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The Politics Of Two Attires And Flamboyant Drag Queens

In India, drag culture is slowly becoming a medium to express personal politics

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The Politics Of Two Attires And Flamboyant Drag Queens
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At one o’clock at Kitty Su, an LGBTQIA+ friendly nightclub on the 28th floor of the luxury Lalit Hotel in Delhi, the night was animated. Commemorating the fourth anniversary of dec­riminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC, the club was hosting a queer bash and a drag show. The disco lights in the otherwise dimly lit club danced in a frenzy, and so did the partying queer folk on the floor. Everything in the hall—hips, arms, feet, bod­ies, lights, and music—danced to a universal rhythm that bounced and oscillated unabashedly like subatomic particles running berserk in every possible direction, creating a miasma of colours and bodies. Drag shows are celebratory congregations, often hosted by nightclubs. Although its main purpose is entertainment, it is also used as self-expression and a celebration of LGBTQIA+ pride. A typical drag show includes, a drag queen with elabor­ate attire, hair and makeup, lip-syncing or dancing to pop numbers.

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Although the flamboyantly dressed queer crowd at Kitty Su looked committed to merrymaking, they were eagerly waiting for the queens, and especially the performance of Lush Monsoon. When she appeared, Monsoon wore glittering makeup, a kimono-like dress, a big shimada-like wig, a pair of fancy eyeglasses, and carried a Japanese mai-­ougi hand-fan. As Monsoon entered, her kimono sleeves fluttered, and a slew of camerapersons with their heavy equipment followed her trail, all of them jostling through the cro­­wd. Teya, a drag queen, donning a silver-blonde wig, who had already tak­en the stage, made an announcement requesting the guests to assemble. The crowd obliged. “It’s a commemoration of our freedom, my fri­e­nds,” she spoke into the microphone with gusto, as the cro­wd roared in excitement. “Four years ago, the fan­gs of Section 377 were clawed out! This night is for the celebration folks, let’s dance to death!”

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The lights on the floor flashed as the DJ took over, playing Beyonce’s Freedom. Drag queen Betta Naan Stop was on the stage, performing to the number. “Freedom, cut me loose, singing… freedom, freedom… where are you?” Betta lip-synced to Beyo­nce, swaying her hips slyly like a ser­pent. The bewitched crowd danced along.

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Fight for diversity Drag artiste Hiten Noonwal. Photo: Hardik Chhabra

Ayushmaan aka Lush Monsoon is a human rig­hts lawyer by day and drag queen by nig­ht. “I can nev­er, experience and expr­ess my femininity as freely as I do on stage,” says Monsoon. Their fee­ling of freedom is “closely attached” to drag.

Although drag as an art form is not rest­r­i­cted to gender and sexuality, and strai­ght artists also cross dress, it hones an element of performance wherein the artists express the layers of the identities they relate to. As such, drag has been integral to the LGBTQIA+ community. “Drag is closely linked to queerness, because it’s about expressing something the society doesn’t conform to or see as a taboo,” says Monsoon.

Although drag as an art form is not rest­r­i­cted to gender and sexuality, and strai­ght artists also cross Dress, it hones an element of performance wherein the artists express the layers of the identities they relate to in society.

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Monsoon believes India’s modern drag scene is somewhat inspired by the America’s ballroom culture of the late 1980s—an African-American and Latino underground LGBTQIA+ subculture that originated in New York, wherein drag queens org­a­nised their own events to resist the racism experienced in existing and established landscapes.

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Ayushmaan aka Lush Monsoon at Kitty Su

For Monsoon, drag is a political art form. Alo­ng with the peripheral politics of the surroundi­ngs or structures, drag makes references to per­s­onal politics as well. For instance, many of the drag queens in India take part in LGBTQIA+ acti­vism and have been raising their voices against the laws that have been regressive for the community. Moreover, on the personal front, drag artists’ will and choice to crossdress, perform and expr­ess their identities freely signifies an action, whe­r­ein tenets of personal politics come into play.

