The joy of Vedhai

November 17, 2019

An immersive performance exploring its namesake in contemporary Pakistan,and the importance of khwaja sira traditions for our music


Goshi and Sheela blessing a child. — Photo courtesy of Umar Jilani

The modern Pakistani society is suffering from an existential dilemma due to a subconscious conflict between cultural tradition and belief systems. This has led to the creation of social and cultural structures that deliberately subjugate various communities, most of which have played an integral role in the realms of history and art. The transgender community’s experience is one such narrative, riddled with the use of mainstream stereotypes as representational apparatus. However, with the advent of the transgender rights movement in Pakistan, work has been initiated in the field of development within the community itself. However, apart from legislative rights, it is integral to address the mainstream cultural and social perspectives of the transgender community which have hindered their mass acceptance. Vedhai, an event hosted by Olomopolo Media’s at Olo Junction on November 11, 2019, is an attempt to move beyond the narrative of victimhood that surrounds the community as a whole.

Vedhai, an immersive performance curated by Dr Claire Pamment and Anaya Sheikh, in collaboration with Knapsack Studios, was an exploration of its namesake tradition in the contemporary Pakistani context. The tradition vedhai is rooted in inter-social bonds between two distinct facets of society. The act itself is one of joy and jubilation, where a toli of khawaja sira’s enter houses celebrating various life changing events like the birth of a child or a marriage. This particular custom has had a long history in the subcontinental region, partly due to the superstitious beliefs regarding the transgender community that were prevalent for much of the 19th century, despite the British disregard for the transgender community and customs.

“The British tried to stop these performances, but they were not able to stop vedhai”, stated Dr Claire Pamment, a researcher from the University of William and Mary and curator of this performance. Pamment has been involved with transgender community rights and culture in Pakistan from 2007. One of her earlier researches resulted in the critically acclaimed documentary Teesri Dhun (The Third Tune), which examined the life and struggles of five transgender individuals.

As far as the structure is concerned, Vedhai is similar to Teesri Dhun as it includes the use of two separate mediums; performance and documentary. In the first act, the audience are a part of the custom as the toli led by Guru Amber with dancers Sheela, Goshi and Mahum and musicians Ustad Salamat Ali and Shabbeer Amir, sing traditional songs ranging from Tere Ishq Nachaya to the more playful Kaakay di Lori. The second act is a documentary in process focused on Guru Amber’s toli, by film makers Malik Ammar and Umar Jilani.

Thematically, Vedhai is a departure from Teesri Dhun. It focuses more on exploring intimate spaces within the private and public realm of the toli. It examined the idea of transcending boundaries, physical, religious and gender. “You have [the toli] stepping in a Christian house, a Shia house, a Sunni house, a Wahabi house,” Pamment explains. In each household, they sing songs ranging from the risqué to devotional, from Naseebo Lal to naat. This translucent existence of the toli, belonging and yet remaining elusive to the general public, is what makes their experience so fascinating to watch on screen. Jilani, while relating his experience of filming in Bhagbanpura, explains how people of the mohalla treat them (the toli) like family. Their doors are not even shut, most of the time and women in the households are always eager for some interaction with them. During the documentary, Sheela, one of the performers, says “We are part of their family, they treat us as so.” This creation of bonds in the public sphere is what Claire Pamment refers to as the “indigenous forms of touch, contact and sensitization”. According to her, this is the foundation for the realisation of liberal/civil rights for the khawaja sira community in Pakistan.

What is striking about the performance as a whole is the attention to detail. The reason for this is the academic approach of the curators. The performance began as a research project. However, a public platform became more relevant as it allowed the researchers to centre the communities who are the subject of the project. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, a more widespread release is not in the works yet.

Vedhai, overall, is an expression of collective joy and jubilation. At the same time it defies the mainstream notions of heteronormativity and ‘respectability’ that tend to vilify the intimate bonds created through the practice of this tradition. Sheikh, a prominent transgender stand-up comedian, researcher and theatre performer, explains the socio-economic relevance of this custom based on uniting distinct social groups through celebration: “We want to show that they are missing out on a beautiful cultural performance due to their own rigid aesthetics. This is a celebration that has existed for hundreds of years and needs to be supported financially and socially.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s recognition of the khawaja siras as a distinct gender identity, they remain marginalised in the mainstream due to the lack of representation and most importantly a lack of acknowledgement for their various art forms that have been an integral part of history and socio-cultural fabric of Pakistan.

The author is an MPhil scholar at Trinity College, Dublin. Her research is focused on the aesthetics of resistance in performative art forms

Vedhai: Pakistan’s transgender community and moving beyond victimhood narrative