Re-viewing the Other: Locating Subversion in IndoFijian Cultural Performances

by: , September 12, 2018


‘Throughout time and space, women and men have expressed themselves through their moving bodies by dancing on stage, which, in turn, has moved other bodies, those of their audiences. Further, the bodies which have been moved have not kept still themselves; they have, in turn, affected other bodies and altered the way they have been perceived. Those bodies are, in and of themselves, political bodies. They are part of engrained symbolic webs that mould them and enable them to become what they are. Hence, dance and politics are always already intertwined. Dancing bodies affect bodies in the audience; all of those bodies are political entities’. (Mills 2017: 2)

This article argues that the performance of Lahanga Naach (LN) is a political act, and that politics are entwined in its performers’ experiences. [1] Being performers of this genre is not a temporary identity but one that outlives the stage. However, the performers do not inhabit a readily acceptable identity due to LN’s non-heteronormative qualities. Liminal gender displays are still largely condemned and discouraged in IndoFijian culture and consequently, performers encounter challenges in real life. The widespread perception of homosexuality is negative, since Christianity has significant influence on national ideologies, although some legal protection has been ensured in recent constitutional amendments. [2] Nonetheless, through the medium of the stage and their performance, nachaniya(s) deal with these issues, and also advocate for social changes and a legitimisation of their liminal gender presence.


The research presented here is the result of an extensive literature review of texts on gender, feminism and folklore. Interviews with performers of the Lahanga Naach genre, give an insight into experiences on and off-stage and provide one of the main sources of information. The underlying rationale of this article is to give a voice to individuals silenced by society and therefore the performers’ views are predominant. Ashley, Kushwa, Johnny, Bhan, Monto, Bijuriya, Sheetal are some performer field consultants cited in the article. [3] These performers live in different parts of Fiji and New Zealand. Some performances were also recorded and analysed for their subversive elements. The contribution of performers is key to understanding their motivations and struggles in sustaining a liminal gender identity in contexts which operate under systems founded on a rigid gender binary.

What is Lahanga Naach?

LN (skirt dance) is a performance genre that has not been academically studied and documented, thus this project marks the first theoretical engagement with it. LN is a public dance performance by a biological male, dressed in attire normatively associated with females. LN is the only IndoFijian performance that has a dominant dance aspect. While other genres may feature dancing, these result from impromptu responses to a performance atmosphere, rather than being presented by a designated dancer, who comes prepared with costumes and a musical ensemble. Today, LN is largely seen as entertainment, however, historical accounts from performers and cultural experts show that this genre has other significances, some more acknowledged than others. Disparaging attitude towards contemporary LN performers is a key factor in the genre’s devaluation in wider society. Despite the negative associations surrounding LN performers, the dance continues to be seen in numerous social events. Political tensions in Fiji have at times materialised into overt forms of dissension, such as the coups of 1987, 2000 and 2016. IndoFijians have largely been blamed for these upheavals by political leaders of the indigenous population, namely the iTaukei. This environment is one reason why academics based in Fiji have mostly focused on political research and have not paid much attention to other aspects like cultural performances, particularly of the IndoFijians. There has been some research on folk practices, but these were carried out by foreign based academics such as Miller (2008) and Brenneis (1983). A few studies by local academics include Goundar (2015) and Shandil (2016 & 2017).

Conversations with field consultants produced varying theories on LN’s development in Fiji. These variations result from the fact that LN is an oral cultural tradition [4] and has not historically benefitted from any written and archival record. These theories range from LN being an Indian import to a more circumstantial origin. At least two performers also claimed that LN was a spin-off from another performance genre, namely, Nautanki. [5] The origin of LN has links with India. Labourers from India were sourced under an indenture system to work for the Colonial Sugar Refinery Company in Fiji. Through researching for material to incorporate into their performances online, the younger generation of performers has established connections between LN and India performance culture. Bijuriya, a hereditary LN performer, however, states confidently ‘it is a performance form from India’, a fact he learnt from his ancestors and that he also later learnt through research which he credits to being ‘a bit literate’. (2017)

Studies of Indian history show that cross-dressed males are a prominent feature of folk culture and informal entertainment, particularly in the areas Fiji’s indentured labourers were sourced from. Morcom notes that, in the Indian context performers of nat, who are essentially cross-dressed males performing erotic dance forms as females, are a common feature today and that this was also a historical practice. (2013: 66-72) Among IndoFijians, the erotic appeal in these performances is a relatively recent introduction. Research shows that traditionally performances by cross-dressed males were incorporated into religious festivals and celebrations like weddings, hence, performers’ appearance and dance movements were regulated. A traditional LN nachaniya dressed colourfully yet conservatively. His blouse would be long-sleeved and covered his torso. His skirt would be long enough to hide his feet completely. It is traditionally expected for IndoFijian females to wear clothes that fully cover their bodies, and this was also emphasised on nachaniya(s), who were embodying femininity. Their dance movements were basically steps taken in different directions with some graceful hand and head movements to compliment the steps. The top layer of the multi-layered skirt was lifted and swayed with the hand in time with music and other movements. New generation performers are heavily influenced by Bollywood culture, which is reflected in nachaniyas’ choice of costumes, make-up, song lyrics and most importantly, their emulation of dance movements from Bollywood film sequences. The recorded songs these dancers perform to are always by female vocalists. Moreover, the song lyrics are mostly sexual puns, or are narrations of intimate heterosexual encounters. On-stage, the typical contemporary nachaniya presents a more energised performance compared to his older counterparts, that often incorporates some form of interaction with mainly male audience members. [6] Essentially, performers adopt sexualised avatars in the fashion of actresses that perform Bollywood item songs. [7] Alluring looks, hip rotations, torso wiggling, and lip squirming are some routinely embodied movements. The new generation of nachaniya’s attire also differs from older costumes. Blouses are padded to resemble breasts and shortened to expose the abdominal area. The back is almost bare as the blouses are held together with one or two thin straps. Skirt lengths vary depending on performance contexts, but full body twirls often make skirts flare, thus revealing the feet. These changes have had an impact on LN’s perception in society, as people now consider this to be a form of entertainment rather than a cultural practice, which it was formerly.

There is no evidence that transgender or transvestite persons were brought to Fiji during indenture from India, thus, this practice developed instinctively when men, playfully or out of a desire to perform, decided on cross-dressing and dancing. Amrit, a direct descendant of indentured labourers claims to have witnessed LN development because of existent social and cultural circumstances. He states:

‘Lahanga Naach began like this. Men would dance in gatherings [8] like this, what we are calling jhangiya wala naach [9] (pant dancing) while wearing bells on their ankles. In those days there were very few women. In some homes there were four men and they would have one woman living there and they managed to live their lives. Men asked women to join them and show what talents they had. The women wore Lahanga (skirt) in those days, which they wore in the dances. It was the women who performed LN. [10] But when these women’s children started growing older then they became shy and did not want to perform before anyone. The men then took over from them by wearing their Lahanga and they put on some things on their faces to change their appearance and they began performing as women. They looked like women, but those who were witnessing the performance knew that these were men. (Prasad 2017)

Prasad’s observation is supported to some degree by official records that show a disparity in the ratio of males and females. Initially, only articles of female clothing were used to indicate this temporary transformation. Gradually, people’s interest in watching these performances grew, leading performers to invest time and creativity into their performances. Performance groups were formed and musical instruments, costumes, ankle bells, jewellery and make-up materials were sought. Interviews reveal that former LN performers were men in the conventional sense; heterosexist, married and family heads. Such individuals reinforced patriarchal ideologies by fully embodying the expectations society and culture had of them. Their temporary liminal displays demonstrate how detached stage performance can be from daily life performances. They reified hegemony by presenting the absurdity of their mixed gender appearance and simultaneously equating such images with humour and entertainment, hence, categorizing these performances as inconsequential.

The Nachaniya

The term nachaniya means dancer, but over time it has come to embody some implicit and derogatory meanings. When referring to performers, nachaniya implies an occupation. However, the semantic baggage the term has collected denotes promiscuity or inability to restrict movement within sanctioned spaces. For example, a female can be disparagingly called nachaniya to suggest that she is unable to remain socially inconspicuous or demure. It became clear during my field work that most people understood nachaniya as the name for both cross dressed and transgender performers. Bijuriya clarifies that LN’s declining reputation has led people to attach other demeaning names to it. [11] Bijuriya, an experienced and respected nachaniya did not place blame for this poor image on critics alone, attributing some of it to nachaniya(s) for ‘not maintaining any standard’. He identified some off-stage behaviour of nachaniya(s), like excessive alcohol consumption, homosexual practices and erotic dressing, as factors that maligned their image and subsequently that of the genre. Paturiya and Chinaar Naach, both synonymous with whore, bitch or licentious, were other names used instead of LN. These terms are feminine and are usually exclusively used in reference to females, therefore, by using these to describe LN, the critics acknowledge the performers’ femininity. This is ironic, since the critics have been and continue to be unsupportive of LN as they disapproved of male cross dressing, yet they were acknowledging the femininity central to the issue.

Nonetheless, the nachaniya represents the first socially accepted form of gender subversion among IndoFijians. Their presence both on and off-stage can arguably create the circumstances that inspire gender mediation. The evolving image of nachaniya, opens new possibilities for diverse gender identities and the distortion of gender polarities. Mageo argues:

‘Liminality, as a social representation of a medial term between a social polarity, is an avenue through which the transformation of cultural categories can take place. Liminal terms do their medial work — that is, collapsing cultural categories — by their essential negativity. Cultural polarities are constituted on the presupposition they specify a difference that makes a difference. Liminal persons are walking demonstrations that whatever the difference predicated by the polarity is, that it does not make any serious difference. (1996: 619)

Traditionally and in general, the tenuous display of masculine and feminine traits on the same individual was interpreted as entertainment. Nonetheless, the insinuations and narratives that these generate cannot be restricted to the performance context. Social transformations instigated by these performances and performers, are inevitable and undeniable. While the non-normative gender displays in males began with cross-dressing for performances, presently there are nachaniya(s) who have stretched social expectations of gender, so that previously unrecognised gender embodiments now have a consensual identity. Even though objections still exist, current levels of acceptance have been attained by inciting social change by establishing presence over many years. Monto credits LN for the recognition of his identity stating:

