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India’s drag queens on their feminine identities and challenges

Being a drag artiste is more than cross-dressing. Queer men who take up this art form have found their alter egos in their feminine avatars. In India, they hope to create avenues for stage performances

art and culture Updated: Apr 08, 2018 08:14 IST
Sharif D Rangnekar
Sharif D Rangnekar
Hindustan Times
Alex Mathew, a public relations manager at a hotel in Bengaluru, transforms into drag queen Maya, who is the epitome of elegance and sass.
Alex Mathew, a public relations manager at a hotel in Bengaluru, transforms into drag queen Maya, who is the epitome of elegance and sass.(Courtesy Alex Mathew)

On any given day, Noida-based 24-year-old Prateek comes across as a soft-spoken, shy and introverted individual, hesitant to engage with others. In a little over three hours of layering make-up, he turns into an entirely new person, wearing clothes that ‘normally’ women would wear. He is almost loud, vivacious, glittering, looking like a showgirl from Las Vegas. This transformation from the boy-next-door to a drag queen named Betta Naan Stop is pretty much the story that several drag artistes go through every time they change their avatars.

Many people might assume that this is merely an act of cross-dressing or men wearing ‘women’s’ clothes but it’s much more than that. It allows men to invoke their expression of femininity through what is now an established art form across the globe. Even though it is self-gratifying for these men – who are all gay – it is an extremely challenging art form for reasons beyond sexuality.

A drag artiste lives a life of contrasts similar to day and night, seamlessly being two different characters, both emerging out of one.

BEYOND CROSS DRESSING
This is how it happens. Prateek creates another person and that person is part of himself but not Prateek as he’s known to be. This other person – the drag persona – is what is built and placed in the limelight. Unlike the pattern that is common to actors in theatre and cinema where an artiste gets known for the many roles that she or he plays, the drag queen is known by her constantly evolving character, which is at a higher decibel level than the person behind the make-up.

In this picture , taken by drag artists Lush, Kush and Betta, they can be seen changing into their costumes in the washroom of Tis Hazari metro station, Delhi.

Take, for instance, 29-year-old Alex Mathew, dark and handsome with a beaming smile, who turns into Maya, a name that comes from the word Mayamma, “mother of illusion”, he explains. This avatar turns the “he” into “she” and the “she” is an “epitome of elegance, sassy and outspoken,” characteristics that Alex hardly depicts while working as a public relations manager at a hotel in Bengaluru. Maya, in fact, still has a “rawness in personality” that people tend to lose “when they try to gel with the norms of society”. She is an alter ego and the lines drawn between the two personas are so clear that “Alex is from Kochi and Maya from a village near Kuttanad in Kerala.”

It is, as Alex says, gender fluidity. “I don’t want to be he or she in the way genders have been defined or need the validation of being a male,” he says. This approach to life, though rewarding and courageous, has left him losing many jobs on his way to becoming Maya.

Ikshaku, 26 years old, has a different story of being a practising environmental lawyer by profession and a drag queen by passion called Kush or Kushboo. As a lawyer and socially too, he is gentle and quiet, pursuing conversations that stimulate his mind, hooked to the world of literature and music. But when he is Kush he is “fierce, liberated, fashionable, risque, avant garde, a singer, actress and ruler.”

Hailing from Assam and now based in Delhi, Ikshaku “started off by simply donning the bedsheets and old clothes” of his mother and later lip-synched to songs. With a little practice, he did make-up and styled his hair – all this as he obtained the dual degrees of a BA and LLB.

His friend Ayushman aka Lush, has a similar story of being a lawyer and an active drag queen. “For most of my childhood in Ranchi, I had censored my life in a manner that I could never embrace myself for who I was,” he says. It was in Delhi that things changed, though not without hurdles. He trained in theatre but got rejected time and again for not being “manly or masculine” enough to get a role. He was more than open to taking on a woman’s role but no one was ready for that. That’s when the definitive image of drag came to him – a character who has “a sense of luxury, exuberance, opulence, and sensory pleasure” – and is “an extension” of himself.

Environmental lawyer Ikshaku in the avatar of drag queen Kush. As Kush, he feels liberated and fierce, unlike Ikshaku who is reserved. (Courtesy: Sharif D Rangnekar)

THE ORIGIN
Drag as a term was reportedly first used in 1870 with some claiming that it was an acronym of ‘Dressed Resembling A Girl’. But this claim remains disputed as there is no concrete evidence that acronyms were ever in use in the 19th century. Yet, the word stuck and has now found its way into the Indian queer space of entertainment with an underlying message of non-conformity, trampling over the definitions of being a man, woman or the other. “Through drag I get to show that the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘other’ are often irrelevant,” points out Kush.

Just about every Indian drag artiste has a strong Western influence by way of RuPaul or an Alaska Thunder F**k, both hugely popular American drag performers. Any Indian influence is limited to language, music and names, but not from cross-dressers in the traditional theatre forms that are still alive in many parts of the country. “The context is different. The Indian example is a form of patriarchy that denied women the stage,” says the former Mr Gay India and drag artiste, Sushant Digwikar aka Rani Ko-He-Nur. Possibly this is why the celebrated actor from West Bengal, Janardan Nandi (whose surname is replaced with the word Rani), known for playing the role of a woman for almost all of his 75 years in theatre, uses the word ‘impersonation’ rather than drag.

Not every drag queen picked this art form as some kind of choice or realisation of the self. Sushant’s connection with drag was incidental as he cross-dressed as a co-host for the Kashish Film Festival in 2015. One thing led to another and he was soon given the drag name Rani Ko-He-Nur by Keshav Suri, who is credited with the rise of drag performances in India, given the way he has promoted them at his night clubs in Delhi and Bangalore, Kitty Su and Kitty Ko. This has suddenly led to a variety of events – such as the Red Festival, Queer- E- Mehfil and the Bangalore Queer Film Festival – throwing in a drag show or two.

WATCH: DRAG QUEENS OF INDIA

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Whether there is an ‘industry’ in the making is unknown but artistes such as Prateek have made drag their priority and want it to be accepted as a “respectable art form”. He already has a self-funded YouTube channel in place. Sushant aims to take drag to the national stage probably using media such as TV as a tool. Alex believes that there can be one drag queen for each state of India.

But it all comes down to finances and sustenance. According to Suri, he would never have imagined that when the first international drag queen – Violet Chachki – performed at Kitty Su, there would be 1,800 people in the audience. It is no surprise then that an Indian act draws a crowd of around 500-1,000 people. “Indians are not as close-minded as we like to pretend and portray,” he points out, suggesting that his message of ‘pure-love’ is one that will create a bigger space for drag artistes.

The queens, however, are not sitting pretty. They call themselves sisters, unified by their distinct characters, large-size eyelashes, self-stitched outfits with sequins and anything that shines. Many perform for free so as to garner a larger audience, making more people aware of what they do. They are happy to open their art to those who wish to come out of themselves and to get into this space. Unlike the world around them, “drag does not have rules or a specific criteria. If you want to do drag, you do drag!” says Prateek.