Niche to mainstream: Bengaluru's drag community is making it happen
It’s a Saturday night at Kitty KO and the energy is contagious and liberating. The crowd, dressed in their outrageous best, are all chanting, “Kim Chi, Kim Chi!”, the name of the South Korean-American drag queen from season 8 of the TV show RuPaul’s Drag Race, soon to appear on stage for her act. And this isn’t the first time fans have been treated to an international queen of her stature; Milk, Pangina Heals, Betty Fvck, Miss Peppermint, Tammie Brown and others have all performed in the city. As an open and safe space for the LGBTQ+, these parties are a haven for members of the community and allies. For the past year, the popularity of these drag events in Bengaluru has soared, from being secretive and niche, to mainstream, and the number of local drag queens has increased. Is Bengaluru the newest hub for drag culture? We talk to the people responsible for the phenomenon.
The word “drag” allegedly comes from stage actors, in the late 1800s, who played female roles and dressed in women’s clothes, that would “drag” on the floor behind them. The dictionary definition of a drag queen is a male performance artiste who dresses up in overtly feminine clothes, make-up and wigs to entertain. On stage, they sing, dance, act and interact with the audience. While not necessarily a rule, most drag queens are gay men. The art form is also riddled with misconceptions, the major one being that drag queens are transpeople or cross dressers, which is not true. Drag is a performance art.
“We use drag to have fun — to entertain and perform,” says Alex Mathew, over our lunch at Koshy’s. As Maya, The Drag Queen, the PR consultant by day, is probably the poster girl for queens in the country. “People have this notion that drag is always slutty. Just like there are different genres in movies, we have different genres of drag as well. Some are funny, while some are serious. My character, for example, is one of elegance and poise,” he adds. When he started doing drag, there were no Indian role models to look up to. Alex says this was one of the reasons he took it up: to inspire others. “When I started performing in 2014, I was a lone wolf,” he says, adding, “But we have slowly built this culture and community. When I saw other queens, especially from the West, it made me realise that this is okay and there are other people out there.”
Out in the open
Alex notes that the abolition of section 377, that decriminalised homosexuality, last September, played a key role in creating awareness about the community. “We had very few people attending before. But post that, we saw an influx of crowds. Now people know that there are people like us. There is awareness,” he says. Siddhanth Kodlekere who performs as Lady Bai, agrees. “Of course, drag was there before the judgement on section 377 was passed, but the amount of people coming for the shows has increased. I see a lot more of the closeted crowd in the audience. Which is good for them, because they get to be whoever they want to be in these events,” he says.
Keshav Suri, the executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, and the man behind Kitty KO, has been championing the cause and was one of the key figures fighting the battle to demolish section 377. “Through Kitty KO, we were the first to provide a mainstream platform for drag in India. We have brought down international legends and we work with more than 35 Indian queens and kings, who perform regularly,” he tells us. According to him, Bengaluru is most open to the culture. “Bengaluru, we have noticed, is the most receptive about the trend. The excitement and buzz in this city is the highest compared to other Indian cities,” he reveals.
At the forefront
Zeeshan Ali, aka Zeesh, used to be a medical student, but started studying fashion which led to him being interested in modelling, costumes and make-up. He moved from Mumbai to Bengaluru six years ago, and found that the crowd in Bengaluru is very aware of social issues, unlike Mumbai and Delhi. “Each city has its own way of seeing drag. I feel Bengaluru is the most progressive city in India,” he tells us, adding, “Bengaluru has always been known to be an artsy city. So something really artsy works well here. Whereas, something more Bollywood-ish works well in Mumbai and Delhi.”
This liberal nature of the city has cultivated a healthy environment for the drag circuit to thrive. Lots of events and venues are now open to drag. Lawyer Ikshaku Bezbaroa, known as Kushboo when in his drag queen avatar, feels that Benglauru has a lot of avenues for such performances. Kushboo hosts T-Party, an accessible and informal event where everyone is welcome and anyone can perform drag as well. “There have always been drag events in the city. The Humming Tree has had a drag competition and around the Pride March each year is when you’ll see a lot of drag and other gender fluid art happening. We have a diversity fair by the NammaPride that happen at the Hub, Safina Plaza. Apart from these, there are also events like the Human Library, which is not a drag event per se, but we have performed in drag. And venues such as Lahe Lahe, Shoonya and The Courtyard have always been supportive,” he tells us.
Looking ahead, Alex also hopes that there will be more drag-friendly venues opening where newer queens and local talent are encouraged to perform, so queens can form their own identities, instead of just aping what they see in the West. “Drag culture is growing in metros and Bengaluru is one of the leading cities. Things are certainly changing. Even my mother is more accepting of who I am now,” he says, concluding with, “The more people appreciate the art form, the more they will realise that it is harmless. There is no hate, we only want to spread love.”
Heres a look at the city’s favourite drag queens:
Siddhanth Kodlekere’s drag inspiration comes from all the domestic helpers or bais in his life. Broom in hand, Siddhanth wants to tell the story of their struggle and happiness.
Maya The Drag Queen
Not shying away from his roots, Alex Mathew’s drag persona is that of a Malayali woman who has left her past behind to live in Bengaluru. Mayamma is typically dressed in a sari (but not always) and
pays tribute to divas from Indian cinema.
Zeeshan Ali’s drag persona, Zeesh, is inspired by Club Kids, a subculture in New York of the early ’90s. His editorial makeup and high fashion outfits are the stuff of fantasy.
While on stage, Kushboo tackles subjects such as fat-shaming, name-calling and bullying. Through an audio-visual set, Kushboo raises awareness on these topics.