‘I think when we perform LN especially when we are gay or transgender, it makes it easier to identify our gender identity. For example, if I only did Bollywood dancing then I would not be getting as much respect as I am getting now because I also do LN. This is because LN has religious, cultural and traditional roots, so we get respect from people. People know that we are nachaniya. Like when you, went looking for a nachaniya(s) to interview, then people must have mentioned me. Because when you do Bollywood dance you can just play any song and dance. You can wear the shortest skirts and perform. But it is different with LN as you need to dance with your feet, your ankle bells, your hips, there is eye movement and head movements as well’. [12]

Monto implies that people perceive their gender identity and nachaniya role, synonymously. He indicates that performers of traditional LN are granted a higher level of respect, due to the dance’s cultural foundations, as opposed to those dancing to recorded film music. IndoFijian traditions are central to the nachaniya’s identity, as they form the largest and only concentration of people with South Asian links in the South Pacific. Many aspects of their performances including dress and musical instruments are distinct from those of their surrounding nations and cultures. In that sense, IndoFijians demonstrate the deep connections behind their cultural practices. However, certain unchecked transformations have threatened to alter traditions, the intrusion of Bollywood culture, for example, has eroded some values personified by the nachaniya, by injecting an entertainment rationale into performances. For Monto and many other nachaniya, LN is more than just dancing for entertainment. Performers like Bijuriya and Monto depict more fluidity in their overall image, as they sing the folksongs they dance to, and when contexts arise, they also perform to film music for the benefit of younger audiences. This gives them potential to be present in wider social contexts, which in turn assists their goal of naturalising their identity by associating it with every facet of society. For example, previously the only venues for LN were religious events and weddings, but today nachaniya(s) perform at stage shows, beauty contests, parties, child birth rituals, and for other family functions. Moreover, nachaniya(s) are no longer just performers, but some hold formal positions like teachers and academics, but still perform LN. Such changes have provided the impetus for a reviewing of the nachaniya identity.

The evidence of this evolution is in the various categories of nachaniya, who embody various features that represent the social circumstances in which their identity developed. This article outlines three different types of nachaniya. It must be noted that while they exist at the same time in history, they represent different periods of the same genre. The first category is that of more old-fashioned nachaniya, who cross dressed for performances and reverted to living their lives as hegemonic males. Field consultants related witnessing performances by crossed dressed males in the 1970s and 1980s until the nachaniya image changed. Dhiren, a cultural expert, narrates witnessing such performers as:

‘Men who dressed up for the moment. Now … when I say man, I mean man. I don’t mean any other type like … mixed gender. [13] What has happened now? The mixed gendered dancers have taken over these performances. Before, even if they were effeminate or had other choices people would not know but now they have made it obvious’. (2017)

Dhiren alludes to the practice of veiling subversive identity, and nachaniya(s) have had to submit to this social demand. I encountered at least two performers during the time of the field work who could be placed in this category. One was a ninety-two-year old man, whose age had put an end to his performances. The second was a performer who was actively performing under the stage name, Hurricane Bibi. [14] Both were married, with children and while they were nachaniya(s), they were also farmers. Monto, a young performer, identified Bibi as the first nachaniya he saw and aspired to emulate. Monto added, however, that nachaniya(s) like Bibi who fulfilled hegemonic male roles, but were also feminine, occupied an ambiguous position for younger performers struggling to negotiate their preferred identity. Monto states:

‘It was difficult for us on another level when we witnessed some of these nachaniya(s) who were performing these dances and they were married and with children. This really confused me because I was wondering how that was possible. I felt different in myself and could not understand how they were managing it’. (2017)

While Monto’s statement problematises Bibi’s identity somewhat, his social roles as husband, father and patriarchal head of household, reifies heteronormativity.

Those who perform LN but do not fulfil all expectations, form the second category of performers. These nachaniyas were also the primary income earners in their families, but their family units comprised of their parents or younger siblings rather than a wife and/or children. In all cases the nachaniyas in the second category were unmarried. Combined together, these factors mean that the nachaniya is not assuming the heteronormative patriarchal roles of husband and father. They had taken up the performance in late teenage years or early twenties and established their fluid identity through many years of performing. The key factor that has helped them deviate from social norms and sustain a liveable identity has been their ability to maintain economic independence. The fact that they financially support themselves and delimit their potentially subversive practices to certain discursive contexts, enables them to maintain social respectability and influence to quite a significant degree. In my observation, the performers of this category, wore typically male or gender-neutral attire. One performer’s choice to wear gender neutral clothes was a reaction to his social context where he was not permitted to wear what he desired. The conversation went as follows:

Vicky: But is it necessary that if you are feminine that you need to go into cross-dressed dancing?

Bhan: No.Well it is just like … when you cross dress (hesitates contemplatingly) … well it is cross dressing for a straight person but for a ‘gay person ’… like someone who thinks that I am a ‘women’ (sic) from inside like for us it is not cross dressing. For me it is like … now I am going into clothes that are meant for me.

Vicky: So, to society it seems odd but to you…?

