Essay | ‘Rhapsody on the F.M.’ by Tristan Marajh | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Rhapsody on the F.M.

The first time I heard “We are the Champions” by British rock band Queen, I must have been a child. I had a sharper sensitivity to music as I grew older and into secondary school, where I knew that song by Queen as one of those timeless ones – ever universal, relevant and enjoyable. Indeed, it speaks about trials, tribulations and triumph and was and still is used as a motivational anthem for countless sport teams and individuals since it came out in 1977. It is almost impossible not to know the song; one would have heard of it or highly likely heard it before. Queen, indeed, were the musical champions of the 1970’s and 1980’s until Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, passed away in 1991. Back in secondary school, I never knew his name or who he was, but was always rendered highly impressed by that vocal range whenever I heard “We are the Champions”, which Freddie wrote, sang and played piano for. The song was released eighteen years before I started secondary school and persisted in the decades to follow. Each time I heard it and “Another One Bites the Dust” on the FM radio, I remained privately impressed by the sheer classiness of the singer’s vocals. I still didn’t know who Queen’s lead singer was; nineties music was all the rage for my schoolmates and I at the time. Singers and bands from decades before – like Queen – were deemed irrelevant by and to us; old-fashioned and out-of-date, their days of glory behind them. No doubt that today’s youth, in the era of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, feel as disdainful about 90’s idols the same way I had once felt about Queen. 

I was in secondary school in the latter half of the nineties. It was a religious school with all male students. There was, therefore, a lot of unguided testosterone that teachers tried to restrain through strict discipline and enforcement of rules that in retrospect, many former students now consider comparable to a prison camp. Rebellion, or just plain misunderstanding, was met by corporal punishment. Every other morning, our principal would conduct the school’s student assembly, which comprised a devotional message, prayers and the singing of both the national and school’s anthems. And that’s when Fionn Maharaj took to the stage, much to the chuckling, mocking and chiding of the students. A Chemistry and Math teacher otherwise, Fionn would strut to the podium, remove the microphone from its stand and twist his body this way and that as he moved to the rhythm and the melody of singing, which in a school comprising proud, macho – or more accurately, pretending to be macho – boys, wasn’t too much melody to go with. Mr. Maharaj sashayed his legs and hips, timed his musical rhythm by snapping the fingers of one hand as he held the microphone in the other.

You might imagine the kind of fun young boys lucky to have been born into heterosexual humanity would have had at Fionn Maharaj’s expense. As our Chemistry or Math teacher, my school- and classmates did not make Mr. Maharaj’s experience pleasant, or leave him with the conviction that he got through to his students. To be a teacher in secondary school is difficult enough; to be a “pansy”-male teacher in an all-male secondary school would have been extremely difficult. In his classes, students taunted Mr. Maharaj as he tried to teach, mocking his sissy-ish (as it was regarded) voice, his unmale gestures and movements and attempts at disciplining students, which often resulted in shoving back by the student. Such was the level of contempt and disrespect the students showed for Mr. Maharaj, but this did not seem to faze him; he never toned down his body language or style of speaking to seem more “manly”. And so, the fodder for ridicule never diminished. Throughout my years at that school Mr. Maharaj remained the target of mockery and contempt. It was a process that I’m certain repeated itself with each influx of new students. Yet I have to say Mr. Maharaj took it all in stride – or strut – and never toned down the tendencies he possessed. In retrospect, I realize now, it was very tough of him. Tougher than my schoolmates postured to be, and more resilient – very deserving of the respect and admiration that was flagrantly denied him in my secondary school days. Paradoxically, Mr. Maharaj was more of a man than we could have hoped for as students at that time. If we regarded him with contempt and disrespect then as unrefined boys, it now seems the opposite as mature young men – Mr. Maharaj was not beneath us by masculine standards, but above us; a real man among boys, a teacher not only of Math and Chemistry but also of courage and truthfulness to oneself no matter what the world. A man among boys indeed, a royal among knaves, not a king but more aptly, a queen.

The biofilm of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, recently came out (pun intentional). Admittedly, I’d watched it in the cinema one night after work; I was restless, bored and did not want to return to my house just yet. Indeed, if I’d had another endeavor I deemed better to do than look at a biopic of a singer I considered – as you recall – irrelevant to my current tastes I’d have no doubt pursued that other thing. The theatre at the time was empty; I think there were about eight or fewer people who were probably there for the same restless reason as me. Bohemian Rhapsody was the title of the film. Its accolades include: Winner, Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the 2019 Golden Globes; Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture at that same event (won by Rami Malek for playing Freddie Mercury); Best Picture nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards; Best Actor award at that same event to Rami Malek, as well as Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing – all at that event. 

Rami Malek was tasked for and by the role of Freddie Mercury, but Freddie Mercury made all those awards easy to win. I was ignorant of him until the movie, and after the movie I was in awe of him. He was a musician, a singer, an artist and human being before his time; even before current time today, when the movie provided for himself and Queen a renaissance of sorts. Their music both merged and transcended genres, eras and sensibilities. Freddie had a beautiful spirit, unfazed by the ridicule and contempt he was subjected to not only as a Parsee immigrant to the United Kingdom of the 60’s, but also because of his homosexuality which was implicit in his on-stage antics, costumes and gestures, not to mention, of course, his off-stage lovers. Yet, he pressed on: creating, moving queenly on stage, his voice not just soaring but climbing, climbing up to heaven where his fans are convinced he is carrying on as he did to this day. He was indeed a fearless man, resilient and convinced of his talent, yet by the same token those who knew him spoke of his humility, his unassuming bent, his kindness, introversion and loyalty to his artistic drive to create, play and perform. I – you could say – unabashedly fell in love with him the more I delved into his music and the kind of person he was amidst the challenges he faced; that unbroken, unfazed spirit that persevered. It confirmed a notion I had: that a heterosexual man could fall in love with another man; more in the direction of true love because it is love that is artless and comprised of respect and admiration. As a student I’d thought I’d only fall in love with women, yet perhaps it is not too unfathomable to understand I could with a man describing himself as a queen. After all, what he did name his band?

There was no difference, in essence, between Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury. They had the exact same initials, even. Perhaps that was – as Freddie and Fionn might have believed respectively – a symbol. Freddie Mercury received the world’s love, but Fionn did not receive love from his own world, that world that consisted of contemptuous, ridiculing, mocking students. And yet, Fionn strutted, sashayed and hip-swayed despite it all, despite us all. That’s what made true royalty: not necessarily brute presentation, but self-composure in the face of tribulation. It was known that Fionn did have a wife and children with her, yet we eagerly chose to assume he was gay and living a lie instead of denying he was homosexual at all. If he was indeed gay, such suppression even has nobility to it: it must have taken a gargantuan internal and external effort for Fionn to “do the right thing” by his parents, religion and society at the time and his own conditioning by them all. It must ultimately be the right thing, however, for individuals to healthily and openly actualize themselves as who they are – that’s when nobility ends and royalty resides. Freddie Mercury, British citizen and frontman for a band named Queen would have no doubt – figuratively – told you that nobles are below royals, and no one is above royalty. That’s what Fionn was: despite the ridicule and mockery, he remained upbeat, positive and concerned about our well-being, just as Mr. Mercury had been amidst his own mockery from others; even from biology itself, as AIDS decayed his body and took his life – his physical form at least. Yet, even that is not true, for decades later Freddie Mercury’s astounding voice still remains, climbing and climbing, higher than heaven, “punching a hole” through it on the way, as he would have remarked. And what of Fionn? Even if he was gay and eventually came out, it would be naive to conclude that he also eventually lived his life as expressively, experimentally and experientially as Freddie Mercury: fully, openly queer; having long-term relationships with chosen lovers. In that way, Fionn’s story does not have that kind of happy conclusion. But for it to have a satisfactory conclusion, it is imperative to understand that the true admirability in Fionn’s story was that in his time as a teacher, in the midst of the torments of testosterone-titillated young men, he carried on regardless – just as Freddie did until his death, just as millions of other unsung individuals do in the midst of their own respective internal and external torments. They both had resilient, persistent, mighty spirits, unswayed by their respective worlds – Freddie Mercury in 1950’s-1980’s society and Fionn Maharaj in one more recent, one that might as well have been in Freddie’s time in its attitude to queenly and queer-ly expression in men. Resilience, unswayed determination, fearlessness: the very traits that boys ridiculed in my secondary school were keenly sought out by us as we grew into young men.

