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.”



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