Bhan: That’s one of the reasons like personally you will never see me in proper formal male dress. I do not have any. I do not like wearing shirts and trousers … I just like to wear these round necks as you must have seen me all these times. Maybe track pants … so these are things that I like to wear. But if you ask me to wear a salwar kameez or a sari then I will be much more comfortable. (Bhan 2017)

Bhan’s indicates that while he desires to wear female attire constantly, he is compelled not to by his occupational requirements. These comments cannot represent the perception of all performers in this category, but none of performers who I would place within this second band wore female clothes off-stage. Most of my respondents belonged to this list. They are performers, confident enough to publicly declare a fluid identity, but were unwilling or unable to wear clothing that would mark them generally as women. Bijuriya, a nachaniya in this second category comes closest to being a hereditary performer. His grandfather had been a nachaniya and therefore he faced far fewer objections when he began to perform. Bijuriya explains ‘when I started, people just said that he is following in the footsteps of his grandfather’. (2017) Despite his hereditary status Bijuriya is placed in the second category because he does not intend to marry or raise a family, thus deliberately failing to meet heteronormative expectations.

The third category of performers were those who performed in and wore female attire daily. I interviewed two performers who could be placed under this category. Neither was married or had plans to marry. Both were financially independent, one lived with his mother, and the other lived alone, engaged in several businesses that had branched out of LN performances, such as doing bridal designs and making sweets and cakes for weddings. Both performers clarified that they wore markedly female attire daily and added that because of their financial independence, they maintained a high level of confidence about their identity. In their opinion, displaying certainty about their own selves, created the right space for others to accept who they were. Sporadic criticisms and teasing still existed, but both believed that these were too few to be considered significant.

Motivation for Performing

‘The dance begins, and-presto-all sorts of things start to happen before your eyes … whether you realise it or not, you will also be assessing and broadening your own life experiences, and how they relate to what you have just seen. Why? Because viewing live dance is always a very personal experience … as humans we automatically engage our emotions, thought, and even bodies when our human compatriots are doing actions of any kind in close proximity to us’. (Nadel & Strauss 2003: xviii-xix)

Nadel and Strauss’s assertion that dance is, ‘a very personal experience’ has implications on the dances nachaniya(s) perform and how audiences perceive these performances. The appearance of the nachaniya and all aspects of his dance embodiment contravene hegemony. In sharing their personal space with the body of the dancing nachaniya, every audience member is conjoined in this subversive practice. Whether they approve or disapprove of the performance, they have acknowledged the existence of these liminal embodiments. In many cases, this acknowledgement is what the performer seeks, as it substantiates his existence and begins the process of his identification. Most performers emphasised that the dances they performed on-stage were important to their presence in society. It was clear that they used dancing as a way of announcing their existence to society. Monto explains:

‘I wanted to perform LN because I felt that I was a person who wants to do LN … you know how from an early age you can identify yourself if you want to be a boy or a girl or you want to be a gay [15]. I thought I am a gay. It is not that you have to do LN if you are gay but from my perspective I wanted to do LN.’

Although Monto clarifies that one does not have to become a nachaniya if one was gay, the earlier portion of the quotation suggests that he saw a connection between his gay identity and his desire to perform LN.

Ness claims ‘each facet of social life, from mythology to subsistence practices, provides some possibility of insights into cultural phenomena. (1992: 230) Virtually no moment of social existence is completely without some ongoing process of representation or utterly beyond some subsequent process of culturally relevant interpretation.’ Dance in the IndoFijian psyche represent moments when the inner-self gets reflected onto the corporeal body in a publicly visible manner. LN is a site ‘where an interrelationship between cultural practices and freedom of expression merges’ (Dankworth 2014: 110), as the nachaniya takes the stage to present dance moves, dressed in the attire typically of the opposite gender. Hence, as the nachaniya entertains the audience, they simultaneously speak to the cultural systems that place individuals in polarised categories of male/female and man/woman. Mills says of dance:

‘Dance is an embodied language, a form of communication between bodies in motion. As such, it adheres to different rules and structures than those of verbal language. Understanding dance as a method of communication brings into the political conversations between those subjects who, through an embodied method of self- expression, were not listened to when politics is understood solely through verbal language. Dance is the way those subjects perform their equality to those expressing themselves through verbal language.’ (2017: 24)

In a key sense, the dance platform can be turned into a political stage, a process my field consultants were actively pursuing. They live in plural worlds, the one that is already present and the one that they create through their performances. Through dance, the nachaniya publicly presents a feminine appearance and image, which feels natural to the audience in that context. The stage is perhaps the only place the nachaniya freely and unrelentingly expresses his femininity, where it is judged in terms of how well it is embodied rather than being questioned on why such an embodiment was attempted.

Nilu was another performer who stated that the idea of performing ‘came from my heart’ and despite of restrictions placed by his father and issues created by relatives, he pursued becoming a nachaniya. The other nachaniya(s) attributed their move into performances to their friends who were already dancing and invited them to join in. The possibility of appearing publicly as women drove most of the nachaniya onto the stage and the love for dancing as well as the financial benefits of performing, kept them there. A few of the field consultants noted that at some point in their lives LN was their main source of income and some also used this income to get their siblings through school, construct proper houses for their family and start off businesses. Those who could have left performing after becoming financially well-established, continued performing, citing their love for dance and the cultural significance of LN as the motivation to go on. Regardless of their reasons to begin or continue performing, these individuals have compelled society to rethink some widely accepted misconceptions on liminal identities.

