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A Million Flashlights: It’s Time for Drag in India

By Mehak Walia

Talking about Indian society along with its norms, constructs, rules, roles and gender disparity can be a very painful experience for quite a lot of us. Patriarchal structures prescribe societal roles and characteristics to both men and women as the two “accepted” genders, leaving the LGBTQIA+ community pushed into a singular box. Sometimes referred to as the “third gender”, the queer community is often met with disgust, bearing the brunt of violent patriarchal attitudes that reject those who wish to exist outside of the box. Queer people have been the target of violence for their sexuality in various cultures throughout Indian history. Despite rapidly growing cultural acceptance of diverse sexual and romantic orientations and identifications, oppression, discrimination, social rejection, criminalisation, and marginalization of those who do not conform to traditional gender roles, is very prevalent in India.

However, there’s a little pocket of Indian society, hidden beneath the shame and the stereotypes forced upon us by cultural norms - the drag world. The term ‘drag’ refers to the performance of masculinity, femininity or any other form of gender or state of being. Drag is an art form that carries within itself, a plethora of beautiful shades that define journeys in the lives of amazing artists, activists and performers. It is a very strong form of expression that helps one feel comfortable with themselves. It helps one break down all the boxes that people choose to put each other in thereby, crushing expectations, social injustices, conditioning, the patriarchal mindset, social constructs and misogyny while riding high on the acceptance, appreciation and rebellion pony with cat-eyes that are sharper than knives.

My introduction to drag probably happened for the first time in Thailand when I had the privilege of meeting extremely amazing, confident and powerful people who identified themselves as ‘ladyboys in drag’. This interaction taught me the fact that gender constructs and roles are pretty fluid and almost non-existent. It also raised many questions and alarms about Indian society and our constant need to chase rules and roles. ‘Drag Queens’ and ‘Drag Kings’ are artists, activists and performers who dare to dress up boldly and artistically while going through this fabulous journey towards their true selves. After my first interaction, having shamelessly binged RuPaul’s Drag Race for hours, new and more important questions replaced the old ones as they ‘sashay-ed away’. A little digging and research into them led me to discover the drag community in India which, according to a lot of queens, has been around for quite a while.

So, I wonder. . . Why don’t we know about it and why isn’t this art form in the mainstream yet? It’s about time, don’t you think?

The Art of Acceptance and Activism

Gender identities go far beyond the male and female that had been made a part of constitutional law during the times of colonial rule. With Section 377 being scrubbed, it has allowed the general population to lose the previously bound and moulded concepts of gender. The colonial government at the time had a very conservative approach towards sexuality and believed that vaginal penetration by a man was the only “acceptable” act, even labelling oral sex as illegal. England and Wales abolished this in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, but the Indian government took a much longer time in letting the change come even though it had been knocking at the door for a long time. This much-awaited golden move by the Supreme Court of India motivated many to embrace their gender identities and queerness. At the same time, it has opened up to many a plethora of identities that are distinctly away from conventional ideas, instigating conversations about the fluid nature of gender, along with art forms like drag. As an act entrenched in activism which is primarily about accepting oneself and self-expression, the drag industry in India has only gotten stronger in the last few years and come closer to the mainstream. Surprisingly, the very essence of this art form goes way back with its roots extending to ancient times where men used to dress up with makeup and jewellery and indulge in dance forms like Bharatanatyam and kathakali. There have been essences of the same in Bollywood itself.

“Bollywood itself has embraced drag for a good number of years like a good 50-60 years. Back in 1968, the famous song ‘Kajra Mohabbat Wala’ which was in a movie named ‘Kismat’ showcased Babita Shivdasani, an actress in a guy’s costume and Biswajeet Chatterjee, a well-known actor, in drag,” said Mallika (@kween_mallika), an Indo-Canadian drag queen who has been doing drag for the past 4 years with a mission to normalize Bollywood drag in the West. “Meanwhile, Indian traditional folk dancers have been practising and working with gender-bending for hundreds of years now. The proper term was coined in the late ’90s, in the west and the concept was travelled back to India only 20 something years ago. So, if you were to go ask your grandparents, they would probably know and recognise this concept better than people do now. It’s just that they don’t know the word in its essence. Well, awareness is coming and hopefully, soon, we might have a show for drag queens in India, you never know!”

