Drag is a gender-bending art form where drag performers and artists dress up in exaggerated costumes to perform and entertain a crowd. Drag artists can be of all and any gender identity. The term “drag queen” usually refers to a drag-performer who portrays a ‘female’ role. Similarly, there are drag kings who portray ‘male’ characters. In the 21st century, this art-form challenges the neat boxes of gender and sexuality by allowing individuals to demonstrate a gender identity of their choice.
To understand the phenomenon of drag culture, SheThePeople.TV speaks with Kushboo, who is the drag avatar of Ikshaku Bezbaroa. Ikshaku juggles multiple roles in their day-to-day life. On one hand, they are a legal researcher and writer. Other times, Ikshaku transforms into Kushboo for drag performances at various clubs and venues in the city. We caught up with them to speak about their journey of becoming a drag queen, the rise of this art form in India and its growing receptivity among the audience.
The Creation of Kushboo
According to Ikshaku it was all about inhabiting a different personality and being in a different role. They say, “It is something that you do on a day to day basis like when you go to office or the different sets of people you hang out with and you have different personalities with them. Drag is just an exaggeration of the same concept. It’s like when you get into a costume and wig, and you wear your art on your body – you express yourself in a different way. You exhibit a different personality and it is thereby a channel to bring out new sides which you otherwise may not bring out.”
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Ikshaku and Kushboo are yin and yang co-existing and containing a little of each other. Ikshaku, whose nickname is Kush, was bullied by boys in school with the name Kushboo. Hence, when it came to expressing themselves and their art, Kushboo became their chosen name and avatar through which they claim power. “When I started doing drag it became the most obvious choice for me to take up that name which was a source of pain for me and turn it into a source of joy. The name literally also means joy and positive aura and good vibes – which is what I hope my art does for people.”
They further explain how the name Kushboo adds to their style of art, “It’s also a kind of satire to my drag because my drag is not typically Indian. The art is very larger than life, over the top. I perform to a lot of English songs so I thought it would be almost satirical to take a simple non-dramatic homely Indian name to reflect a very dramatic personality.”
Drag: Contemporary or Age Old Phenomenon?
Today drag queens are on social media and making their presence felt in both online and offline spaces. But where did drag originate? A man dressing up as a woman was also common in Shakespearean times when actors had to play female roles. This is one of the origin theories of drag among many.
Can drag then be boxed as a western form? “The criticism that most drag queens face is that it is a western concept and has come from abroad. Drag is just a label again – but it defines an art form that has existed through Kathak and through various other art forms in India and abroad. Even the jogappas and various other religious performances in India involve men dressing as women or women dressing as male God figures. There is no such thing as Indian or western drag and that was also the point of my satire. We are globalised people today. Everyone does have fairly globalised tastes, cultures and preferences,” says Ikshaku.
Drag as both Art and Performance for Entertainment
As a performer, it could get challenging for a drag queen to mingle with the crowd because of the prevailing rigid notions of gender and sexuality. So how does the performance of drag look like in various venues? Reveals Ikshaku, “I have performed both in large night clubs and smaller kind of venues. In large night clubs, it’s always the case that they expect a performer to fit certain conventions. I have been encouraged to be skimpily clad and to ‘show more skin’ which I think is very problematic. You also face mixed reactions when you go out and mix with the crowd. Most are encouraging, warm, supportive and friendly. Others grab your hair and even grope and it’s weird. They feel that a drag queen is their personal entertainer.”
Ikshaku says that they prefer more community-oriented venues where young people try to create artistic movements or are encouraging performers and diverse audiences. “It’s more about the art and less about the entertainment. In those spaces I have felt the crowd is better in more ways – they care about the story you are trying to tell. They understand what gender is about, they discuss it, think about it and engage with me in a very different way. They even critically appraise and provide feedback – which I love. That shows investment, and helps me to grow. Bangalore tends to have more venues which are willing to try drag and not ‘sell’ the artist,” they add.
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Reading Down of Section 377 and the Rise of Drag Culture
In 2018, Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised homosexuality in India, was read down. The reading down also means visibility of LGBTQIA members in public spheres without the fear of being criminalised for gender expressions. What does it mean for drag artists and drag performances? “Post 377, more restaurants, advertisement agencies and big brands would be more willing to engage with the LGBT community. Now there is recognition where previously there was silence. Since opening up of the Pink economy, it also opened up avenues for drag itself. Nonetheless, with opportunities comes the potential for exploitation, and that’s a fine line any venue should tread with sensitivity,” they point out.
Ikshaku moved to Bangalore, a city known to be receptive to this art form, just before the verdict. “Here, I have been able to find my own venues and approach them and propose to them that we do a drag show and a lot of them didn’t even know what it was but they were willing to give it a try. It was quite remarkable. It wasn’t easy; it still isn’t easy there is a lot of explaining and convincing. For instance, I have had to explain that this is not something that will invite the police. Once they see the nature of my performance, they are usually convinced. Like I hope it’s a good show, it’s entertaining. There is still a relative open-mindedness to the way this art form is appreciated that I never expected and am so happy about.”
While drag might be a visually appealing art, is it commercially sustainable for artists to make their bread and butter from this? Even Ikshaku says that they don’t know if it is commercially viable because for that you need an industry, funders and various people to be able to provide a steady platform. “And, there isn’t such a thing yet in India. There were a couple but I don’t think they were sustainable and safe, we need safe and reliable industries. So you have to create an industry on your own. I have been able to make enough from my shows to support the art form itself. For drag, you will have to convince a lot of them and it takes time to build that trust. So for me, it’s been one-off shows and I do it primarily because I want to. This is not my bread and butter but it would be great if that would be the case,” they say.
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Kushboo and Ikshaku: Co-existence or Conflict?
Ikshaku is currently a project-coordinator and performs drag occasionally. It made me wonder how these two roles reconcile or is it like leading a dual life? They reveal, “I did have difficulty before in my previous job where I wasn’t able to really balance the two. So it can be draining in many ways where you have to play a dual life. But more recently I have been able to merge my two worlds at least in my latest organisation. I have been able to tell people that I am a drag queen, share my story and be out as a queer person at the workspace. I have also invited people from work to come to my shows. So I do not feel the disconnection that badly anymore.”
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They further add that doing drag is absolutely integral to them. “When I applied for this job I told them I would also being drag. Some places demand a hundred percent of your time and energy. But this organisation does not hold me by the neck – and is happy as long as I meet deliverables – which is how work-places ideally should treat their employees. Luckily I have been able to choose a place that lets me do what I want to do. Importantly, that has also been a conscious choice and I would not settle for anything less than that.”
Priyanka Chakrabarty is an intern for SheThePeople.TV.