DRESS LIKE A QUEEN

Worker bees by day, queens by night. The drag scene blooms in pock­ets of a new In­dia where men re­joice in their fem­i­nine avatars

India Today - - STATES - By Chinki Sinha Pho­to­graphs by Bandeep Singh

Drag is free­dom,” says Pra­teek Sachdeva, a young dancer from Delhi. On week­end nights, Sachdeva, who also holds a de­gree in hos­pi­tal­ity man­age­ment, puts on his makeup, his most glam­orous dress, his tallest heels, and hits the clubs. He is part of a co­hort of new­age queens, fe­male im­per­son­ators in a coun­try with a long tra­di­tion of men im­per­son­at­ing women. Much of this his­tory can be traced back to folk theatre, to what in Ben­gal­ispeak­ing parts of In­dia is known as ja­tra, where men played fe­male char­ac­ters be­cause women were barred from the stage.

The new breed of ur­ban In­di­ans wear­ing drag owes more, per­haps, to Amer­i­can su­per­star RuPaul—a 57­year­old drag queen who is so main­stream, so en­trenched in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, that she fronts her own re­al­ity show, RuPaul’s Drag Race— than to ja­tra but it must serve as some com­fort to be able to give the con­tem­po­rary scene some per­spec­tive, as fresh new pages in an al­ready vo­lu­mi­nous cul­tural his­tory.

Not that any of this makes do­ing what they do any eas­ier. For all the glam­our of lip­sticked, mas­caraed faces, for all the thrill of trans­for­ma­tion, the language of self­em­pow­er­ment, drag queens face an up­hill bat­tle in their bid to be recog­nised by the pub­lic as artists, to be recog­nised as ex­po­nents of an es­tab­lished art form.

In a small, one­room ten­e­ment in Delhi’s La­j­pat Na­gar, a neigh­bour­hood that man­ages to be both stodg­ily mid­dle class and con­ven­tional and pro­vide shel­ter to the city’s mi­grant hordes, lives young Bi­naira Vaishno Pawar. Her neigh­bour, Ishaku Bezbaroa, a 27­yearold le­gal re­searcher at the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, has a drag al­ter ego named Kush­boo. “Drag, as a con­cept, fas­ci­nates me,” says Bi­naira, whose sis­ter Tanya was Kush­boo’s first con­fi­dante. “I’m so proud of him (Ishaku).” But Bezbaroa knows the rest of his neigh­bours are un­likely to be as ac­cept­ing, so he keeps to him­self. Still, he in­sists that “drag is art and my body is my can­vas, the make­up and clothes my paints, and the stage a space for my ex­hi­bi­tion. If I don’t chal­lenge my own mas­culin­ity, what’s the point?”

His par­ents, Bezbaroa says, were rec­on­ciled to his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity but were un­happy about their son be­ing a drag queen. They found out when they saw that he’d or­dered wigs, padded bras, and make­up from his Ama­zon ac­count. “There was a back­lash,” he says, “from fam­ily and even boyfriends who did not want their ‘man’ to be­have like a ‘girl’.” But, Bezbaroa quotes Ru­ Paul, “If you can’t love your­self, how in hell are you gonna love some­body else.”

On Oc­to­ber 31 last year, Hal­loween night, Kush­boo de­buted at Kitty Su, an LGBTQ­friendly club at the lux­ury Lalit Ho­tel in the heart of Delhi, right by Con­naught Place. Dressed in tights and a blonde wig, she lip­synced to Mag­gie Rogers’s wist­ful Alaska. “And I walked off you,” she sang, as if to her­self, “and I walked off an old me.” Kitty Su is the cen­tre of the cap­i­tal’s drag scene. For as lit­tle as Rs 5,000 a per­for­mance, queens from around the coun­try and some­times the world put on a show un­til the small hours. The Lalit has be­come a lab­o­ra­tory of sorts, not just nur­tur­ing but help­ing to cre­ate an In­dian drag scene. For the cu­ri­ous vis­i­tor, Kitty Su on these nights re­sem­bles a rau­cous, adults only mas­quer­ade ball. The un­likely rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, with their sky­scraper heels and hair, are in their day­time avatars lawyers, up­wardly mo­bile MBAs, con­sul­tants—white col­lar pro­fes­sion­als in dull white col­lar jobs. Drag, for many of

them, is about per­for­mance, ex­press­ing that other self, be­com­ing a crea­ture of one’s own imag­i­na­tion, rather than, as so many in­sist, a sex­ual pec­ca­dillo. Many queens in­sist, for in­stance, that it is in­cor­rect to de­scribe them as trans­sex­u­als or trans­ves­tites.

On the night the Supreme Court ruled on Sec­tion 377 of the IPC, the drag queens con­gre­gated at Kitty Su to cel­e­brate. “Drag gave a lot of vis­i­bil­ity and power to this fight. We are the most vis­i­ble part of the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, shout­ing out the loud­est. But when it came to the ver­dict, no­body paid any heed to us,” says Rovin, cor­po­rate trainer by day and drag queen by night.

In a sense, drag at Kitty Su is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sub­ver­sion, par­tic­u­larly in a city so syn­ony­mous with mas­cu­line ag­gres­sion as Delhi. Some fem­i­nists might question what drag, with its outre fo­cus on a cer­tain kind of fe­male glam­our, says about gen­der stereo­types, but the queens at Kitty Su are not about to apol­o­gise. They have fought too many wars to cre­ate this space for them­selves.