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In India, being visibly queer—as in the case of drag artistes—comes at a huge cost. Donning the apparel to exp­ress ones femine side, says Mons­oon, is looked down upon. Although the drag arti­sts’ battle for asserting their identity seems like an arduous task, drag nights in clubs give them hope. “These are spaces of joy and hope, whe­re we weave a community,” says Monsoon about places that host drag nights in the Capital.

Although drag offers a safe space to queers, the places where the shows are hosted are accessible to groups that have social and financial privilege. “In developing countries like India,” a gender studies researcher says, “where the gap between the haves and have-nots is sickening, such practi­ces only cater to groups who are basically elites.”

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Sushant Divgikar aka RANI KoHE-NUR Sushant Divgikar aka RANI KoHE-NUR

Nevertheless, the elements of drag are not new to India. Indian princely courts during medieval times had drag performers, and the culture also flourished in kothis. For decades, folk art forms like jatra and lavani have always had men performing as wom­en. Traditional performance art forms such as the Lok Rang Noor from rural Punjab, have survived for many generations with extraordinary resilie­nce. Kaniyan Koothu in Tamil Nadu and Launda Naach in Bihar are two examples of such art forms that are still in vogue. Cross-dressing, as much as the definition of drag demands, was a significant component of Indian culture before it fell victim to stigmas and systematic scorn, especially as a result of colonialism, Victorian morality and the regressive regulations that accompanied them.

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“Drag has always been integral to our hist­ory,” says Keshav Suri, the founder of Kitty Su. “How­e­ver, colonial guilt marginalised the queer community and we shunned our own culture,” he adds. “Drag is deeply rooted into the stratas of the div­erse Indian culture,” says internationally ren­o­wned drag queen Sushant Divgikar. “Our folk dan­ces have men performing as women. The courts of emperors used to have royal eunuchs,” says Divgikar, who goes by the name RANI Ko-HE-Nur, adds. “The colonial mentality does not want to talk about our rich culture,” he adds.

Cross-dressing was a big component of Indian culture before it became victim to stigmas, especially as a result of colonialism, Victorian morality and regressive regulations that accompanied them.

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Other drag artistes have taken inspiration from the West. Nitish Anand aka Shabnam was inspi­red by American teen sitcom Hannah Mon­t­ana, in whi­ch a teenage girl pla­yed by Miley Cyrus, liv­es a double life—pop star Hannah Montana by night, student Miley Stewart by day. “I felt if Han­n­ah can do it, why can’t I?” Another per­form­ance that inspires Ana­nd is the character of Edna Turnblad played by John Travolta in Hairspray. “The feminine characters played by cisgender males, like Travolta in Hairspray, opened up new vistas for me,” recalls Anand, adding, “I had an epiphany that I can bend identities and appearances and expr­ess myself freely.”

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In Indian cinema and television too, references to drag performances have time and again appea­red. Whether it be Govinda’s Aunty No. 1, Kamal Hassan’s Chachi 420 or Sunil Gro­v­er’s comic character Guthi, they are replete with refere­nces to drag. Says Anand, “We need to understand that such characters were often portrayed to inv­ite ridicule or evoke laughter. We need to destigm­atise drag and shun the self-deprecating humour that is emplo­yed to titillate the viewers.”

“Drag is not only an art form or med­ium of self-­expression. It’s a tool through which we can educ­ate the community, fight taboos and create a fabric that preaches freedom,” says Anand.

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At Kitty Su, the party was getting merrier. Que­ens put up scintillating performances, setting the stage for Monsoon. The camera crew was trying to figure out a vantage point in the hall full of people who were dancing, drinking, darting and occasio­n­ally making out. With her glittering eyelids, long and curled eyelashes and tantalising geisha-look, Monsoon performed a Bollywood number, Pallo Latke. Monsoon’s moves seemed to set eve­r­ything on fire—the disco lights, the dancing crowd, lovers kissing in the dark, the smiling bouncers and the housekeeping staff mopping up pieces of shattered glass from the floor. As the night waned, the dancing became more berserk and the kisses more passionate, with the crowd refusing to stop. 

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The Politics Of Two Attires")

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