Resilience And Glamour: Unveiling The Tapestry Of Indian Drag Queens
When drag icon RuPaul said "we're all born naked and the rest is drag," she was exploring the trenches of what it means to be human, and what drag represents beyond the general understanding of queers who wear flashy couture, rock flamboyant makeup, and engage in fiery lip-sync battles.
In India, drag has existed for longer than we can imagine. While drag may have manifested in ways different than how it evolved in the West, it has consistently remained a part of Indian culture and is not necessarily a "new phenomenon."
During tricky times like 2023 when legislators in various states of the US are passing laws aimed directly at limiting the art of drag and while on our own soil, the government's legal representative conflates homosexuality with incest during Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality, drag stands testimony to the power of exercising your identity and shape-shifting in a world that has lost its penchant for equality and acceptance.
Doing drag in India is a statement of existence
What is it like to practice the art of drag in Indian cities? While many LGBTQIA+ positive bars and social spaces are relatively recent in India, the art of drag is not. "The artform has always existed in the country... They didn't necessarily call it drag. Even a small thing like Govinda playing his sister or mother in a movie is also drag. Aamir Khan playing a woman for a Coca Cola ad is also drag. Hrithik Roshan playing an old woman's character in Dhoom is also drag," said Betta Naan Stop, a well-known drag queen in India.
"But nobody called it drag. The drag term has been popularised by American ballroom culture. There have been artists who've been doing drag but didn't call it that before the artform became commercially famous," she added.
Let's be real - it's not easy being a drag queen in India, or anywhere else at this juncture in history. By blurring the heteronormative lines of gender identity and expression, drag queens are reinforcing the key theme of the LGBTQIA+ equality movement - there is no one right way to be yourself. And that's true for drag as well. "While drag started with impersonation of women, now it has become gender-neutral - actually against gender altogether. Earlier, it was men impersonating women... Now, there are no rules to doing drag - you can be a drag queen, a drag king, or a drag alien."
Historically, drag has been wrongly identified as purely a mode of entertainment. As Hash Brownie, another well-known drag queen pointed out, "In today’s world drag has evolved so much that it may be used as a form of protest, education, and awareness.”
Is India embracing drag?
"Drag in India is still in its introductory phase, and people are opening up and becoming ready to learn more about this artform," Hash Brownie added. “While there are subtle dissimilarities on what drag means in different parts of the world, it still unites us… and has made it possible for people to make it their full-time profession. Even then, we are still on our way to be accepted by the mainstream media.”
In fact, even within the community, performance venues are becoming more inclusive. "The best part I like is how organisers now are more trans-inclusive and femme-inclusive than how it used to be earlier with focus on masc-for-masc guys," said Betta Naan Stop. Not too long ago, as Betta recollected, party invites would come with clear warnings that said "no trans, no cross-dressers allowed." "I was like, what the hell? Aren't we part of the community?"
Also read: I am a Boy. I am a Girl. I am a Queer.
Thankfully, things seemed to have improved. As an artist programme manager at Kitty Su, Betta Naan Stop has made conscious efforts to represent all the colours in the rainbow to highlight how versatile the queer artists are. “The rise of drag has also helped other identities take centre-stage as well. Such places don't just host drag queens, they also host queer artists. A trans woman who's performing and not calling it drag is also on the stage,” she added.. But it’s not been a smooth journey, and challenges still remain. “A lot of people used to confuse drag artists with trans women, and because they associated trans women with sex work, they thought we were sex workers as well. People would approach us and ask "“kitna leti hai tu ek raat ke liye?"” [how much do you charge for a night?] Now, I just say, "honey, you can't afford it."
Betta looked back at an incident from when she used to teach dance classes to kids at her residential society. “When my social profiles went public, the kids stopped showing up and I had to stop the classes. When I asked one of the kids, they said "mummy ne mana kiya hai." [my mom said no].”
As Hash Brownie put it, “dressing up has always been associated with sexual fetishisation.” Owing to this inaccurate representation, drag queens are wrongly labelled as groomers, as we’ve seen in the dangerous rhetoric employed against drag queens around the world. “Calling drag queens groomers is absurd and is just another political campaign to distract people from real issues. The same people who are calling drag queens groomers are the ones who support religious factions who have a recorded history of grooming kids,” Betta added.
Keeping an open mind
To experience drag, one has to come with an open mind. “A drag show could probably change your life and how you see life! My first drag show changed me,” said Hash Brownie. “There is always a risk involved because we usually open the doors for everyone, but you never know how a certain group of people would react to that. We try not to hurt anyone’s sentiments by our performances, but there will always be a lingering sense of fear until we get our basic rights to live as we please.”
“Drag is not that commercially famous in India for politicians to use it for votes. Our country still doesn't fully support the LGBT+ community in general. Our first goal right now is marriage equality, and I want to get married as well,” said Betta. Even then, India is on the right track, she added. Many queer artists including drag queens have graced the covers of magazines and added to the shimmer of fashion shows in India, but “we're still scratching the surface.”
Queer spaces are now quickly emerging in metropolitan cities of India. How important is it to have performers with their safety in regard? “As performers, a safe space is where we have queer staff or sensitisation about the queer community,” said Hash Brownie. “We also perform at non-queer spaces, but there is always an awkwardness or some sort of tension in the back of our head, about whether we are going to feel welcomed.”
Historically, women have been at the centre of drag discourse - from pop musicians like Cher and Beyonce to the everyday lives of women. My visual aesthetic is not exclusively drawn from big pop girls like Lady Gaga or Madonna, it's also inspired by women who're not the highlight of the night but are able to catch your attention,” claimed Betta. “Women are still not recognised. Whatever activities they do are dismissed because they're not commercial or they're not monetised, hence many of us draw inspiration from women… I feel more empowered when I'm Betta. When I'm presenting as feminine, it brings out my highest level of self-esteem.”
Could something like RuPaul's Drag Race work in India? "We have extremely talented drag artists in India and we can compete on the international stage as well. But before that happens, we need more venues, we need more off-air competitions," opined Betta Naan Stop. Hash Brownie, too, believes that more resources need to be made available to the queer community before something like Drag Race can materialise in India. "We still don’t have many queer spaces available to choose drag as a fulltime career." "People should be made aware of what drag is before we introduce a reality TV that represents us... Drag Race is not just reality TV, it's a global representation of queer community, history, and art!"
The LGBTQIA+ community still lacks a basic framework of equal rights in India, and people in the community are thrust into the face of hatred and dismissal every day. To the naysayers, Betta Naan Stop says - “We know you're interested, we know you're watching. Instead of being hateful, come join us for a good time together.”
"In the words of miss Alyssa Edwards: Don’t get bitter, Just get better!" added Hash Brownie.
What do you think about the journey of drag in India? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. For more stories on the LGBTQIA+ community and queerness in India, keep reading Spectrum on Indiatimes.