Ethnomusicology of the Closet: (Con)Figuring Transgender-Hijra Identity Through Documentary Filmmaking

This ethnography is situated in transgender and hijra communities primarily within and surrounding the Mumbai and Lucknow metropolitan areas of India. This study of contemporary and current trans-hijra music and dance practices follows three primary guiding questions: (1) In what ways do individual musical talent and versatility contribute to representations of (the transitioning) self?; (2) In what ways are these representations tied to the hijra gharānā (household, literally ‘of the house’), socialization and izzat (‘respect’; see Reddy 2005), and other organizational motifs in hijra culture?; and (3) How are these representations tied to the emergence of LGBTIQ pehchān (‘identity’) politics, and (changing) conceptions of gender and sexuality in a larger societal scale? Owing to my own frame of reference, and to the complex dynamics of desire permeating issues of identity in trans-hijra cultures, this dissertation employs a queer approach to documentary filmmaking as a research method. Accordingly, I investigate how queer (American) perspectives and ethnographic methodologies are tied to the creation and/or contestation of trans-hijra pehchān, as well as (the creation of) the field itself. As part of a larger effort to expound on what I call “queer ethnomusicological filmmaking,” I argue that queerly documenting trans-hijra performance participates in and alongside the (con)figuration of trans-hijra pehchān by performatively engaging in key identity-forming processes, amplifying voices on a global LGBTIQ platform, and reconstituting preexisting tropes of the hijra through a lens of transgender respectability, talent, and professionalism.

While some scholars have investigated hijras, little English-language scholarship exists on the music and dance practices of these communities. This dissertation represents an effort to fill this void, building partly upon the survey work of Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy (1988 [1963]) and Anna Morcom (2013), and contributing new visual ethnomusicological material alongside the ethnographic works of Gayatri Reddy (2005), among others. The timeliness of this research is also supported by the April 2014 recognition of the “Third Gender” community by the Indian Supreme Court, a bill that was introduced by a project participant, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. In exploring the connections between hijra music and identity, this dissertation represents and engages with current discourses surrounding issues of gender, sexuality, and identity in India’s emerging LGBTIQ landscape.