By Paddy Maguire
BBC News, Chennai
Nikkila says her pupils gain self-worth and new skills
Eunuchs in southern India are training as therapists and beauticians in a move to integrate them in a society which largely shuns them.
In Tamil Nadu state there are an estimated 150,000 eunuchs (or "aruvani" as they now prefer to be called).
Most eke out a living by begging and many end up working in the sex industry.
The new scheme is the brainchild of M Nikkila, a Madras (Chennai) based beautician and therapist.
"Four years ago I saw one eunuch beggar being mercilessly harassed by the public. These days they have no place in society, no rights, no jobs.
"So I thought I would train them to become beauty therapists. This course is the first step."
Teaching her group of six a range of treatments from pedicures to massage, Nikkila's aim is twofold - to instil a new sense of self-worth and to equip her pupils with skills they can use to earn a salary.
The business plan is simple. By calling on Nikkila's wide network of clients built up over 15 years of practice, the eunuchs will do "home visits". Their female clients will buy the particular products they need, removing the pressure of large financial outlay by the newly trained therapists.
Unrecognised as females by law, these castrated males face a very real identity crisis.
Once their surgery has taken place they are no longer considered male and there is no legal framework in place to deal with them.
President of the Sudar Foundation, V Vasanthi, says: "We are fighting for human rights and against violation of those rights. Our foundation also fights for legal rights and aims to change society's view of us."
Marginalised by the public, eunuchs exist in self-contained family networks of adopted "daughters" and "mothers".
Priya Babu, 36, is the "mother" of this group. They come from a small knit community of 30 that live in Chengelpet, south of Madras.
Eunuchs say they have gained respect
"We are trying to present ourselves in such a way that society will acknowledge us. Historically we have been respected but that is no longer the case.
"Most of us in this group are well-educated and from good families but our parents would not accept us, so we had to leave."
By choosing to become a eunuch, individuals often have to turn their backs on family, friends and any status they may have previously held in society. But many say this is preferable to being forced to live against their nature.
Often they are barred from beauty parlours so this course gives them a chance to treat themselves.
"I find they are good students and hungry to learn. When they first came they would welcome me as if they were still begging but I have been teaching them to carry themselves differently and dress differently," says Nikkila.
Kalai Kani is a theatre performer and film artist also involved with the group. "I teach them to relax and use their voices more effectively, to change the tone and pitch."
The training seems to be paying off.
"I was very depressed before I joined the class," says Eswari, 24. "Now I feel much lighter and am looking forward to starting work."
Jamuna is 26. "I saw a life that was only begging. After learning these skills I can work hard in a respectable way. People used to tease me but now they look at me in a different way. We have become an example to the other groups."
"Her training is also useful for me," joked Priya Babu as she enjoyed the benefits of Jamuna's pedicure treatment.
But the question remains whether the general public will be as enthusiastic. Nikkila is confident that the service will be a success.
"Beauty parlours are really taking off in India and the demand is huge. Already I have a dozen clients who have said they will be happy to be treated by my pupils."
"These therapies are about using feeling to treat the clients. My next project will be to teach deaf and dumb people the same skills and get them working as well."