“There was this young per­son from Agra,” says Delhi-based dancer Pra­teek, “who would mes­sage me, ask­ing un­abashedly for sug­ges­tions, tips. And that’s great be­cause it shows how far we’ve come.” Long ago, Pra­teek re­calls a phys­i­cal train­ing teacher in Ranchi, his home­town, call­ing him a sissy. The taunt stayed with him, shamed him. Un­til, in 2014, he heard the RuPaul track, Sissy that Walk, a song that turned the in­sult into a pos­i­tive, a la­bel to be worn with pride. “And if I fly or if I fall,” the lyrics go, “least I can say I gave it all... I’m on my way, I’m on my way.”

Ac­cord­ing to Aish­warya Ayush­maan (aka Lush Mon­soon), drag “plays with the rules of gen­der through per­for­mance, some­times break­ing them and some­times em­brac­ing them”. Too of­ten, he adds, “so­ci­ety tells us that cer­tain lives, the lives of ‘oth­ers’, do not mat­ter. Even if it’s for a short while, drag makes me feel like my life mat­ters, that I can be the star of my own story”. Lush knows Kush­boo. They have been friends since their days at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Juridi­cal Sciences in Kolkata. In La­j­pat Na­gar, they bought cheap makeup to­gether and tacky wigs, wrapped them­selves in shawls and danced. To them, they looked and felt beau­ti­ful.

Thurs­day nights at Kitty Su showed them that they were part of a com­mu­nity. With chap­ters in Ben­galuru, Mum­bai, Delhi, and Chandi­garh, the club has been host­ing drag nights since Au­gust last year. The nights are so pop­u­lar the club has eight queens on staff as part of “the fam­ily”. But Kitty Su also scouts for per­form­ers on­line and as drag be­comes more main­stream in Delhi, many queens have social media pro­files and boast sub­stan­tial fol­low­ings. Ke­shav Suri, the openly gay ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lalit Suri Hos­pi­tal­ity Group, is the cat­a­lyst for Kitty Su’s drag nights. “It’s a mix,” he says, “of ball­room and show. But we have to find our way, show peo­ple what we’re about. Be­cause In­dia has a huge trans com­mu­nity and so there is con­fu­sion. Trans is what your are, drag is what you do.”

At St Columba’s, where Suri went to school, he would be Mother Mary in na­tiv­ity plays and once even took on the role of a fairy. Only in Lon­don, though, where he went for fur­ther stud­ies, did he en­counter drag as a le­git­i­mate scene. He be­came a fan and a per­former. His club takes its name from his drag per­sona, a com­bi­na­tion of Hello Kitty, the Ja­panese car­toon char­ac­ter his sis­ter loved, and a con­trac­tion of his sur­name. Suri first un­der­stood the po­ten­tial for drag nights in Delhi when he brought drag queen and bur­lesque dancer Vi­o­let

Chachki, win­ner of Drag Race Sea­son Seven, to his club and 1,900 peo­ple showed up. Slowly, other venues are tak­ing Suri’s cue. Aditya Bhan­dari, a founder of Free the Verse, an artist col­lec­tive, or­gan­ised a re­cent per­for­mance by Lush and Kush­boo in Delhi’s NIV Art Gallery. “Their per­for­mance,” he says, “was pure drag. They dressed flam­boy­antly, their make-up was unique. I have many rea­sons to be­lieve that drag cul­ture in In­dia is grow­ing, as is the case with many queer art forms.”

It’s al­most 11.30 pm, and in the back­stage dress­ing room at Kitty Su the smoke curls up, as do the eye­lashes. Drag queens in var­i­ous stages of readi­ness are tamp­ing down bushy eye­brows, ap­ply­ing lay­ers of make-up, and pulling on tight dresses. On a chair lies a pair of foam cush­ions cut into a dis­tinc­tive shape. “My fa­ther got the cush­ions for me,” says Lush Mon­soon, “and I cut them up to make ‘bum pads’.” Pra­teek dis­putes the idea that their drag per­sonas are al­ter egos. “It’s all me,” he says, “but with a lot of make-up and glit­ter.” He’s hold­ing a mir­ror in his left hand as he ex­tends his eyes with liner and ap­plies blue glit­ter on his eye­lids. “Re­mem­ber Harry Potter?” he asks. “This dress­ing room is the queens’ own min­istry of magic.” Shabnam Bewafa, the youngest of the queens here, has just ar­rived com­plete with en­tourage. As she ap­plies glit­ter to her lashes and pumped-up lips, she bats her eye­lids and asks, “Am I not hot?” For Shabnam, her over-the-top per­sona is a cel­e­bra­tion, of the trans­for­ma­tion of a shy boy who lost his mother when he was just five.

It’s time for the show to be­gin. Lush Mon­soon wears a yel­low body­suit, Kush­boo is in a se­quinned white dress she found in Saro­jini Na­gar’s flea mar­ket, walk­ing on­stage to an An­nie Len­nox track. She is en­veloped in shafts of pink and blue light, as if wrapped in twi­light. “On­stage,” says Ik­shaku Bezbaroa, now a lu­mi­nous white blonde, “I feel they see me for who I re­ally am in­side: a fierce, beau­ti­ful crea­ture who just wants to spread love.” At the end of the night, stripped of all the maquil­lage, the queens are talk­ing about their fu­tures. Kush­boo is mov­ing to Ben­galuru. Pra­teek wor­ries about find­ing a job since chore­og­ra­phy isn’t pay­ing the bills. Lush talks about his favourite RuPaul quote. “We are all born naked,” he says, “and the rest is drag.”

“WE WILL HAVE TO FIND OUR OWN WAY... TRANS IS WHAT YOU ARE, DRAG IS WHAT YOU DO” —KE­SHAV SURI

VIKRAM SHARMA

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