Drag is the artistic expression of performing gender, and it has been an art form that has sat on the fringes of LGBTQ+ society, being seen as a marginalised minority within a marginalised minority. But this trend changed almost overnight, with RuPaul’s Drag Race vastly opening up the world to the art form of drag. With 12 seasons, 5 all-stars seasons, various international editions, and countless awards, it is an unstoppable force that can’t be tamed.
But what is drag like in India? I spoke to three artists who have performed in drag, either through the context of theatre shows or nightclubs.
A large aspect of drag is gender identity and performing gender. Ayushman, better known as Lush Monsoon, is a human rights lawyer by day and drag queen by night who has regularly performed in Delhi. For Ayushman, performing in drag means the binaries have changed and Lush Monsoon has allowed Ayushman to become so much queerer. “The whole conversation about my own gender, I always had this discomfort when calling myself a man or a boy. I wouldn’t have been able to accept my non-binariness or gender fluidness if I hadn’t performed in drag. It was a gateway for me to be okay with these questions in the first place.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to accept my non-binariness or gender fluidness if I hadn’t performed in drag.”
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Nitish, otherwise known as Shabnam Bewafa, was India’s youngest performing drag queen at the age of 19. “Shabnam has always been helpful in my personal life as well. She’s a part of me now. And it’s my outlet to do everything Nitish can’t.” Sheena Khalid starred in “The Gentlemen’s Club”, playing a drag king alongside Puja Sarup, who are both co-founders of Patchworks Ensemble. The show came about when Vikram Phukan had written a monologue for a drag queen, interested in making it into a full-length show. He met Puja, and the idea was created to turn it into a performance of drag kings with Gaysi getting involved. The show is a device performance as opposed to a scripted show centring around Rocky, an artist at his peak who is fading away and witnessing new young artists coming in.
“Masculinity and femininity is not owned by anybody. That’s up for grabs.”
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While not a drag king, Sheena has performed as the role of a drag king for the show. She identifies as an ally and wants to amplify voices as much as possible through theatre. For her, moving away from binaries is really important. “Masculinity and femininity is not owned by anybody, that’s up for grabs” says Sheena, and drag is for everybody.
While “The Gentlemen’s Club” is a fantastic showcase of drag kings as performers, there is a clear lack of visibility of drag kings in India, and this is also the case with drag king culture around the world, where queens tend to dominate the narrative of drag. One of the most notable standouts is Bidisha Mohanta. Bidisha gave her first drag performance at the age of 21 at Kitty Su in New Delhi, but was the sole drag king amongst drag queens performing that night. Bidisha also founded Desi Drag Kings, hoping to bring awareness to drag king culture through photo projects.
Sheena Khalid’s inspiration for her performance in “The Gentlemen’s Club” came from Justin Timberlake, noticing a lot of the phases in his career and different ways he presented himself and his masculinity. Alternatively, Shabnam took influence from many of the important women in his life. “‘Shabnam’ is inspired by my high school teacher, her name was Shabnam and she was very graceful and beautiful. Also, she always knew I was different from others and I had my own way to understand or work on things. She always supported me regardless of anyone judging.” He also cites his sister as influencing the elegance and grace he brings as Shabnam, and even takes inspiration from Hannah Montana and Kareena Kapoor. Lush Monsoon, embracing their full bodiedness, likes the fact that the name Lush exudes luxury, something very rich and Monsoon lets people know of their South Asian heritage.
Performing is a huge part of drag culture, and the adrenaline mixed with anxiety and excitement played a huge part in the performances. Shabnam lived his full Disney fantasy in his first performance. “The moment I started performing all my fears were gone and I was able to live my fantasy to celebrate all the underdogs I had in my soul.” With COVID-19 heavily affecting the nightlife industry and the performing arts, opportunities for in-person drag performances have vanished in 2020. However, many drag performers have turned to perform virtually, such as conducting digital drag shows. Lush Monsoon started her drag career on Reddit, performing in online competitions, and now finds herself back in the online sphere, and has performed at various online events, such as Rangeela Toronto. Although during COVID-19, home is not a safe space for many people, particularly queer and transgender people. Ayushman often had to wait until the night til they could safely perform. “All of us talk about that you need to be home to be safe – you can be safe from the pandemic but it’s not the safest space for you, and drag can thrive in safe spaces. So the thing is for me it’s been very very challenging, for my other drag sisters it’s been very challenging.”
Both Shabnam and Lush share sweet and inspiring words to anyone who is thinking of being a drag artist:
If you are lost then you can always be found because it’s never too late to turn your life around.
- Shabnam Bewafa
“Similarly for younger kids from India, and South Asia for that matter, we have such complicated family histories and family structures. It’s very difficult to get out of them and be yourself. So just take it one step at a time, you can be able to do whatever you want and be able to express yourself in the ways that you want, if you want to start drag, it happens one step at a time, nobody becomes a fully realised drag queen from a closeted person. Find those people, find those friends who will be able to help you through this journey by being who you are.”
- Lush Monsoon
Drag shows allow performers to showcase their art to a global audience, all they need is the support and the platform to do so. It’s fantastic to see drag culture growing so much in India, and hopefully, there will be more space for drag kings to perform and be treated as equally as their drag queen counterparts. Perhaps an India’s Drag Race which features performers of all genders and types of drag. Are you listening Ru?
Thank you to Lush Monsoon, Shabnam Bewafa and Sheena Khalid for taking time to be interviewed for this article and sharing their enriching and inspiring experiences. Remember to support Indian drag artists and performers. Attend digital drag performances, buy merch and follow performers to help amplify the art of Indian drag.
Harshil Shah is a volunteer at the Queer Rights Centre at One Future Collective. He is a graduate of Sociology from the University of Warwick and is interested in gender, queer rights and intersectionality. The views expressed are the author’s own.
The Queer Quill is a collaborative column by One Future Collective X SheThePeople on the theme of queer rights with a focus on law, modern culture and the intersections of art and history.