Even though drag is such an old concept, the struggle of the artists to make it into the mainstream, especially in the Indian context has been very real. “Indian drag queens are working on it but drag in India isn’t really at a point where we would call it mainstream although we are still growing as a niche. At the moment it’s just a small group of people doing this. Drag culture in our country has not yet established itself to the point where one could walk to a gay bar and see a drag queen perform,” according to Maya The Drag Queen (@mayathedragqueen), a fabulous queen who has been doing drag for about 7 years now. Her love for performing started with her being a theatre geek where she realized that being an out and proud queer man in theatre is hard. Serendipitously, she came across an art form in movies, that resonated with her and helped her be proud of herself, and that was drag.

“The mainstream drag in India is quite small compared to the Western countries. But we have amazing drag queens paving the way for future queens to come, and with the added advantage of the Western influence, we sort of have a boost to start. However, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the various forms of drag deep-rooted in our culture and history, and queer artists who have been performing in drag without calling it drag” added Betta NaanStop (@bettanaanstop), a queen who has been doing drag for almost her whole life. She remembers coming back home from school a little earlier than her elder sister as a kid and wracking through her closet to create looks to dance on old songs like, ‘Nimboda Nimboda’ or ‘Bhumro Bhumro’. Drag has always been a big part of her essence as a whole.

And this is a shared anecdote with many other drag queens, such as Hashbrownie (@infinityshades_ofmine), who as a kid, used to hide in her storeroom, dress up and play characters from daily soaps. She has always had extreme love for drag, believing it is all about how it makes you feel. While makeup pushed her into it, it has helped her find herself as a whole, and she’s been doing drag for four years now.

“Drag is a very personal journey of the artist that begins with their childhood with the inspiration of some very positive women that surround them and shape their lives like your mother, grandmother or some celebrity and all the things that left an impression on you, Most importantly, it is a process, we take up the persona and essence of these people along with their journeys, their pain, their problems, their happiness and other essential moments of their lives and wrap them into a drag look,” she said. “People have started watching RuPaul’s drag race in our country and hence, queens have started visiting the country which is great for the art as a whole. Brands and magazines have started taking interest and the people have followed which is a great thing. Drag is getting mainstream slowly. It’s like we have been given a flashlight as the spotlight isn’t here yet, but I hope it’s coming”.

Confronting the Patriarchy

As many of the queens testified, drag shatters the boxes that society puts us in pretty much as soon as we’re born. We’ve been taught to associate everything in our lives with our genders, from the very beginning. As children, the little boys who choose to pick a tiny, adorable doll and dress her up in beautiful clothes or dance to Bollywood songs are met with very unfortunate levels of thrashing from their families for doing so. Similarly, little girls who love their hair short, wear jeans instead of skirts and love playing cricket are called boyish. So, when it comes to these children growing into confident men and women who realize that they don’t identify as being cis-heterosexual and hence, choose to associate with their choice of genders, they are often shunned by society.

And this poses some contradictions with other art forms in Indian society, for example doing drag in dance forms like Bharatanatyam and Kathakali which are seen and established as pure art. The elements of drag in itself have been well-merged into society to the point where we don’t even call it strange anymore, so we should confront why when embodied by queer people, it somehow moves into a negative light. “When it comes to drag, we have to spend so much more physical and mental energy on performance as we have no costume designers who want to work with us or people who can do our wigs. Similarly, there is nobody to help us get venues and gigs. We are one person bands, we do everything for ourselves, unlike the West”, commented Lush Monsoon (@lushmonsoon), a queen who has been doing drag since 2017. She thinks her drag name resonates with her performance she aims to create a very luxurious and extravagant experience with her art. Monsoon is common to the Indian subcontinent and adding that to her name is her way of owning up to her uniqueness. “In the beginning, it used to be difficult to get tailors to make a dress for you and to buy basic makeup but that’s getting easier with the internet. You know, there is a set system in place for regular artists who want to perform but not us. We are creating something new and hence we need to work harder towards making people see and accept the fact that this is an art form,” she added.

Maya The Drag Queen pointed out that “Only certain cities in the country accept us when we come out in drag. We are at a point where people are being ostracized and shut at home. Homophobia was the highest last year and due to this, people lost their jobs. This meant that they had to go back to live with their parents and that in itself, is a very painful experience for most of us.” Seconded by Hashbrownie, “Being a drag queen in India is hard. People are not supportive. The gay community itself are not that supportive of drag, they are fearful. A good chunk of gay people still have this image in their mind that being masculine is a good thing and being feminine is not. So, that patriarchy itself in the LGBT community too, makes it hard for us. Even in the dating world, they fear feminine men”.