This reconceptualization transpired because even as these subversive performances are temporary, the connections materialised in the ‘necessarily collective’ (Skjoldager-Nielsen & Edelman 2014: 3) sharing of the performance experience between nachaniya(s) and audience, were enduring. Kapferer says of this phenomenon:

‘Individuals experience themselves-they experience their experience and reflect on it-both from their standpoint and from the standpoint of others within their culture … Further, I do not experience your experience; I experience my experience of you. The expressions revealed on your face, in the gestural organisation of your body, through the meeting of our glances, are experienced through my body and my situation’. (1986: 189)

These moments are pivotal to the overall identity production of the nachaniya because he gets to appear in a space he shares with the community. Since social sanctions delimit the spaces in which they can be socially visible, the performance stage marks the one setting where he can be himself. He transforms the stage into a ‘performative space’ (Fisher-Lichte 2008: 107) through the embodiment of historical possibilities reserved for female bodies, on his male body. In presenting this subversive embodiment, he draws attention to his human body, and even if his current embodiment gets rejected, his existence as a living, moving and socially engaged individual is established. Even when the performance concludes, the image of the nachaniya remains etched in viewers’ minds. This marks the dissolution of the veil and the emergence of the nachaniya as the counter narrative to the existent suppressive gender order.

Performativity and Performance

‘As soon as performativity comes to rest on a performance, questions of embodiment, of social relations, of ideological interpellations of emotional and political effect, all become discussable … when performativity materialises as performance in that risky and dangerous negotiation between a doing (a reiteration of norms) and a thing done (discursive conventions that frame our interpellations), between someone’s body and the conventions of embodiment, we have access to cultural meanings and critique’. (Dolan 2005: 6)

LN represents what Dolan describes as sites where ‘performativity comes to rest on a performance’. Nachaniya(s) embodiments of gender, materialise previously non-existent identities by moving beyond boundaries that have historically suppressed such corporeal potentialities. Ekins explains ‘gender femaling refers to manifold ways in which femalers adopt the behaviours, emotions and cognitions socio-culturally associated with being female … in the process of femaling, persons bodies, selves and identities), actions, events, and objects (clothes and the paraphernalia of femininity) are variously implicated’. (2002: 39) Suthrell adds that clothing ‘is a strong and visible part of our need to assert identity’(2004: 14), thus, when a nachaniya puts on female clothes, he projects himself in a nuanced identity. Suthrell continues:

‘perhaps the appeal is not only of another identity but of passing through forbidden (and therefore exotic) portals into the world of the opposite. Clothing is the clue and the passport to this because it acts as such a significant marker’ and by entering the clothing of the opposite sex one can ‘participate in activities that would be otherwise proscribed’. (2004: 8)

This paper has focused primarily on the impact of such subversive performances on social perceptions and ideologies that have been foundational to social and cultural functioning. It has become apparent that the performing bodies of nachaniya(s) cannot be regarded as ordinary bodies that only absorb and reflect social conventions. They can no longer be resigned to passivity where they are ‘written upon by networks by which it has been disciplined’. (Mills 2017: 19) These bodies are performative as they ‘do not express a pre-existing identity but engender identity’ through the very acts they perform (Fisher-Lichte 2005: 27) and are causing a re-inscription of what is hegemonic. Butler, in Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter argues the ability of performative acts in disproving and collapsing dichotomies (1999 [1990]), such as the IndoFijian conception of gender as a choice between two rigidly emphasised categories. Fisher-Lichte argues ‘embodiment …presupposes disembodiment’ (2005: 79) which means that performers resist a pre-existing identity to assume a new one. Even though these embodiments can be deemed as temporary, their effect is not, as Fisher-Lichte explains ‘while the actors’ gestures, movements, and sounds are transitory, the meanings they bring forth continue to exist beyond these fleeting signs’. (2005: 79) Blacking adds ‘culture is not a template that controls people’s thoughts and patterns of action; it is rather available knowledge that is invoked and constantly reinvented in the course of social interaction’. (1983: 95) This process, nonetheless, is characterised by as many impediments, as it offers opportunities to these performers.

In a reading of Butler’s claim that ‘the parodic repetition of gender’ (Butler 1999 [1990]: 187) can disprove its intractable conception, Walker suggests that ‘we as individual subjects can authoritatively choose when and how we hyperbolize’ (2010: 72) exhibitions of gender characteristics. This claim, however, needs to be analysed in conjunction with Butler’s claim in the same text where she argues against a ‘pre-existing subject’ (1999 (1990): 182) by attributing the constitution of individuals to discursive convergences which forecloses the notion of pre-discursive agency. In simple terms, Walker explains that Butler’s theory of identity formation, does not speculate that an individual stands before their closet daily contemplating what outfit they should adorn to subvert heterosexism that day. (72) Those who hyperbolize their gender appearance, like the nachaniya, may not be doing so with the specific intention of being subversive. Yet, by their very act of dressing and being, they problematize the hegemonic and naturalised image of gender, as either this or that, in a binary model.

