Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Monorama seen here adjusting the crown before setting out for her performance, impersonating Goddess Sitala, at a makeshift greenroom in a Calcutta neighbourhood. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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As the protagonist of the opera, Monorama seen here in the role of Goddess Sitala with her troupe. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Minute details in the makeover has always been a critical part of the process. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Monorama walking back to her makeshift greenroom amidst stares from passersby. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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The liminal spaces that gender occupies is something that manifests here as one of her troupe members is given the final touches of her Goddess character. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra


Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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The performance of the Sitalamagal, sometimes shifts from the closed community spaces to the erstwhile joint family homes of Calcutta. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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An engaged audience post-midnight watches Monorama perform as Goddess Sitala. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Revered as the Goddess Sitala, Monorama sits before a neighbourhood audience. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Monorama attends a call for performance enquires at home. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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At Monorama's home, with one of her troupe members where the logistics of the nights performance are discussed. Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

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Photo: Siddhartha Hajra

Opera Monorama: this transgender woman fights the goddess of disease

Siddhartha Hajra

"Set no store by what you see, We are just portraits of the space we occupy." - CP Surendran

Monorama or Rajuda is a transgendered person who 'performs' in closed community spaces during the spring season, which is associated with Sitala Puja.

It was on one such spring evening that I first met Monorama at her home in north Calcutta. She possessed a quiet sense of dignity and pride. I could sense that she was very busy - her phone kept ringing and she had many visitors - mostly clients from different neighbourhoods in and around the city who wanted to make a booking for her to perform Sitala Puja, as well as her performance of the Sitalamangal (or the sacred story of Sitala, the goddess).

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Historically, it is believed that the onset of spring is linked with the much-dreaded Goddess Sitala, who is the mother of spring diseases, and a whole range of diseases known as basanta (which is also the word for spring) are her children or followers.

Sitala is widely worshiped in Eastern India where, until recently, the dreaded smallpox was a killer disease. Monorama invited me to one of her performances in a south Calcutta neighbourhood the following evening. This was the beginning of my long but interspersed association with Monorama and her Opera ('Opera' here reflects a very local Bengali adaptation of the English word, referring to musical theatre with no classical pretensions).

I was intrigued by the complexity of her life, how her identity and gender changed during her performance as a goddess, and how the sociopolitical challenges presented to the eunuch (hijra) community in India also had a role to play.

So which is the real Monorama? Each role she performs remains real only in a fluid state, never quite the same at the next moment.

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Siddhartha Hajra