Patriarchy is like a hydra, the many-headed serpent of Greek mythology. When you cut off one head, two more grow back in its place. And whilst drag queens are cutting off the “masculine-feminine binary” head, two more confront them - over-sexualisation and fetishization.

“We as drag artists face a lot of troubles on the dating front, mainly a result of the patriarchy. They have taught us that only masculine men are desirable and not the ones who choose to embrace their feminine sides. This leaves us with straight and bisexual Indian men who are into our drag personas so they prefer to see us 24/7 as a woman, rather than being who we are. In short, they are into us sexually but, they just don’t wanna settle with us.” said Maya The Drag Queen.

“Impersonation of any Western woman in drag is still seen as a sexual move. Every October, we have the culture of Ram-Leela where women and men dress in jewellery and grass, but these men dressed up as religious and mythological characters are never sexualised or molested. Sita is seen as a symbol of purity but normal women and men walking on the road are molested and abused, Hashbrownie exclaimed. Men are accustomed to seeing women as sexual objects but this needs to change. People need to realise it is not a sexual imitation, it’s an empowerment. We have grown up watching inspirational and strong women like Madhuri Dixit and Rekha and our drag comes from that. It’s positive and empowering.” she added.

Misgendering also is another very harmful thing. “People don’t know what drag is that they don’t know how to use pronouns for a drag queen who is in and out of drag and some people take that personally. Drag artists are categorised as transgender, putting the entire LGBT community into ‘third gender’ and that sucks because as we do gender-bending and we could dress up as anything - it can be a witch, an alien or Dracula, you can be agender in drag,” Mallika postulated. “Last but not least, people need to follow boundaries. Like, people shouldn’t touch me when I’m in drag, I’ve worked so hard and spent a lot of money on my look. Personal space and general respect of a person are very important. People look down upon drag artists and this is wrong.”

Breaking Barriers

But despite the many ugly heads of patriarchy, the queens persist with their art and breaking through the stereotypes and societal stigmas. “Drag queens should be seen as role models because wearing a dress as a man and walking in front of the public is a task of courage and getting that courage isn’t an easy task. Overcoming thoughts, patriarchy and gathering courage in itself is thought-provoking but getting to that level where you’re comfortable as your self as well as your drag persona is a hard and courageous task- that is kind of saying ‘fuck you to the society. Like hey, we don’t wanna follow your norms!” remarked Mallika. She further added, “Indian drag queens need to get on the activism horse and raise their voice to help the society learn more and grow more. We are not celebrities, but we’re local celebrities. Even if our work encourages a few people, we’re bringing a change, the change starts little and grows to a larger point. Five people teach five people further. It’s like a ripple effect”.

The concept of drag in itself is a rebellion as well as a celebration towards finding one’s true self and shattering the traditional concepts. And whilst there is still a long way to go in India, greater exposure to the drag world and inclusivity of the queer community is slowly chipping away at the structures that keep them in the dark. “For so many years, we never spoke about drag but the good thing about society today is that we do talk about it. Whether it is hating it or talking in support, people see us in all our glory, they listen to our stories and they get to see a different point of view. So, people are getting desensitized to what used to seem abnormal or new”, voiced Lush Monsoon.

“7 years of my performing as a drag queen, I feel like I need to do more than just perform. I have given TEDx talks and spoken at colleges, I have realized that having conversations with young kids is very important because kids are not conditioned about wrong gender concepts and they need to be educated about what is right. For 25 years of my life, I had been told that being gay is wrong and so, I started hating myself when I found out about myself, this shouldn’t happen with anyone,” said Maya The Drag Queen. “If you tell a small kid that these are people from the LGBT community and this is right, they deserve respect, the kids, they will accept it better than a 50-year-old, educated man.”

And that’s something so instrumental to queer acceptance, both for yourself internally and for wider society - understanding that fluidity or not fitting society’s mould is normal, rather than the binaries we grow up with. “Gender has been moulded into what is convenient and easy. The human species is so vast it is impossible to fit us all in just two categories. It's a social construct that is not required. Drag does its part in breaking it by allowing everyone to be their true selves. The shape and form may vary for people or stay constant. it doesn't matter. Everyone should be celebrated when they're being themselves,” said Betta NaanStop. It’s time to bring Indian drag into the open and illuminate these talented individuals if not with a spotlight then, perhaps with the power of a million flashlights.




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