Puyas (Meitei ancient scriptures) which were written in ancient Manipur with ancient Meitei Mayek. These scriptures are found in Chanam Hemchandra library. Photo by: Santa Khurai
The leafs of the Puyas (Meitei ancient scriptures) which were written in ancient Manipur with ancient Meitei Mayek. These scriptures are found in Chanam Hemchandra library. Photo by Santa Khurai

It is a bitter feeling to realise how much of the world has been lost or forgotten. There are voices that need to be heard and stories that need to be written down. As Santa said, “If we want to claim the very existence of gender identities in the traditions as a way to legitimise them, we need to start from the beginning.”

My understanding of the meeting with Santa is that some queer identities in Manipur are put at stake by social organisations and non-state actors led by men. Those hierarchies of power are unquestionably linked to ‘body politics’. The concept of ‘body politics’ can be defined as: “All the cultural, social, economic and political policies and trends, legitimised by law or by strong public opinion, that render some bodies – or the decisions of some people upon their own bodies – ‘abnormal’, and labelling them as different’ and, in doing so, limiting their freedom in terms of expression, health, education, work and, therefore, threatening their very right to happiness and deteriorating their life’s quality.”8

Unprivileged bodies experience injustice at different levels. There are bodies that rule, who can generally be allocated within a (white) male supremacy, and bodies who experience privilege or exclusion, depending on the rules produced by the former. Mainstream bodies legislate for mainstream bodies, limiting the freedom of the rest of the population. Indigenous queer identities in Manipur endure injustice, belonging to the non-mainstream bodies. Scarce presence of literature on the above mentioned themes render the divulgation of information about this social injustice even harder. I hope to fill part of this gap in the literature with these few lines, thanks to the precious testimony of Santa.

Endnotes


[i] Foucault, Michel, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusion.” In Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, 1989, edited by N. Fraser, 73–94. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[ii] Harcourt, Wendy, “Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development”, 2009, ed. Zed Books.

[iii] According to the SIL Ethnologue there are more than 400 spoken languages in India. Other references, as the one resulting from the Census of India held in 2001, indicate that India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. There is generally no unanimity in establishing the correct number of languages in India, as many classifications differ and distinguish between dialects, written languages and only spoken languages. Hindi is the official national Indian languages but is rarely spoken in the North East region.

[iv] Meitei is the language spoken in Manipur. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman languages and is one of the officially recognised languages of India, having been included in the Eight Schedule to the Constitution of India in 1992.

[v] ‘Cisgender’ is a term that indicates people who conform and recognise their gender identity in the sex assigned at birth. For example, a cisgender woman is a person who has been born with female sexual organs, has been identified at birth from thirds (e.g. their parents, the medical team, etc.) as a woman and identifies herself as a woman within the society.

[vi] Mizoram is another state of the Northeast Indian region.

[viii] My personal definition ofbody politics’.

Alessandra Monticelli

Alessandra Monticelli

Alessandra Monticelli is a student at the Humboldt University in Berlin, attending the course of Regional Studies in African and Asian sciences, with a focus on South Asia. Her areas of interest are gender democracy, LGBTQIA+ rights, and global elites and dominance. In her program is included a critical approach to the structures of power in knowledge production, the analysis of social inequality through a gendered lens, and critics to the capitalist globalization. Her research focuses on the rights of LGBTQIA+ identities and groups in India. From October 2019 to March 2020, she was a trainee at hbs India.

  • 1. Foucault, Michel, “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusion.” In Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, 1989, edited by N. Fraser, 73–94. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • 2. Harcourt, Wendy, “Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development”, 2009, ed. Zed Books.
  • 3. According to the SIL Ethnologue there are more than 400 spoken languages in India. Other references, as the one resulting from the Census of India held in 2001, indicate that India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. There is generally no unanimity in establishing the correct number of languages in India, as many classifications differ and distinguish between dialects, written languages and only spoken languages. Hindi is the official national Indian languages but is rarely spoken in the North East region.
  • 4. Meitei is the language spoken in Manipur. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman languages and is one of the officially recognised languages of India, having been included in the Eight Schedule to the Constitution of India in 1992.
  • 5. ‘Cisgender’ is a term that indicates people who conform and recognise their gender identity in the sex assigned at birth. For example, a cisgender woman is a person who has been born with female sexual organs, has been identified at birth from thirds (e.g. their parents, the medical team, etc.) as a woman and identifies herself as a woman within the society.
  • 6. Mizoram is another state of the Northeast Indian region.
  • 7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONA194btLNo
  • 8. My personal definition ofbody politics’.