A Drag Odyssey: Exploring the Subculture in India
Painting their faces that in no language screams subtle, wrapped in eye-blindingly blingy dresses that are not just drapes but also weapons drag artists use to simultaneously smash heteronormative gender norms other than dripping finesse. Drag has played a prominent role in provoking a sense of gender-bending identities along with expressing themselves using this artform.
So what is drag? Is being trans and drag the same? And oh, can straight people do it? Can you do it? We know you're curious.
Ru Paul once said “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”
For those who don't know, Ru Paul’s Drag Race is a legendary show that introduced the world to drag as an art while simultaneously getting us hooked to newer seasons. Also, can we just take a moment for Santino Rice leaving the show, like WHAAAAAA?
Anyway, the show is a delight (which is also an understatement) because along with being crazy hilarious, it exposes the audience to how insanely talented drag queens are.
Brb, manifesting Indian television to come up with something remotely similar or maybe for the time being, just not homophobic content. (Yes, the bar is that low)
In simple terms, drag is usually associated with wearing dramatic dresses with OTT makeup to bash gender norms and let their bodies flow on stages. It’s a persona created on stage that can be completely different from oneself. “So like alter ego huh?” Probably a hollow word to describe the subculture, it’s much more than that. It’s more similar to acting in a play, but with stifled emotions and skepticism regarding one’s gender identity and channeling all those emotions filled with rage, ecstasy, desires, agony into a beautiful performance of drag.
Moreover, can we talk about how drag artists have given a new definition to slaying heels! We only knew that walking in high heels is chaotic but these drag queens make it look so facile??? Guess they’re called queens for a reason.
Drag Artists Didn't Walk The Way Through History, They Strutted
The term drag was first used when straight men wore long pleated skirts and blouses and exaggerated makeup because women, in particular, weren’t allowed to perform publicly on stages until the 1660s. This began later as a trend for men where they used the drag platform to entertain straight and/or closeted men for money in a secretive space in conservative British society where homosexuality was taboo.
The wordplay which led to the birth of the entire culture, 'Drag' describes how dresses would drag across the floor while they performed. Furthermore, ‘queen’ was considered a slur for a homosexual man. This has now been reclaimed and is viewed in a more positive light, initiating a movement that inspired the queer community to create a space to express their identities further away from the boring gender norms society has created for them.
This paved way to gay bars, enclosed queer parties which organized events for people to come as drag artists, dress up exaggeratedly and perform freely, in a safe space. But this safe space away from the patriarchial norms disappears, as they go home, taking off their makeup and props and going back to emotions of fear and agony. Fear? From the assault by the citizens of their own country OD’ing themselves with queerphobia. And agony? Well, because same.
Dragging From The West To The East
History is proof that drag has been a part of Indian culture since the beginning of time. According to ancient scriptures and texts, there were a lot of men performing as women, just, the term 'drag' was not denoted to this form of art. So, India's very rich culture depicted an overt representation of drag in the folk culture along with the religious texts. But, all thanks to our colonizers, draconian and narrow-minded laws such as the Section 377 came into place, criminalizing homosexuality that successfully brainwashed the minds of people here. (and continues to do so.)
Even though the subculture is quite less popular back home as compared to the west, it has been on a steady rise since the last five to six years. Currently Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi are the three cities where it is brimming beautifully with drag performances occurring often.
Delhi, is one of the hubs for drag, thanks to Keshav Suri, the youngest Executive Director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group who introduced drag culture in India, inviting RuPaul’s drag race winners like Violet Chachki, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000; and Derrick Barry to perform at the nightclub Kitty Su. This created a performance platform for local drag queens where their talent is being nurtured and appreciated with great acceptance. This is extremely important as men dressing up as women have been subjected to stigma and blatant homophobia for the longest time. Also, we’ve witnessed how straight men dressing up in sarees provoke uncontrollable laughter in India households with the likes of Kapil Sharma endorsing it nonchalantly.
Through The Lens Of Genderbending Artists
So how is drag evolving in India? We spoke to three drag artists who are shouldering the artform, taking it in the nightclubs and theatres of Delhi.
Ayushmaan, also known as Lush Monsoon is a human rights lawyer by day and drag queen by night who performs in Delhi.
Ayushmaan resorts to 90s pop stars and old classic Bollywood characters as muses to perform drag, “I have been heavily influenced by Rekha ji” they said. Drag has revived several gender identities of perplexed individuals, adding onto which, they said:
They told us how drag creates a persona for them on stage where they can break ceilings of social aspects in the wholly gender-bending performance. They further said that one doesn’t have to be queer to do drag; anyone including cis gendered people can indulge themselves in it. This is so as the whole idea behind drag is creating an inclusive space for all- drag they said is for everybody. Despite what we usually come across, drag is not reserved for any particular group or community as anyone capable of a gender performance can take on the thrilling artform. Moreover, since drag exists mainly to diss gender roles, anyone and everyone sassy enough to doll up in all glam and infuse a performances with powerful storytelling, can do it.
Nitish Anand otherwise known as Shabnam Bewafa, along with being a TedX Speaker, LGBTQ educator, has also been India’s youngest performing drag queen at the age of 19.
Growing up watching popular Disney shows portraying glamorous teen girls, Nitish always related to Hannah Montana and felt a feminine side in him which he started to experiment at a young age by dressing up and performing in this form.
"Drag is basically an art form for me, it's more like an outlet for me to celebrate my underdog," he said.
While drag is largely a gateway to expressing varied sides buried in oneself, Nilay Joshi views it as, "A pathway to bring people together, have fun, enjoy the values of the LGBTQ community and create a sense of love for one another."
Also known as Miss Bhenji, Nilay is a psychologist when he's not doing drag and also working as an event organizer and showcasing several art forms. He further said, "Drag makes me feel liberated, makes me feel like I've the power to do anything, it brings the best of my boy side."
Despite all this, the artform remains stereotyped and looked down upon as acceptance and recognition along with the understanding of how liberating drag can be is still absent. What many people fail to realize is that since the artform essentially is centered around gender, performing drag can better our understanding of how we truly comprehend gender and how much of it is conditioned. The glass-shattering art also promotes a sense of individuality and creativity among those who indulge in it as well as those who follow it.
So, while the underground drag culture in India is finally blooming, other than more acceptance and conversation around it, we'd like to see more of the under-represented femme drag as well.