And what indeed is a man, I would often ask myself since those school years, as I’m certain most of my schoolmates did. We have bumbled and suffered in our journey to know exactly what a man is and many of us still do today. Back in secondary school, we dismissed the likes of Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury, making conspiratorial fun of our teacher’s initials – F.M. – to validate our assessment: the Fag Man, the Fairy Man, Fruity Man, Foolish Man, Female Man, even Femme Man (by those of us “cultured” enough to know the term yet rarely using it, lest we incur the accusation that we were of the type of people we were mocking). We did not know – far less even think of – the truest, most resonant expression of the shared initialism of both Freddie Mercury and Fionn Maharaj: F.M., of course, standing for the Free Man.

Tristan Marajh is a Winner in the William Faulkner Literary Competition of 2020 and his work can be read in a number of literary journals; most recently in down river road, based in Kenya and Ayaskala, based in India. With a childhood spent in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

‘An Indian gothic drag art performance’ – A photo essay feat. Patruni Chinanda Sastry | by Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Where patriarchy ends, expression begins: An Indian gothic drag art performance

The lore of vishkanya is intoxicating in its effect on the Indian cultural discourse. The “poisonous maiden”, enrobed in myth and legend, carries an ominous mark. It is a secret that hangs heavy in the air; neither fully embraced, nor completely eschewed. It passes on in grim looks, exchanged as demure whispers, understood as cautionary tales in traditional set-ups. Like all things clandestine, its lure indulges social dogmas and inspires a web of fancy. 

But for Patruni Chinanda Sastry, the lure doesn’t warrant loyalty to the myth. The 28-year-old artist is known for many things: dancing, drag art, LGBTQI+ activism. Which means that he knows exactly how to turn the prism outwards. If anything, he believes, the myth demands a closer look, a dissection, a complete evisceration if needed. 

His recent performance, VisssKanya, does exactly that. It is a play on the legend, the tradition of witch-shaming, and the force of patriarchy that binds it all. Along with Sajiv Palasa, he mixes it with the contours of drag art and gothic culture, albeit within the Indian sensibility. Captured by Hyderabad-based photographer Manab Das, what unravels is a spectre of delirium, defiance, and delusionment. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das and Artist : Patruni Sastry

Time stands still in the land that vacillates between tradition and modernity. The parable of vishkanya has evolved but never once betrayed the violence, lethality, and deviousness the female figure is understood to possess. The most recent figuration came in the form of a Bengali actor politically and socially indicted. Rhea Chakraborty’s role in Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide was sold as witchcraft on television screens; anchors swearing by occult forces at play. The woman was unwittingly vilified to preserve the presumed innocence of the man. 

This is in line with India’s sordid history of witch-shaming — labelling norm-defying, often independent women as “daayan” or “chudail”. Witch shaming in India is a departure from Shakespearian witches and their green faces and black robes. Here, the daayan or chudail was marked by her association to black magic or the tropes of jaadu-tona. Progressive or independent women were relegated to be these anomalies, devious figures, sinister witches. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

This characterisation was where gothic drag art found the need to intervene in the dominant narrative. Somewhere between their transgression and expression was a mirror that could reflect the reality of patriarchal forces at play. Two figures headline this performance: one played by PCS in a vivid red-and-black saree donning the feminine figure, with Palasa playing the masculine entity. The two bodies continue to pose with constant contact without a break, unlike other photo shoots.

In two hours, their progression reveals the notoriety at play. PCS, dressed as a woman in the garb and jewelry of a traditional woman, was the seductive, poisonous “vissskanya”. The man was swayed, cajoled, and his mouth strapped shut. The slurring ‘s’ uncomfortably hung in the air, as if the passage of utterance might inspire introspection. 

