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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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