Essay | To perform is to be: Drag culture, Indian art, and activism – Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

To be a drag artist is a curious thing. You can be anyone, everything, the sum of your desires, all at once. But what becomes of this curiosity in a cultural discourse that doesn’t let the mind wander? A discourse that thrives on stereotyping, refuses to recalibrate, and reduces everything to a label? 

If the Indian drag culture is anything to go by, then this curiosity endures. In the fall of 2018, when the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgement on Article 377, two things happened. One, a promise of liberation hung in the air, with a renewed resolve for the challenges to come. And two, the lid on a boiling pot was finally removed for drag artists — their art receiving a nod-of-sorts to waft through mainstream Indian art. 

Across time and continents

History stands clear and consensual on one thing: drag is not a product of the 21st century. The earliest documentation of cross-dressing — to wear clothes culturally ascribed to the opposite sex, that is central to drag art — is strewn across cultures. Jonathan David in his book Drag Diaries writes about how native Americans, indigenous South Americans, and Ancient Egyptians often cross-dressed for ancient religious ceremonies. 

The most culturally notable figuration of drag is through theatre; more particularly in the plays of Shakespeare that opened at London’s Globe Theatre in the 17th century. It was convention for male actors to play female characters, and cross-dressing was a common trope in his plays. Viola became Cesario in the Twelfth Night, Rosalind transforms to Ganymede in As you like it. 

Some activists, however, trace the roots of drag closer to home. It was documented in texts with varied terminologies, and smidgeons witnessed in dance forms like kathakali and theyyam. Variations of the term were being documented in late 800BC texts. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, the founder of DragVanti, a blog for uplifting desi drag community, says, “If we try to compare the first draft (of drag culture), it was something that was a part of the Indian art circuit.” Instead of being developed into a singular art form, it had intersectionality with dance, theatre, and other creative fields. 

The Desi drag culture

Despite the rich history of drag in India, there remains an uncomfortable distance between drag and mainstream culture. One reason can be traced to a general wariness to western ideas and art forms. Drag, by and large, is seen as a western niche — a premise further cemented by the popularity of American drag shows. 

The reluctance can also be ascribed to cultural barriers. Cross-dressing or violating gender norms are seen as social aberrations, and thus anything in relation is saddled with misconceptions and misrepresentations. It is thought to be “incorrect” or “vulgar”, mostly because its messaging rallies for an alternate value system. 

But an evolving art ecosystem is working to destigmatize drag culture. Indian drag performers borrow stylistic elements from western conventions: flamboyant clothes, theatrical make-up, sashaying through stages. But there is an effort to retain traditional markers of Indianness, as they opt for saree and salwar-kamiz in their stories and performances. 

The ‘desi’ gets prefixed to ‘drag’, to visualise a community of change-makers, performers, and pioneers. Maya the drag queen, Lush Monsoon, Betta Naan Stop, amongst others performed at clubs and social gatherings. The solidarity of Indian drag community has strengthened with time, making it easier to articulate what’s needed to develop this nascent, vibrant scene of art. What started as an isolated, individualistic flair has swelled into a movement of expression. 

Drag art and the message of inclusivity

Language and identity are interlinked, with language evolving itself to be more inclusive. But it has to reach everyone and be comprehended to make an impact. Where language fails, art when compounded with drag culture can do wonders in reshaping cultural sensibilities. 

Drag artists are finding transcendence, meaning, and community in a moment of socio-political upheaval. What inspires drag art in India? One merely has to look towards social movements in time to understand what breathes life into it. Since the essence of drag lies in transgressing binaries, the community becomes an artistic ally to other disenfranchised groups. Stories of women, gender representation, sexual identity, and other minority groups often anchor drag performances. 

Names like Gulabi Gang, and Pink Chaddi came to be associated with social campaigns against domestic violence and Hindu nationalism. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a 28-year-old expressionist dancer, started a blog, Dragvanti in addition to performing on politically relevant themes. Art and activism become bound in a promise of liberation, communicating fraught social relations and structural inequalities.

For art to connect with contemporary ideas, there is a need to tell true and diverse stories. Drag culture offers an unassuming and rich medium of storytelling, that breathes life into this fight for inclusivity. 

It is also worth mentioning that the discourse isn’t limited to drag queens; there is non-gendered drag, artists who are indifferent to conversations about gender. To create inclusivity, underplaying the gender card is important and must align with an understanding that is constantly developing. Gender, after all is said and done, remains a social construct. Drag art becomes a tool for plugging the loopholes that come with a constricted view of identity, gender, and sexuality. 

The next step

Indian drag landscape stretches along upmarket clubs, literature festivals, and cultural spaces. In the pandemic, these artists have taken to social media to connect to their audience and unite the drag community. Drag art is being used as a tool for activism and expression, now more than ever. As a nation that is still coming to terms with same-sex relationships and gender fluidity, India needs an artistic push. 

The first step in this pursuit is for drag culture to be integrated in the broader cultural conversation. Right now, it relies on internet subcultures and social fringe groups. Whatever widespread representation does exist does more harm — shows like Zabardast, a Telugu show that portrays drag culture, unwittingly passes along homophobic and offensive messaging. 

In order to preserve the authenticity of drag, there needs to be a determined effort by members of government and civil society to embrace it. Steps like identifying drag as a field of art, acknowledging artists and performers, offering accolades and institutional support, and building more vibrant platforms can be a positive start. In many ways, drag continues to fight art and demands respect.

Art carries fierce activism, and much like drag, it must be allowed to continue unapologetically. It is only then can Indian drag art can reach what it has set out to achieve: steer discourse, facilitate dialogue, and inspire movements. Its curiosity keeps it alive, only when it remains untamed.

 


Saumya Kalia is a journalist and writer. Most days she is proud to be a product of her times; other days she finds a deep hankering to move to the rhythm of the good-old-days. Her tryst with time inspires her to explore life and living, as it cuts across socio-cultural periods. She swears by coffee, good literature, and everything popular culture. She mostly lives out of suitcases and currently finds base in Mumbai. 

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