Traditional understanding of goth in rural areas manifests through stories of witches, black magic, vishkanyas. So it was imperative that the gothic anchored the performance here, but without the pre-conceptions it remains shackled with. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artist : Sajiv Pasala 

PCS explains how gothic culture was growing as a counterpart to gothic music and punk trends; a lifestyle being developed from a music setting. It is a way of living, and not restricted to fanciful notions it is often confused with. Goth in drag came to grow in prominence in western drag culture — PCS hat tips to artists like Sharon Needles who would dress in the widely-accepted black-and-white binary, a western goth staple.

Is gothic an often-used medium for drag artists? Now more than ever. As creativity thrived, drag artists went ahead and looked for inspiration from the society they lived in. Goth culture was resounding with gender fluidity — a western figure titles emos muffled the gendered aspects of play. Gothic drag matched the non-conformity with artful performances. 

But Vissskanya is again a departure from the western gothic drag portrayal — the white is quickly replaced by the red. Feedback from some sections railed in how the absence of white didn’t make it gothic enough. But for the artists, it was more important to do justice to the context behind the presentation. The red carried a powerful message to a patriarchal set-up, especially when used as a tool of subversion.

The clarion call thus becomes evident: “Even men are witches, I am just one”, the artists explain.  With this, the performance shirks off taboos and time-honoured beliefs: a headstrong woman is not a witch, and witchcraft deserved a different treatment. This was a chance to recalibrate morality within tradition.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

To take it a step further, the performance deludes the gender binary as is widely understood. There stands the traditional alpha, gazing at the seductive beta. But a closer look shows the feminine figure, adorned with jewelry, with a mustache. Gender permeates through the performance, pushing forth forces of fluidity.

The ring that sat on the man’s finger in the previous picture now binds his mouth shut. This was the man who had the power to oppress the feminine voice, but the progression of the performance uses the ring as a symbol. The imagery interrogates male privilege and puts it into perspective. There is something about a man ceasing his railing defence of “not all men” that paves way for reflection. 

In another image, PCS dressed as a woman bites the glorious chain of patriarchy and oppression.  It then disrupts the traditional set-up and encourages conversation around patriarchy, as documented from the lens of the oppressed. Myths may continue to be weaved by gatekeepers of traditions and values, but for PCS these time-honoured traditions hold little weight especially when times keep changing.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art transcends labels and stereotypes. It throws caution to the wind in its attempt to transgress and create. So it’s only natural that it adapts and grows into an entity of its own, beyond the restrictions of stage. The photo performance grew out of a desire to unify the drag diaspora during these times; and like all art eclipsing through a pandemic, it reached its audience virtually. 

Flair and flamboyance, markers of most drag performances, run in abundance through the performance. But more importantly, it is true to its form. As a drag artist, PCS’s performing philosophy lies in the transparent reign of ‘tranimal drag’. Put simply, it is the idea that drag can be created out of anything. You enrobe and adorn what is in sight; in this case, the red saree, strings of jewellery, and dabs of rouge are what PCS plays with. The vision has to fit the elements, not the other way round. There is a lot of creative freedom in making something which can be found anywhere — an idea that resonates in the times of a pandemic. This approach of drag made fashion and performance accessible to people sitting at home. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

This does two things, One, it caricatures art into a more inclusive mould. Art, PCS explains, has often governed conversations around beauty and romance. Even drag art has to a certain extent dictated ideas about how women should look, how they should dress, how long nails have to be in order to replicate the woman. Cross-dressing was in turn enabling stereotypes — a cycle that needed disruption. With tranimal, drag artists can put multiple things on their face and create a look that aligns best with their identity.

And two, it unravels the idea of privilege and the fashion benchmarks accompanying it. Tranimal doesn’t invest money in clothes or cosmetics, it just makes do. It juxtaposes the costly with the cheap, the pedestrian with the luxurious. Everything is made accessible on one body form and mixed together. The audience then needs to question and wonder what is what, and the aesthetics of privilege are abandoned for the time being.

Drag art in itself is intersectional — involving theatre, music, dance whatever suits the whim of the artist. Dance has been PCS’s preferred form of expression. He was five when he saw the Tamil movie Padayappan where the heroine was angry because she was rejected by the hero. In fury, she screams loudly and dances. This was the kind of implication he grew up with — whenever you’re angry you’ve to scream loudly, his five-year-old understanding dictated, and only then will people take you seriously. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

He later learned Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odishi, and Buto, a Japanese art form. To balance this artistic flight, he trained to be a full-time engineer who now works in the poetic city of Hyderabad. 

It soon became a part of his expression, where the spectrum of emotion oftentimes translated into dance. He paced with agility, and soon came to view the art form through the lens of drag. He finally found the vocabulary — a visual language — to distill ideas and explore issues of identity.

In many of his performances, he asks audience members to pull out chits out of a jar with each one having a gender or sexual label written on it. He then presents it for the individual sensibility. That was the only way for him that stood a chance to reach out to people and denude the richness of gender and sexuality for a more accepting audience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one can only wonder how potent a moving performance can be.

PCS describes himself as an expressionist dance, and one has to merely gleen through to see strokes of the German movement across his body of work. It is the idea of creating oneself, reproducing a feeling or thought for public spectacle that ushers through. The visuality has since carved his identity as an activist, as he established pieces that were relevant and political in nature. Commentaries on same-sex marriage, equality, the MeToo movement all found space in his oeuvre that has went on to inspire many and initiative conversation. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art for performers like him became a conduit for a thriving socio-cultural discourse around the LGBTQ+ community. In their transgression is an abundance of expression often tucked away from the mainstream. People have innumerable pre-conceptions and often dismiss it for sensuality or vulgarity. There are assumption that you have to be gay or transgender to participate, or the stigmatisation of drag queens as ‘hijras’ (eunuchs). The acceptance of drag thus endures under a spectre of shame and unacceptability. 

But like other drag artists, PCS is no friend to conformity. He didn’t find it necessary to dwell on mythology or take stories in the way they came. Traditions were accepted as much as they were rejected. This becomes evident in his understanding of art: the abstract concept is like water which takes on the shape of the jar it flows into. Famous drag queen RuPaul’s words quickly ring in resonance: we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. Art, for him, will always exist as an asexual entity that can be moulded into any gender identity. 

He adopted the stage name S.A.S, an acronym that would come to undergird his body of work. It stands for “Suffocated. Art. Specimen.” Suffocated, for the plurality of expression that strokes within him. And specimen — of art —  to distance himself from gender labels. It is the fluidity of being that holds his confidence and loyalty.

What would it take to move the dial forward on drag culture, gender, and sexuality? Conversation. Artists like PCS are inching close to an answer. Blogs like Dragvanti, that delves into Indian drag in particular, are an instructive medium for knowledge. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

As long as we’re fighting patriarchy, we’re also fighting expression that enables it. The photo performance, along with his other work, criticises the binaries of masculinity and femininity. PCS’s art probes the normative theories of gender and sexuality, and exists in the visual realm. In fact, it insists on creating a performative experience. How do you explain the spectrum of gender or sexual orientation in a way that people understand it? Why don’t we go ahead and dance on it instead of talking about it, PCS thought. And that’s exactly what he continues to do.

He negotiates with his performance on two fronts: one, as an artist, who must do justice to an evolving creative express; and two, as a member of India’s vibrant drag community that fights for a place in the cultural tapestry. Art and activists bind PCS’s work; each breathing a life into him: free, fluid, and transcendent.

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. 

Read more:

Top 25 LGBTQI+ Magazines and Zines from India/Asia

The Bombay ReviewEstd. 2014 | New York / Mumbai Call for submissions! While not a dedicated queer magazine, The Bombay Review also publishes LGBTQ+ themed editions.  Writers in Vol I (2020): Despy Boutris, J. Mueter, Geri Gale, S. Crystal Bacon, Amelia Brown, Shailee R, Robert Beveridge, among others. We are now reading for Volume II:… More

LGBTQ+ Vol 1 – Issue 35 released.

Submissions now open for Vol 2 of the series, scheduled to release in 2021. (Art, reviews, fiction, poetry, essays, and more)

Solicited entries are paid. Submission details here.

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. 

Top 25 LGBTQI+ Magazines and Zines from India/Asia

The Bombay ReviewEstd. 2014 | New York / Mumbai Call for submissions! While not a dedicated queer magazine, The Bombay Review also publishes LGBTQ+ themed editions.  Writers in Vol I (2020): Despy Boutris, J. Mueter, Geri Gale, S. Crystal Bacon, Amelia Brown, Shailee R, Robert Beveridge, among others. We are now reading for Volume II:… More

Essay | Reading Bombay through Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda poems – Saranya Subramanian

Shit city, he thunders;
the lion of Bombay thunders,
Shit city!
I shit on you.
You were a group
of seven shitty islands
given in dowry
to the Shit King of Ing
to shit on
— and now it’s all
one big high-rise shit,
waiting for God
to pull the flush.
And it won’t be long
for God is great.

- The Shit Sermon, Kala Ghoda Poems, Arun Kolatkar[1]

I read Arun Kolatkar to read Bombay. Is it right to read a poet, or poetry, as an extension of a place? I don’t know. Maybe not. Or maybe there is no right way to read a poem, or a poet for that matter. Still, I can’t help but see Kolatkar as synonymous with Bombay. Or perhaps synonymous with a Bombay that is musical and hilarious, twisted and hopeless, and very much existent even today. To me, Kala Ghoda Poems is an honest, unique narrative of my city that was otherwise unapparent to me until I read Kolatkar. For the first time I stopped to notice parts of Bombay that were right under my nose all along, but perhaps not visually appealing or relevant enough to be worthy of my seemingly precious time.

I started my initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, as a continuation of my research. My graduate thesis was a digital humanities project, where I used the software tools of spatial mapping to chart Kolatkar’s stellar collection published in 2004, the Kala Ghoda Poems, onto a map of Bombay and the world. Pinning poems, characters and events onto a visual map was a fantastic, insightful experience that explicated on the truths and fantasies of urban development. But the real fun, and the real struggle, was in finding these locations firsthand in my own city. My primary research involved walking around Bombay to follow the animals, people and piles of rubbish in Kala Ghoda Poems. To see Kolatkar’s Bombay is to see a city stitched together by a poet (and the Pi-dog). Ordinary things are turned upside down and magnified. Multiple lives jostle against each other and are made apparent in lyrical verses that subtly expose the collateral damage of a city plagued with development. The Bombay that Kolatkar writes, while being a global city, does not project the illusion of globalization as one that only involves skyscrapers and successful narratives of becoming rich and famous worldwide. The very real consequences of uneven development—pockets of rich and poor, past and present, grand buildings and piles of rubbish coexisting—distort this illusion. Kala Ghoda Poems teaches me to shift focus of my own city to the sidelined people on the streets and the scraps of dirt that are peppered on the ground. Kolatkar writes them down in poems that are delicate and light, never taking themselves too seriously. The poems are just as whimsical and musical as they are jarring and expository.

The first thing that strikes me about Kala Ghoda Poems is its characters. These are animals, objects and people who are almost spillovers of development, pushed out from social institutions and buildings onto the streets. For the first time, I viewed them as stuck, stranded, marooned in Bombay, far from home. The people from Kala Ghoda Poems are best described in “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda”: “the little vamp, the grandma, the blind man/the ogress,/ the rat-poison man,/ the pinwheel boy,/ the hipster queen of the crossroads,/ the Demosthenes of Kala Ghoda,/ the pregnant queen of tarts,/ the laughing Buddha,/ the knucklebones champ.[2]” As opposed to the bankers and lawyers who remain on the periphery of these poems, here are street dwellers, prostitutes, drunks and the homeless, made out to be almost mythical, magical creatures, asserting themselves over unmarked patches of land. The Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads has dominion “over two traffic islands/ and three pavements,[3]” the so-called Man of the Year stands proudly at a street corner, the girl who looks like “a stick of cinnamon” sits upon a concrete block “as if it were a throne[4]”. I see how the whole city, including my home, is literally either in their hands or on their body. Pi-dog’s body patches look like a “seventeenth century map of the city,”[5] the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads wears Bombay on her sari: each flap representing Dadar, Parel, Lalbaug, Byculla, Bori Bunder, Flora Fountain and Kala Ghoda.

Kolatkar’s characters make me question my own identity and experience of Bombay. Suddenly the colonial Kala Ghoda statue, that lent its name to the entire South Bombay locale, is replaced by the Pi-dog who commands his city from there. The Pi-dog chooses his lineage by tracing his descent from his mother’s side—a bitch who was brought from England to Bombay. He consequently opts for a narrative twice subversive: of colonial and matrilineal descent, challenging common postcolonial attempts of reclaiming the Indian identity. My position in an increasingly commodified world is questioned when I find myself wearing or carrying objects that are presented in Kala Ghoda Poems as rubbish littered on the road, in ubiquitous piles and pieces of junk that have been ridden of all their utilitarian properties. Yesterday’s commodities become today’s garbage, and Kolatkar urges me to stop and look at them—really look at them—as he individually picks out a red plastic hair comb, scraps of paper, an old bicycle tyre, a three-legged chair, castoff condoms, prawn shells, dead flowers and clay. As I walk around the beautiful, artistic hub of Kala Ghoda, home to a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s turned into a garbage dump. But rubbish and urban expansion are inextricable from each other, and I am reminded that much of Bombay is built on landfills converted into sparkling suburbs. As Kolatkar says, “the more you clean Bombay,/ the more Bombay there is to clean[6].”

The first time I followed the Kala Ghoda Poems trail, I expected to be taken on a linear journey from morning till night through 28 poems, but that was far from reality. In between “Pi-dog” and “Traffic Lights,” Kala Ghoda Poems goes back and forth in time and space, tugging me all around the world even, making a chronological trail an impossible feat. Other time zones and time periods are very much alive and breathe life into Bombay’s present reality. David Sassoon’s spectral presence looms over Bombay, indicating how the 19th century Baghdadi Jew painfully watches over his “cement-eating, blood-guzzling city[7]” of which I am a part. A queen from 13th century Granada is embodied in the Barefoot Queen of the Crossroads, whose demeanour could very well make the pavement she dominates equivalent to a courtyard in Alhambra. Time is also a paralysed, stagnating thing in Bombay. Kala Ghoda Poems stops time and stretches moments of a box of idlis collectively sighing, a pinwheel rolling down the street, or a woman delousing her lover’s hair. I am made to stop and smell the idlis. In “Knucklebones” a women selling drugs controls time in the modern world: “Your sari wears a grin/ where your buttocks have sucked it in./ Which sets us all back by a good ten seconds./ It isn’t just your sari;/ it’s time itself that feels the pinch./ The clock outside the Lund & Blockley shop/ that shows the different times/ in all the big cities around the globe/ stumbles and loses ten seconds worldwide./ Flights are delayed./ Trains run behind schedule[8].” Suddenly, I see the fate of all my travel and business plans in the hands, rather buttocks, of this street peddler. The absurdity of development depending on the economically weak sections of society is made obvious in hilarious verse.

Some locations are often impossible to find or measure in exactitude while on The Kolatkar Crawl, locations that are beneath mahogany and banyan trees (trees themselves are a rarity in Bombay these days), at a street corner and a pavement teashop. Others are impossible to reach, such as the Danube River, the Black Sea, Hindu Kush Mountains or Heaven, Sheoul, all of which are tied to Bombay through drug trading, migration and even violent processes of war and colonization. Buildings that have lent their names to roads and areas become mobile caricatures stripped of all magnanimity and glory. Jehangir Art Gallery is “sleeping with its mouth open, as usual,[9]” St Andrew’s church “tiptoes back to its place,/ shoes in hand,/ like a husband after late-night revels,[10]” and the drunk in “The Shit Sermon” yells curses that circle over “the stock exchange,/ the High Court and Mantralaya”[11]. These buildings of art, religion, finance and law, are made comical and fluid, cursed and laughed upon.

Walking through Bombay and reading Kala Ghoda Poems recreates a city that is constantly shifting and dancing around, full of noises and colours, all the while exposing those lives that are pushed out of an expanding concrete jungle, hidden under bright lights and tall towers—the triumphs of development. Kolatkar weaves a Bombay that has no spatial and temporal coherence. I walk in zig-zags and stop midway to search for the smallest of creatures: crows, dogs, homeless snails, injured rats, black cats. Bombay, I realise as each poem pulls me in all directions, cannot only be drawn on the ground. It is a collection of fragments from land, air and sea; it is a disjointed, multidimensional city. Kala Ghoda Poems is an evocative, visceral read. The collection heightens all senses, making me smell and taste and hear all sorts of things as I even visualise Bombay through a charas pill’s journey and traffic lights. It’s a city full to the brim with filth and life pouring out from all cracks and corners.

Is there a right way to read poetry? I don’t have the answer, but I believe that experiencing poetry physically allows me to see things that I have never noticed before. Right now, under lockdown, the characters from Kala Ghoda Poems are important voices of those generally treated as dispensable—migrant workers, unemployed labourers, hungry, homeless strays—victims of a glaringly uneven development. Living on the streets, outside of Bombay’s high rises and social institutions is detrimental, today more than ever. I started The Kolatkar Crawl as an initiative to take people on walkthroughs of Kala Ghoda Poems, but the entire pandemic, lockdown and migrant labour crisis has fuelled the collection with a renewed urgency.

The Kolatkar Crawl is momentarily paused due to lockdown, but the virtual world still allows us to share our thoughts on Bombay and poetry. I conducted a conversation with researcher Laetitia Zecchini and poet Arundhathi Subramniam titled “Reading Kolatkar Under Lockdown” on 6 June 2020, which explored all three of our own entry-points into Kolatkar’s work. Bringing together the perspectives of a poet, an academic and a self-entitled flâneur (myself), was an enjoyable, enlightening experience. Arundhathi spoke about how she is drawn to Kolatkar’s incisive usage of unsentimental, unflinching image and tone and how there is reverence in his seemingly irreverent poems. Laeitita Zecchini seconded this, and added how she is fascinated by how Kolatkar never, never imposes his voice onto the characters in his poems. He gives them time to surface, and in doing so immortalises a city that hasn’t yet been ‘cleansed’ and sanitised.

Reading Kala Ghoda Poems becomes an act of reading Bombay. Now, I surrender fully to the delegations of crows, walls of cafes, watermelon carts, the legless hunchback and jerrycan of kerosene, delinquents in jail, lepers and potato peelers, street dwellers ruling over pavements and playing cards under banyan trees. I learn from them how my city has a shared geographic history with a larger subcontinent and I see the multiplicity of lives and stories that coexist with my own. I learn that my city cannot be tied down to a singular language, identity or history. This is the Bombay that Kala Ghoda Poems encourages me to experience. This is the poet’s city.

Kolaṭakar Aruṇ, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2010.

BIO: Saranya Subramanian is a writer and theatre practitioner based in Bombay. Under her initiative, The Kolatkar Crawl, she takes people on walkthroughs+readings of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems, bringing the poet’s city to life, verse by verse and step by step. And she writes because, well, it’s all that she can really do.

Follow @thekolatkarcrawl on Instagram and Twitter for updates!

[1]Kolatkar, Arun. “The Shit Sermon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 146–149.

[2]  Kolatkar, Arun. “Breakfast Time at Kala Ghoda.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 120-144.

[3] Ibid., 124.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 84.

[6] Ibid., 87.

[7]   Kolatkar, Arun. “David Sassoon.” Arun Kolatkar: Collected Poems in English, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Bloodaxe Books, 2010, pp. 173.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Ibid., 149.