Nikki Kerketta could not come to terms with her identity for many years. As a transgender woman, she struggled to make herself fit into a society that did not accept her the way she was. There were challenges at home, school and college. For years, she struggled to accept her own identity. It did not help that she belongs to the tribal community. And that she hails from Chaibasa in Jharkhand.
But she did not give up. Kerketta aspired to become a model. She entered the field of modelling after her 12th grade. Now 31, she has a body of work that she is extremely proud of.
She was in sixth grade when she started wearing her sister’s dresses. “I used to dress up like them and felt very good about myself. I used to put make up on my face and enjoyed dancing. But I hid this aspect of my life from my family members,” she says.
When she came face to face with her transgender identity, her immediate reaction was to suppress her feelings and emotions. She struggled. And when got tired of this struggle, she decided to embrace her new identity. Her family members, however, reacted very strongly. Her sisters would humiliate her. Society would laugh at her.
But giving up was not an option. From 2011 to 2016, she took up many modelling assignments but kept her family in the dark. They eventually came to know but never nagged her.
“Though my mother did not support my work, but she never forced me to leave the house. I never really cared what society thought about me,” she says.
Modeling helped her open up. She participated in fashion shows and ramp walks in Jamshedpur and won many awards. She wanted to go out of India to pursue her dreams but her family did not support her decision. But she continued modelling. After her father’s demise, she took care of her mother. All her four sisters are married now.
Presently, Kerketta is providing training to modeling aspirants at Jamshedpur. Ask her what her biggest challenge was, she says it didn’t help much that she belongs to the tribal community.
“Had I been in a metro city, things would have been easy for me but people do not support transgender people in a state like Jharkhand. It wouldn’t have been this challenging if I was not tribal. People would not have objected to my dressing and lifestyle,” she says.
In her part of the world, it’s all the more difficult. “When family members come to know that you are a transgender, either you are pressurised to leave the house or you leave on your own accord. When transgender people disclose their identity, sometimes they get beaten up. “Several of my friends faced this. Their hair was forcefully chopped off. A transgender woman is not accepted in a tribal set up. Pursuing a career in modeling is next to impossible,” she says.
Chaibasa has a huge tribal population. It happens to be her ancestral place. She studied here till 12th grade. Later, she moved to neighbouring Jamshedpur. Both the districts have significant number of transgender population.
As per Uthan, an organisation working for the rights of transgender, there are more than 2,000 transgender people living in Jamshedpur and 500 in Chaibasa. Around 200 transgender persons live in Ranchi. However, as per the data of the Jharkhand Election Commission, as of January 2019, the number of the third gender is only 307.
Like Kerketta, 24-year-old Divya is also a transgender woman from the tribal community, who is into modelling. For her, sometimes it gets difficult for her to ignore the barbs and lewd comments. “People feel tribals look different from the others and that they have the right comment on their looks. This is why I try to cover my body as much as possible while modeling,” she says.
Chaibasa-based Divya was thrown out of her house. “When I revealed my transgender identity, they asked me to leave. They would humiliate me. I felt like ending my life. I lost my mother in 2012 and my father in 2019. My sisters are all married and my brothers refuse to talk to me. Somehow, I managed to complete my graduation. I work in Jamshedpur and take up modeling assignments,” she says.
Jamshedpur-based Pihu Devgam, 21, is a young transgender model. She was bullied in school to an extent that she left her studies after 10th standard. “My classmates would pass lewd comments and touch me inappropriately. I could not continue studies,” she says.
The struggles continue. She has to face a lot of challenges for being a transgender. “Organisers give more opportunities to men and women and not transgender. Jamshedpur does not offer much in terms of modeling. Also, no help is available for people from transgender community. If I get support, I would love to go out of Jamshedpur and start modeling.”
There are many transgender models from tribal community like Nikki, Divya, Pihu who are “walking” with their head held high. But it’s not as easy as it seems.
Amarjeet Singh Shergill, secretary of Uthan, says it is like touching the moon, which is a very difficult. “The state government is not doing anything for them. There are no policies for them. They have to struggle for something as basic as a toilet. I have suffered too. We cannot use men’s toilets and people don’t let us use women’s toilet. I have written several letters to the concerned department but with no avail.”
Shergill says that there are many places in Jharkhand where people still hesitate to reveal their identity. They don’t get any support system. For this reason, these people suppress their desires. Some of them work in fields or as contractual labourers. Families hesitate to send transgender children to school. When they grow up, they are not allowed to venture out of the house. “These children are bright and intelligent. If groomed well, we can do wonders,” says Shergill.
While there are many challenges, there are success stories as well. In 2022, Riya Tirkey, 25, won the Femina Miss India Jharkhand title. She was the first tribal to win this coveted title.
“Modeling is very challenging for a tribal transgender woman. However, once they show their grit and determination, there is no stopping them. From my own experience I can say that people were not ready to accept a tribal girl in the world of fashion and modeling. They started taking me serious after seven years of struggles,” she says.
She runs a modeling academy at Ranchi where she trains upcoming talents in the field of fashion and modeling. She says that she would be more than happy to train and guide a transgender woman.