According to the last census, India has 500,000 self-declared transgender people. And since April 2014, the Indian government has mandated that forms have a “third gender” box on forms, along with male and female.

But many suspect that there are many more transgender folks living in the shadows in India. And for some, a much older word than transgender applies: Hijra.

Hijras are male-to-female trans, but much more than that: they are a special and ancient group that’s both stigmatized and a real presence in cities like the one where I live, Mumbai.

Enter into all this the 6 Pack Band, an all-Hijra group that’s definitely not living in the shadows.

It seems like all of India is now humming along to their cover of Pharrell Williams’ breakout hit Happy. Their version is called Hum Hain Happy, and the song’s spicy and highly-produced video, sponsored by Brooke Bond Red Label Tea, has more than a million views on YouTube.

As evident by the introductory narration, the choice to cover “Happy” is deliberate, because most Hijras one sees out in public here don’t necessarily seem “happy” — they’re beggars.

If you’ve traveled by local train or even taxi in Mumbai, you’ve probably been accosted by a Hijra … or six. They move from person to person — or car to car — begging for rupees in exchange for a blessing. They’re usually dressed in bright saris and makeup. And they have this loud flat-palmed clap they do, as they get right in your personal space. They have presence: a larger than life public persona that is bawdy, pushy, and loud, as illustrated by this short but popular comedy sketch.

In casting 6 Pack Band, the production team looked for Hijras with screen presence, a voice and attitude. They turned for advice to members of the Humsafar Trust, a nonprofit that supports the LGBT community in India.

And Pallav Patankar of Humsafar likes the results. “I liked the whole tone and happiness about it and that they’re laughing. That was really nice,” he tells me.

A complicated order

Patankar and others admit Hijras have a very complicated status in India; even the term “Hijra” is a social construct, one that goes back centuries.

Historically, some Hijras held positions of power in India’s royal courts. Legend has it that a long, long time ago, when the events of the Hindu epic the Ramayana were unfolding, Lord Rama, the king, was banished to exile. As he left, he called the citizens who came to see him off his brothers and sisters, and he entreated them to go home. When he returned, 14 years later, he was shocked to find the Hijras camping out at the outskirts of town, where he’d left them. They said since they were neither true men nor women, he hadn’t dismissed them, so they’d waited. For their loyalty, he blessed them and said, “Whomever you bless will be blessed by me. The blessings that Hijras offer today in return for cash are related directly to this legend.

Anitha Chettiar, a professor of sociology, has interviewed dozens of Hijras for her research, worked with them, become friends with them, mentored them. She says that each Hijra belongs to one of seven orders or gharanas across India, and their leaders generally reside in Mumbai. Each order has a fairly rigid hierarchy with rules, and they’re very secretive.

Traditionally Hijras can have three professions: Mangti, which is "begging," then ritual begging, which happens in a more welcoming manner at occasions like weddings, births, birthdays. This is called Badhai, which literally means "congratulations." The third is sex work, which is called Dhanda, or just “the trade.” A few Hijra are now stepping out of these trades into salaried jobs, says Patankar from Humsafar — it’s a slow movement, but it is happening. Chettiar knows Hijras who work in NGOs and even offices.

Still, Chettiar says the reason quasi-religious Hijra “orders” exist is because of society's intolerance of trans people. Within the Hijra hierarchy, they can drop their social masks and be themselves. A feminine soul trapped in a male body, as she puts it.

But joining the Hijras isn’t as easy as draping a sari. Trans women who want to join the Hijras are often dissuaded at first — by the Hijras. If they’re adamant, they’re allowed to come live with them, like novitiates. Then, if they’re still keen, they’re initiated through a symbolic ritual.

Some choose to be castrated; some don’t.

“There is a belief among the Hijras that if you castrate yourself, all your male blood is allowed to flow out of your body and the Hijra goddess Bahuchara mata, comes and blesses you,” Chettiar explains. “She endows you with all female qualities.”

Blessings and curses

Despite the “third gender” victory on bureaucratic forms, things seem tough for Hijras today. Even in my lifetime, I’ve seen fewer Hijras at festive occasions coming to bless a baby or newlyweds. I’ve seen people disrespect them, shun them, curse them.

The 6 Pack Band’s second singleSab rab ke bande — it means “All God’s Folks” — touches on the stigma and prejudice they face.  

Still, the band isn't thrilling everyone in the trans community here, especially its “Happy” side.

Nadika Nadja, a vocal transwoman from Chennai, wrote anop/ed piece about why 6 Pack bothers her: she says it feels condescending and synthetic. In an email she told me: “My biggest criticism is that the Hijra women who are supposedly the band seem to have zero creative control over the song. They are just props.”

But Pallav Patankar disagrees: “Usually community members are shown as crying or talking about their misery,” he says. “I think [6 Pack] set a benchmark for other members of the Hijra community by saying that, ‘I can see a life beyond the stigma and discrimination — let me also try to be happy and be a part of society.’”

Either way, I do think we’re all God's folks and I, for one, am quite happy to have a Hijra’s blessings when I’m commuting.

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI