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
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