10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Kinnar Guru

Life lessons on the guru-chela relationship from Berhampur’s hijra guru.
Sweety Sahu, a 34-year-old transgender woman, is a guru or teacher in her community of transgenders in Berhampur, Odisha, enjoying life leading and disciplining her chelas or children.   

Born and brought up in Berhampur in the Ganjam district, Odisha, Sweety Sahu, a 34-year-old transgender woman, learnt how to deal with ‘big town’ bullies over time. She imbibed the lessons when she worked as a bar dancer in Mumbai many years ago. She says, “Customers would approach me for sex. I passed off as a woman easily. But I had to learn to say no and be stern.”

A customer at a Bombay bar once spent “lakhon” (lakhs) on her through the course of one night as she danced to Bollywood songs. “Then he wanted to sleep with me.” Identifying as transgender had its own dilemma for Sahu. For one, the bar owner didn’t know she was a trans woman. She had lied to everyone around her, even her regular customers. “Telling them who I really was meant losing my job,” she adds. The big spender couldn’t handle the rejection and a fight broke out. Sahu remembers the hullabaloo as a particularly scary night.


Sahu now lives in Berhampur with her chelas (disciples)–200-300 of them, she says. In India, transgender women are shunned from society and their families, forced to live in clusters in neglected parts of the cities, away from the gaze of the mainstream. Left to fend for themselves they have formed their own community, collectively called the Kinnars. At an initiation ceremony, a third gendered child is taken under the wing of a guru (teacher) of that community and the child or chela lives with the guru leaving behind his biological family, taking on a new name and identity.

VICE caught up with Sahu–who is also the president of the Ganjam Kinnar Association–to ask her about the guru-chela relationship, the importance of passing off as a woman, alternate family arrangements, and the irrelevance of marriage amongst the Kinnars.

VICE: That’s a lovely sari (a Berhampuri patto ). Who are your role models when it comes to fashion and style?
Sweety Sahu: Oh, it is no one. I always wear what I like. I was a bar dancer in Bombay many years ago. The girls (dancers) used to talk about dresses and the latest trends. That’s how I learnt to dress well.

When were you in Mumbai? How many bars did you work at?
I was there in 2000. I worked in about 6-7 bars.

You are now a guru to so many chelas in this town. How did that happen?
I’ve been a guru now for almost 12 years. In our community, there are elections, where chelas vote for the person they think can represent them. Someone who has the talent, who can talk.


Sweety and her chelas recently took part at the Transgender Cultural Festival.

Do you yell at your chelas when they’re being indisciplined?
Yes. Always. Whenever they don’t listen to me. Sometimes I also beat them. I was also beaten up by my guru when I was young. [In our community] we have fines and daand (punishment) for not listening to your guru. Sometimes they have to pay fines as high as Rs 21,000 to me. I later use that for some social cause. We live like a family. There is a lot of respect between a guru and chela. A chela can’t do anything without her guru’s permission. One of my chelas once drank alcohol and started fighting. I punished her. She had to pay a fine of Rs 11,000. I also beat her. No family can run without rules.

How important is it to pass off as a woman in India?
I have feelings like girls. Sajna, sawarna acha lagta hai (I like dressing up and getting made up). But I don’t think of what others think of me as. I am happy to be known as a third gender.

A gorgeous sari and a bit of makeup: It's the smaller joys of life that make everyone happy.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young transgender girls?
Earlier we didn’t have any identity. In 2014 when the Supreme Court recognised us as the third gender, it gave us manyata (recognition). I want every transgender to have education. We can even touch the sky. [In our community] there is no education. We face [emotional] torture from our families first, then society. We don’t get a chance to finish our education. I want the next generation of third genders to receive their due education.


Who according to you is the sexiest man in India?
Ranbir Kapoor.

If Bollywood were to make a movie on your life, which actor would play you?
Madhuri Dixit. She has the ada (charm), she dances so gracefully. She has everything. Woh meri favourite hai (She’s my favourite).

You must have fallen in love at some point in your life?
Tha ek boyfriend (I had a boyfriend once) . And now bache log ko dekh ke mera time pass ho jata hai (My time passes looking after my kids/ chelas). Pyar karne wala toh bohat milte hai, lekin nibhane wala bohat kam milte hai (There are so many people to fall in love with, but few fulfil promises) . [I want someone] jo mujhe pehchaan paye, community ka qadar kare (I want someone who will acknowledge for who I am, and respect my community).

What has being a third gender taught you?
Everyone is equal. Being a third gender has taught me to respect everyone. To be kind to everyone.

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