As conversations with performers made apparent, none of them had ventured into LN to demand social change or debate social reality. They had taken a path, which despite of its challenges resulting from their individual cultural and social embeddedness, offered them the fulfilment of desire or realisation of talents. A phrase commonly heard in interviews was ‘bhitar se (from inside)’ implying that the motivation to embark on their current life trajectory came from within themselves rather than social circumstances. Li argues that ‘essence’ itself ‘is transferable and iterative’. (2003: 166) She makes this claim in her analysis of cross-dressed theatre where performers transcend ‘the boundary of real and the fictional’ and ‘blend real life and play acting’. (Li 2003:158) The nachaniya claims that he is god gifted to perform that role and to exhibit that image both on and off-stage. There is embodiment of essence that they were not expected to inherit or be drawn to. Interestingly, culture and society did both; instate barriers to their progress and provide avenues to deal with these hurdles. The choices that these individuals considered natural to them, have also had wider social ramifications, even if these were unintended.


Pacific societies do not give ‘ontological priority’ (Alexeyeff, 2009: 122) to sexual orientations in considering gender. With IndoFijians, failure to embody sanctioned gender ideals is always attributed to non-heterosexual tendencies. The perception is that divergent attire, appearance and feminised embodiment is a ruse to attract sex with other men. Hence, the notion of homosexuality motivates people to discriminate against and be abusive to nachaniya(s).

An incident that particularly drew my attention to the stereotypes associated with the nachaniya, was Ashley ‘s anecdote about a job interview:

Ashley: The lady who had arranged for me to get interviewed had already gotten me to shorten my hair. I had not even been given the job and she got me to do? that. First, she said if you get the job then you get a haircut and then she called before the interview and said that it will be better if you get a haircut before you come. She said dress up professionally, do not apply nail polish, keep your nails short, do not wear makeup or earrings and I followed all those requirements. My aunty explained to me that people may be thinking many different things about you because you dress differently. My aunty had already warned me that I could be asked those types of questions at the interview.

The lady at the interview told me that they would consider if I was suitable for the position. I did share with them that I did bridals and I danced at weddings, because I do those things part time or after hours and weekends. This job was supposed to be an eight to five commitment. I told them that I was very professional about my work and that I kept my professional life and personal life separate and that I never dress up as a girl when coming to work.

Vicky: But would you dress up like that if it was allowed?

Ashley: ‘Actually no’. This is because I do not like to wear makeup during the day. I do not like dressing up [16] during the day either.

Vicky: And what about a top and skirt without makeup?

Ashley: No, I still would not. That is because if I did dress up then I would not like my beard to be shown. It really makes me embarrassed, so I avoid that. I am more comfortable with that at night. Also, it will be difficult to manage such clothes in the heat. So, during the interview they asked, ‘if we give you the job what sort of dressing will you do when coming to work?’ That was the question. I said I will wear normal shirt and pants, so they asked, ‘don’t you wear top and skirt to work?’ They asked if I would dress up like that. I said, ‘no, why would I do that?’ They said ‘no, we were thinking that you might do such things’. They said, ‘if you are thinking about dressing that way and coming to work then please do not’. They had not even given me the job at that time, but they had already put all these conditions. They said, ‘if you dress that way then the boys will be attracted to you and they will keep coming after you so, ‘will you be comfortable with that? ’I explained to them that firstly, if I get the job there, then I would not dress up in female clothes and secondly, when at work I would maintain the professionalism and I will not entertain such behaviour from the boys. I told them that my purpose there was not to entertain anyone but to do the job I was hired for. (Ashley 2017)

As Ashley’s experience demonstrates, the hegemonic gendering system emphasises the correspondence between individuals’ appearance and their specific gender identity. Lucal identifies in other similar gendering processes ‘a person who fails to establish a gendered appearance that corresponds to the person’s gender, faces challenges to his identity and status’. (1999: 784) First, the gender nonconformists must find a way in which to consult do you mean construct? an identity in a society that denies him any legitimacy. A person is likely to want to define himself as ‘normal’ in the face of cultural evidence to the contrary. Second, the individual also must deal with other people’s challenges to identity and status-deciding how to respond, what such reactions to their appearance mean, and so forth. Lucal’s observation is evidenced in Ashley’s case in various forms. The interview panel’s specific conditions on Ashley’s appearance shows the oppressiveness of the binary gender system. Doan calls this ‘the tyranny of gender’ and explains that it

‘arises when people dare to challenge the hegemonic expectations for appropriately gendered behaviour … These gendered expectations are an artefact of the patriarchal dichotomization of gender and can have profound and painful consequences. For the gender variant, the tyranny of gender intrudes on every aspect of the spaces in which we live and constrains the behaviours that we display’. (2010: 635)

Even though Ashley was careful about separating his nachaniya identity from his formal profession, preconceived ideologies still negatively impacted his aspirations for formal employment. The advice from Ashley’s aunty also proved the existence of such ideologies in wider society, hence her proactive approach in preparing Ashley for such encounters. The assumption that that a nachaniya would inevitably engage sexually with people they interact with is another point for discussion. This was a common misconception amongst many, as field consultants identified this as a dominant ideology they encountered. More worryingly, the interview panellist’s perception that the male co-workers would inevitably be ‘attracted’ to Ashley, implying that he would not be able to self-establish any social boundaries. Even if Ashley’s failure to secure the job may not have had anything to do with his gender identity (even though he strongly felt that it did), the fact that he was asked such questions, indicate people’s inability to see beyond the corporeal body to the individual’s abilities. Finally, Ashley’s embarrassment regarding his beard also draws attention to the fact that he strives to present a specific form of feminine appearance that again aligns with the socially expected one. Bhagirati presented an interesting opinion regarding this notion in such terms:

‘I can add one more thing in relation to this. When I realised that ‘I am not a man, I am not a women (sic), I am neither of them’. [17] So, before when I wanted to be like women, you know ‘like feminis … like … feminine ’ … we have a lot of problem with our beards, so I used to go for waxing and it was quite painful and expensive back then when I was still a high school kid … And it was like twice a month or once a month. I would also always apply nail polish and henna designs. However, after realising that I am not ‘a women’ (sic), I started just shaving. It is okay to be what I am. That I do not have to look exactly like a woman. I do not have to have soft skin to fake that ‘I am a women’. ‘I am not a fake women’. (Bhan 2017)

Bhan’s narration here indicates his act of freeing himself from the bonds of binary thinking. Bhan decides to create his own identity rather than submit to a pre-existing one. For instance, in embodying socially sanctioned feminine image, he found himself in a doubly oppressed situation. He was already subverting the gender expectations placed on his biological sex, that is, embodying an androgynous gender display despite being male. As a result, Bhan faced several social challenges. As a gender liminal person, he also experienced an added level of oppression as social expectations compelled him to adhere to a specific form of femininity. Bhan’s complex identity negotiations demonstrate that liminality can be accepted within certain parameters, which are sometimes interpreted as the norm for the embodiment of gender liminality. An application of any form of preconditions to liminal gender displays is essentially dialling back into an oppressive system, the very mechanism that creates discrimination based on gender. Bhan’s decision to allow his beard to show, helps him save money, avoid physical pain and creates an identity where he can embody feminine characteristics without mandatorily having to meet every detail commonly associated with what is considered beauty in a conventional IndoFijian woman. As an impact of his own social situation, Ashley chose to submit to expectations of normative femininity by hiding his beard?

Sheetal, another nachaniya, wears traditional female attire to all his LN performances and most other social events he attends. He realised he could not wear the same attire to his day job as a hair stylist. He did however, add that ‘the other thing is that when I dress up like this [18] people are already saying all these things to me. Now just imagine if I started coming to work in girlish [19] clothes everyday’. (Sheetal 2017) Sheetal lives in a conservative township, thus, he faces a more rigid social environment in which to embody his identity. Sheetal adds ‘even my customers sometimes tell me that in Suva [20] and the Western side, they are in female attire and make up and they ask me why I do not do the same. I just tell them that I do not like it.’ These customers, who are obviously aware of Sheetal’s nachaniya identity, expect him to also adhere to an expectation that they have developed of individuals who are gender liminal. In their statements these customers recognise the fluidity of gender enough to recognise Sheetal’s identity but fail to comprehend that because of this fluidity, Sheetal’s identity can be embodied in various forms. This explains their expectation that Sheetal perhaps desires to cross-dress at work, but has reasons that prevent him from doing so. Sheetal, on the other hand, realises that dressing can create oppression, but in his specific case he chooses to be practical rather than subvert dressing codes just for the sake of it. Sheetal has no qualms or hesitation in wearing a sari, blouse or skirt for his performances or when he attends certain social functions, even where he is not performing.

Collectively, Bhan, Sheetal and Ashley are all subverting norms of femininity and masculinity, but they are doing it in their own styles and using the social, political, cultural and physical resources available to them. Zimman (2009: 60) clarifies ‘when a person first comes out as transgender, that individual is asserting a self-experienced gender identity that is different from the gender he or she is perceived to be by others. In this case, an invisible gender identity is being claimed in much the same way that gays and lesbians come out by claiming a sexual orientation that is often not visible to others’. As Bhan’s experience particularly demonstrates, certain identities unfold gradually as individuals engage in self-discovering journeys, where through a process of shedding and embracing, connecting and disconnecting, their unique sense of self develops. There is more conviction and attachment to such an identity because it is self-created rather than imposed by external forces. This substantiates Abrahams claim that ‘because our individual experiences are so central to the ways in which we put together a sense of identity to underscore the typicality, is to confront one of our dearest held beliefs: that having been made individuals, we should do everything we can to hold on to our sense of uniqueness’. (1986: 50) As we have seen, the nachaniya’s individual constructions of gender and identity are shaped by their experiences on and off-stage. They boast of the fact that despite society’s perception of them as weak and failures, they have managed to build their lives, sustain families and make cultural and social contributions. The non-submissive acts of nachaniya(s) are often hyperbolised and misrepresented by society as deviance and inability, undermining their achievements and their identities. Nonetheless, nachaniya(s) reveal that they apply a different interpretation to their own lives. For instance, when asked if they had any regrets that came out of living as a nachaniya, Bijuriya responded:

‘I do not think so. It is not that if I did not procreate a child, then my life is useless. It cannot be that important as there are also people who are not able to have children even after marriage. So, what is the difference between me and him. Thus, I have to say no. I have never felt disadvantaged, you and me, we are both humans. I earn my own living and I am happy.’

In this statement Bijuriya dismantles the IndoFijian patriarchal precondition, that males need to marry, father children and become heads of families to achieve masculine success. It is non-compliance of such fundamental social conventions that destabilises the tenets of a gender binary.

