Pride Month 2022: A glimpse into an all-encompassing art form, Drag
Indian Drag artists share how drag is a form of art, expression, and liberation
We all have imaginations, some funny, some vague, and some so strong that it makes us question ourselves. For some, these imaginations become the only space they can be themselves. As Ru Paul once said, “When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.” Drag as an art form and a sub-culture allows you to do that.
Drag, in layman’s terms, is usually when a person embodies and acts in a persona that is opposite to their gender identity. It’s much more than just an alter ego. It’s their way of channelling their suppressed emotions, desires, agony, and rage regarding their gender identity into appealing performances. Drag is not limited only to the LGBTQIA+ community, but is open to anyone who wants to experiment with their sexuality.
Into the unknown
Inspired by the Indian actress Savitri Ganesan’s biopic Mahanati, drag artiste Anil (They/ Them) took up the actress’ name. They also wanted to add some wittiness to their personality and hence, called themself Nutty Savitri. They say, “I didn’t want to fix myself into one specific gender box, given by the society. Drag gave me that freedom of thought. It gave me the freedom to wear whatever I want. My gender is something I want to wear. I want to wear a shirt on the top and a lehenga at the bottom. Wear a saree on a kurta. That’s what I am. That’s what I like. Drag allowed me to wear those clothes and gave me the courage to come out in them.”
“Being born in a male body, there are certain kinds of rigidities that are there. As I was quite feminine while growing up, I was, like most queer kids, bullied because of it. My reaction to that was to sort of internalize a lot, you know, sort of fake it and constantly perform with this masculine body as socially expected.” Says Saransh Sugandh AKA Avatari Devi, who started drag as a means of exploring Launda Naach, a dance form usually associated with Bihar. The In Vaarta founder continues, “Avatari has helped me also understand my gender better. So now, I have moved towards a more trans identity than just a sis-gendered man. Performing that feminine side has sort of brought a lot of confidence in my life, my body, that you don't realize until you perform, and put yourself out there in a certain way and see how liberating it is.”
For Alex, drag started as a way to question societal norms imposed on him. Enthusiastic about theatre from a young age, Alex says that he did not land main roles in plays because he had a thick Malayali accent and when people sensed femininity in him, they reportedly did not like it. “But I admired my femininity, I admired my Malayali accent. And that’s when I came across this movie called Mrs. Doubtfire. Also, the Indianised version in Bollywood is Chachi 420. So that’s when I was like, if Robin Williams and Kamal Hassan can dress up as a woman I can do too. That’s how I started. After my first performance as Maya, I came out of the closet, as a queer man. Through Drag, I could express my femininity, and accentuate it a lot more on stage. It is a form of entertainment, it’s also some form of expression. And that is something which not many people from the LGBTQIA+ community have the chance to do.” Says Alex Mathew AKA Mayamma (Mother of Illusion) or Maya The Drag Queen.
But for Lavani Samrat Kiran Kore, Drag started as a coping mechanism after his father’s death. He says, “After my father passed away, I was very depressed. That’s when I decided to take up dance professionally. I used to perform Lavani dressed as a girl from a very young age, but then I didn’t know it was drag.” Patruni Chidananda Sastry AKA Suffocated Art Specimen or SAS too shares a similar story. “Basically, I was like a Kuchipudi dancer and as a part of it, you have to dress up in female attire and perform in public. Now, the definition of that was not given to me until I was older.”
At the age of 21, Patruni visited Bengaluru for the Pride Walk and saw Drag artists perform for the first time. “And that was the time I realized this is so, unique and wonderful. And I could see how the audience are interacting with each other, with the performer. And I thought, like, you know, this is something which you need to bring it to my state or my city as well. Because if this is there, there are a lot of queer cultures that we can empower within the city. So, I got together with some friends and had a conversation about training people to perform drag. They were like if you can’t do it yourself how can you ask somebody else? So that was a point of time when I realized, okay, I have to dig in deep.”
A historic relationship
This sub-culture has been on a steady rise for the past few years in India. But ‘Drag’ is not something outlandish or novel to the Indian sub-continent. India’s rich history and ancient scriptures are proof that men performing as women and vice versa were part of our culture until our colonisers reconditioned our minds.
“For example, there is just this mention of the concept of drag in Natya Shastra around 200 B.C. which has been performed for ages now. It was equally for women as well as men who were in the performance industry, where they would perform in opposite roles for a certain character when performed in multiple, folk as well as theatre traditions.” Patruni, Founder of Dragvanti, an online community for drag artistes and Rangula Rattnam, a Telugu podcast on the queer community, adds that because of the multiple invasions and colonisation, this concept was taken to the West and copied by the British for their Shakespearean theatre.
“Western can look aspirational, feel aspirational because that's how a colonized mind works. We can look at it critically and think about it more critically. That’s when Indian context comes in, if my audience is not able to identify with what I'm trying to say or speak, then I have already lost it.” Saransh suggests. Kiran also implies that most of his audience are from rural areas, and Lavani is a dance form that has deep connections to our soil. He says, “when I perform Bollywood songs during my drag performances, my audience feel more connected and happier, because they know the song, they know the genre and they know the feelings.”
“If we don’t perform our own culture, who else will?” Asks Anil, Vice-President of Mobbera Foundation. “If we are not encouraging, who else will? Right? Western countries promote their dance forms like salsa and ballet. But if you come here, we have Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi, and, so many other forms, but how many younger generations know about it? They are more fascinated by western ideologies and western art forms. Who else will take up the responsibility to keep our own culture alive? It's we who have to,” Anil explains.
Alex recalls somebody asking him why he doesn’t go out on the street and protesting, holding placards and talking about LGBTQIA+ rights. He replies saying, “Me going on stage itself is the act. I’m a queer man dressed up in a white sari with a kasapu border and Mulla-pu on my hair. Embracing my roots and family and going on stage, and, actually expressing myself. That itself is a statement that I’m a Malayali drag queen.”
A favourable reception
"My parents were a little hesitant before but after the abolition of Section 377, they try to understand what I’m going through. They saw how much effort I was putting into Drag. Now, my mother ties my sari, fixes my wig, and makes sure that I put on the right lipstick. So, when I started with just 10% of acceptance, now it’s reached 30-40 acceptance." Alex says.
Patruni narrates an incident from somewhere around 2019 when he performed for an engineering college in Hyderabad. He says, “At that time they didn’t have a proper gender cell where students can go ahead and communicate their grievances. So, after the performance, I asked them to set up a gender cell so that students of your college can come ahead and express themselves. The next year when I visited the same college for an event, it was the gender cell that was organizing the event.”
He adds, “I think one of the best things to do is to normalize and localize drag. You can do these small, small gigs and ask people to kind of come in and perform, sensitize people about it and have fun. It’s the least you can do to empower the local drag community. Imagine every state or every small village has their own drag artists coming out and performing. See how the art form kind of flows and see how much variety you get. We started with four or five drag artists. Now there are 35 all across India. So, it's a high time we take it to 100 or 200 at least by the end of this year, then get more and more as we go.”
Unlike a decade ago, Saransh, who is also a journalist and filmmaker, says that there is a lot of positive media portrayals of the LGBTQIA+ community in recent years. Starting with Subh Mangal Savdhan, Margareta with a Straw, or even Sacred Games, these films and series have better queer representation. “I mean, Badhai Do was good in so many ways. There is room for a lot more change, and it will happen for sure. It is happening. That gives you hope that there could be better content and better representation,” he signs off.