Started as a makeshift refugee camp in Thane district, Ulhasnagar often smells of papads and denim. Hidden in labyrinthine alleys, the small businesses are typically swamped with work. But in March last year, these very bylanes looked like a new bride as they were adorned with bright fairy lights and shiny decorations. The residents waited with bated breath for their special guests like excited baratis (people in the groom’s procession). The excitement was for a live music concert that was about to unfold.
Six tall sari-clad persons made a simple entry amidst thunderous applause. One among them was Komal Jagtap, and though this wasn’t her first stage performance, the energy and stares made her shiver. She is a part of 6 Pack Band, India’s first transgender band that was curated by Shameer Tandon and launched by the Y films, a division of Yash Raj Films Pvt Ltd in 2016.
As the name suggests, the band comprises six members — Fida Khan, Ravina Jagtap, Asha Jagtap, Chandni Suvarnakar, Bhavika Patil and Komal. They have made five music videos featuring various celebrities like actor Hrithik Roshan and singer Sonu Nigam.
While performing at Ulhasnagar, Komal couldn’t help but notice a few kids who looked at her in amusement. It was probably their first time witnessing a group of kinnars (transgender women) in a different avatar. They were nothing like the ones who visit people’s houses on special occasions for chanda.
“After being misunderstood, mistreated and neglected for years, it feels surreal when people treat us with respect. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for the conversation that spurred after our band was launched. It is amazing to see we are being given a chance to go beyond our limited role in society, whether it is electing a transgender as Mayor or awarding the Padma Shri to a dancer,” Komal, who lives in Kalyan, tells The Better India.
She shares how her strong will and passion for singing led her to create a name for herself.
A ‘Misfit’ That Refused to Bow Down
Komal was assigned ‘male’ at birth though she identifies as female today. While growing up, verbal abuse and discrimination were common for her. Her mannerisms made her own family uncomfortable. She was forced to play with boys who teased her and called her names.
Though she put on a brave face, it crushed her inside and the lack of support from her family only made it worse. At age 10, with no money or belongings, Komal left home and sat waiting for a train to Pune on a railway station.
“Though I was only 10, I knew I didn’t want to live a lie. After trying hard to suppress myself, I accepted who I was. An NGO informed me about a trans community in Pune but I had no idea which train to board. I sat at the railway platform for hours until a trans woman approached me. She took me to my guru and thus began my new life,” recalls Komal.
Komal studied till Class 9 after which she began singing and dancing at people’s houses on special occasions like weddings and the birth of a child. This was her only source of income. On the one hand, she was happy to see that people invited them on auspicious days, on the other she was appalled to see people’s behaviour.
“Children ran in the opposite direction and adults didn’t even look at us. We have had instances where men passed lewd comments and eve-teased like it was their birthright. If this wasn’t enough, we faced discrimination from the institutional entities as well. No one gave us jobs or any social security. The stigma and alienation still make me wonder what exactly is our fault,” she says.
A Life-Changing Audition
Before the inception of the band, Komal started playing the role of a transwoman in Hindi movies and serials like Bhootnath Returns and Savdhan India. Although she had the talent to sing and act, her role was limited. So now she was singing badhaais (songs transgenders sing on festivities) in reel and real life.
In 2015, she heard about auditions for a band. At first, she dismissed it as being “just another gig” in a Hindi movie. Nevertheless, she went for auditions with the sole purpose of earning money.
“I refused to believe that the makers wanted to create a band, recognise our talent and bring us on par with society. Our families never supported us so why were these bunch of strangers keen on bridging an attitudinal change, I wondered,” says Komal.
After multiple excruciating rounds of auditions, Komal was selected among 250 people. It was Komal’s strong persona, camera presence and passion for singing that impressed the makers, says Shameer. He adds, “Her talent and insights about the transgender community in India makes her unique and confident. Unlike other band members, Komal’s vocal texture is very different from others.”
“The intention was to give the transgender community a platform to showcase their talent through the lens of music and entertainment. When everyone in the society is treated equally, the world becomes a better place to live in,” Shameer adds.
Their first song was ‘Hum Hain Happy’, a cover of Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’. A peppy number with Indian classical beats and hand-clapping gestures was an instant hit. The song begins with actor Anushka Sharma’s narration. This was followed by other ‘Sab rab de bande’, ‘Hil Pori Hila’, featuring Arjun Kapoor and ‘Ae Raju’ with Hritik Roshan. These songs were aired on music channels, played on radio and shared widely on social media platforms.
With their sheer hard work and talent, the 6 Pack Band has performed in several places such as Mirchi Music Awards, The Kapil Sharma Show, Economic Times Women’s Forum, Tomorrow’s India Global Summit, Hyderabad Literary Festival, etc. These include solo, group and opening acts. Their song, ‘Rab De Bande’ has hit 25 million views on YouTube.
However, the band’s claim to fame was the big win at the Cannes Grand Prix Glass Lion in 2016 for creating India’s first transgender music group for Hindustan Unilever’s (HUL) brand Brooke Bond Red Label. They won the Glass Lion, an award that ‘celebrates culture-shifting creativity’. Interestingly, it is the only South Asian band to ever perform on the main stage of Cannes.
Since then, there has been an outpouring of love and respect from people.
“I must have pinched myself so many times in between all the press conferences, shootings and stages performances. My life changed and finally, people accepted us. I remember I was shopping and a family approached me for a selfie. They even invited me to their house for lunch. Our community leaders put our hoardings and organised several concerts including the Ulhasnagar one,” says Komal.
Even her family came around and accepted her. Their differences are now a thing of the past, “My brother called me and said ‘naam roshan kar diya parivar ka (You have made us all proud)’. I am back to celebrating festivals with my family,” she says.
On a parting note, Komal says instead of alienating people who don’t identify with their gender roles assigned at birth, parents should change norms and set examples in society. “We are also humans and we possess the skills and knowledge, just like others. I hope we can break these shackles and do better as humans,” she signs off.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)