Bhan’s defiance of the embodiment of both normative femininity and masculinity alludes to the fluidity of gender. His use of the phrase ‘fake women’ also indicates the rigid conditions of the gendering process, in that, even conceptualising gender or describing gender is almost impossible without having to infer to the binaried hegemony. However, as Gagne, Tewksbury and McGaughey help explain, Bhan’s actions simultaneously problematise the foundational status of the very social system it acknowledges:

‘To challenge the binary, individuals must overcome a number of interactional, organisational, and structural barriers. They must learn to live and find ways to cope with the discomfort and hostility that others express at not being able to categorize them within existing gender categories. They need to find ways to support themselves and interact with others in organisations that have social spaces for women and men only. And, they must find ways to establish themselves as legal and social actors within institutions that recognize only two sexes and two congruent genders’. (1997: 504)

It was clear in discussions with Bhan that over time he had gained confidence about his sense of identity. His employment in a tertiary educational institution and regular contact with non-governmental organisations and groups that championed LGBQT rights, enable him to view society and culture from a perspective unavailable to other nachaniya(s). Nonetheless, those who had any awareness of facilities such as Human Rights, LGBQT rights and protection under the constitution referred to these in their interviews. Sheetal, for instance, emphasised several times that he was aware of certain constitutional liberties for trans people, but saw little effort from governments in ensuring that these were enforced. This failure was evidenced in the Ashley job interview scenario. Doan explains ‘in public spaces the tyranny of gender operates when certain individuals feel empowered to act as heteronormative constructed gender enforcers. These policings are sometimes exaggerated by the presence of other silent but supportive watchers’. (2010: 640) In Ashley’s case the panellists assumed the role of enforcers. My respondents narrated many other incidents when random individuals felt the need to point out their divergence and appropriate unjustified labels on them. At the same time, Ashley also narrates being honoured, respected and appreciated when he performs LN in his nachaniya identity. For many performers, this positive acknowledgement has permeated the stage into real life, though the levels of acceptance have been context-specific. In most cases, self-management was necessary to embody acceptable levels of liminality, but amongst nachaniya(s) there was a general sense of satisfaction with what they had already accomplished. To a large extent, the performers perceived socially imposed hurdles, key in developing resilient personalities, that has served them well in other aspects of life.


My research; field studies, interviews, and extensive literature review, clearly indicates that recurring gender subversive images in cultural performances push against and loosen powers vested in hegemonies. Doan iterates that ‘gender variant performance in public spaces that is supported by a wider community can be a powerful statement against the dichotomy. (2010: 640) Alexeyeff further argues that performances ‘reinforce and demarcate particular identities’ but also clarifies that these identities are not ‘predetermined’, but rather are made ‘emergent’ through expressive forms. (2009: 13) In that sense, the contemporary nachaniya identity has emerged from the historically recognised LN stage. The support a nachaniya receives on-stage, becomes the impetus for certain forms of gender subversion to emerge and enter everyday discourses where these are discussed, explained, debated, justified or disproved. Through these discursive transactions, however, these images gain momentum and recognition, which enables the creation of additional spaces for their display.

‘Appearance is a central component in the establishment and maintenance of self and Identity. An alternative gender may be achieved only through interaction, in which the recognition of others has the potential to legitimate and reinforce the emergent alternative identity’. (Gagne, et al. 1997: 486)

The nachaniya portrayed in this article substantiate the argument by Gagne and others, in that, social and political progress is possible, and is being attained in issues relating to gender liminal individuals because their social visibility necessitates an elaboration on their existence.


[1] IndoFijians: descendants of indentured labourers brought to Fiji under the British Colonial rule, between 1874 to 1920 from India. The research focuses on those living in Fiji and New Zealand.

[2] Fiji’s 2013 constitution bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

[3] These are actual names of nachaniya(s) from various parts of Fiji, who have given permission for their names to be used in any publications generated from the research they were involved in.

[4] A video of traditional LN performance:

[5] Informal theatre. There is no evidence of this still being practiced in Fiji.

[6] The following video is an example:

[7] Items song(s) is a common feature of recent Bollywood cinema. It usually involves one or two attractive female actresses performing upbeat, catchy and sexually provocative dances to predominantly male spectators, who as backup dancers depict being slayed by main dancers’.

[8] The gatherings Amrit mentions here were weekly grouping together of labourers from the same farm or nearby farms to share stories and enjoy some performances that people within the group would perform. Such gatherings are mentioned in several writings on indenture by various authors.

[9] Jhangiya is the term used for shorts. Amrit explains that people did not have actual ankle bells, so they attached cow bells to their shorts while performing to add to the entertainment factor of their performances.

[10] Lahanga was the traditional or typical clothes worn by IndoFijian women, so what they performed was not necessarily Lahanga Naach. It was just naach (dance) until man wore the Lahanga for their performance. Lahanga on the male was the distinct factor which separated this dancing from other forms of performances that included dancing.

[11] Bijuriya’s performance:

[12] Monto’s performance:

[13] The actual word was ‘mixed gender’ in English.

[14] Bibi performance:

[15] Monto used the English word ‘gay’ during the interview.

[16] In the context ‘dressing up’ was understood to as Ashley adorning the female attire.

[17] The words in inverted commas are Bhan’s own words.

[18] Sheetal means wearing gender neutral clothing, which is always does when at work.

[19] The actual English term he used to describe female clothing.

[20] Fiji’s capital and largest urban center.


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