In February this year, Gaysi Family and the Patchwork Ensemble put together a unique, first-of-its-kind show. Called ‘Tape – The King of Drag,’ the 75-minute long piece starred performers Puja Swarup and Sheena Khalid as Shammi Kapoor and Justin Timberlake, questioning clothing, masculinity, and gender performativity. That’s been drag’s strong-suit since well before Austria’s Thomas Neuwirth demolished the 2014 Eurovision contest as Conchita Wurst.
Drag is a huge part of queer culture, but in India, not as much. This may seem odd, considering that a lot of our traditions do tend to mix or complicate the gender binary. Stranger still is that so much of our film and TV has cross-dressing, but drag itself still isn’t considered a legit form of entertainment. And it’s partly due to this lack of visibility that so many misconceptions about drag persist. Some of these can end up being pretty transphobic – you know that common assumption that trans women are just men in drag? Yeah that.
Non-binary visual artist and drag performer Abhijeet – who uses the pronouns “they/them” – is no stranger to this. A resident of Mumbai, they had their start in the drag scene during their freshman year of college in Chicago. It was also during this time that they released a self-made parody video of the immensely popular show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The ‘audition’ tape was made to promote their very first show, with the help of fellow performer Trannika Rex. Abhijeet is part of the Chicago-based group IT Presents – which they formed with performers An Authentic Skid Mark, Ariel Zetina, BonBon and Imp Queen. While Abhijeet’s immediate family has been largely accepting, its the family that they’ve made in Chicago that form their biggest support system. Everything they do is about community, celebration, creativity and self. When we reached out to them, Abhijeet was heading back to Chicago for school, so we had a super interesting chat with them over email, about drag culture, gender as performance, class politics and loads more:
SS: When was the first time you learnt about drag and what made you start doing it?
A: I knew a little bit about drag from TV and such, but really became aware of it during my freshman year of college, after a date convinced me to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Soon after I started getting into the queer club scene in Chicago. A lot of these trans* and queer drag performers began to include me in their lives and eventually made me a part of their world. What really helped situate me was my best friend J4PayDotCom who was starting out in drag around the same time and in the same scene as me. It’s been two years since then, and one year since its been a fulltime part of my life, my art, my job and my identity.
SS: Is drag something that is exclusively for gay men?
A: That’s a really common misconception actually. Drag is so much more than its misnomer ‘Dressed Resembling A Girl’. It’s for people of all gender identities to be able to experience and experiment with every other gender identity. When you’re in drag, you are as you are – any other identity isn’t relevant to the one being expressed at that moment. This should be the case for everyone at all times, and it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t happen. Drag allows people to very visually separate the the idea of identity and gender being linked to physical bodies and appendages (like clothes, hair, shoes, accessories) and see it as an individual experience. It looks at clothing as an extension of identity rather than dependent on it, and make up as real and authentic expression rather than false, superficial and shallow. Drag is for cisgender people, trans* people, those within the structure of a binary and those above and beyond that.
SS: Is there a thriving Drag Culture in Mumbai? And is it very different from Chicago?
A: My first time coming back to Mumbai after starting drag was actually this past summer of 2016. I was visiting on a grant from school for a project about taking my drag back home, into my family and attempting to navigate the queer scene in Mumbai. I found myself feeling very out of touch on my visit home. While there seemed to be a very discreet and very small underground queer party scene, it often limited itself to small gatherings in places that explicitly excluded trans* people, drag performers and “sissies” which turns into an act of oppression and segregation and further reinforces a cisheteronormative viewpoint. When I began to think about how I can venture out to spaces like that, I realized invading them with my drag wouldn’t be the most productive thing. It would be disrespectful of a safe space and ultimately unfruitful to actually creating a community.
I realized that the Internet existed as an environment and space where I could tackle these issues and express myself more freely. My project then turned into getting ready in drag at home, while having a conversation with my mother, and then getting photographed by my father. It seems like a lot of young queer Indians have found that the Internet allows for them to experiment with identity while also maintaining their safety in current situations. Especially with tumblr and the radical spread of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and drag performers actively using interactive social media, allowing more and more younger people can get involved with the scene.
This is simultaneously similar and different from my experiences in Chicago. While the US might give off a feeling of inclusivity, liberalism and acceptance, it isn’t always the case. It’s still very dangerous to be open and actively trans and drag and be out in public. It’s still difficult for younger people to physically engage in a scene confined to 21+ venues, and it is still riddled with non-inclusion based in an aversion to femininity. What makes it different is that here, there are a lot of resources still available – it’s easier to get a wig, heels and makeup and find a community near you and get involved and engaged pretty early on.
SS: In your parody video, you joked that you don’t need a ‘drag name’ because your full name ‘Abhijeet Rane’ when broken up and translated is literally “win now, queen.” Think you could walk us through the concept of ‘Drag names’ and ‘drag persona’ and why it is or isn’t so different from who you are in your daily life?
A: Personally, I found out that me in drag is merely a more confident, more glamourous and a more actively aggressive version of me out of drag.
A lot of performers view their drag as an alter ego or persona as well, and give themselves a name to legitimize it as different. Drag names are more than just character names – it’s choosing and defining your identity. For the first time you can have control not just over how you look but how you’re addressed, which I find very important.
My name specifically has an additional layer of politics attached to in, in that it is a non-Anglo non-American name. People almost expected me to have an ‘American name’ that was easier for them to pronounce and for me to assimilate with. I found that to be incredibly stupid so I stuck to Abhijeet, even if it took a few tries and made it more difficult. When I started drag, I realized I could use the same idea then too. It became about reclaiming an otherness, not just with my gender but my race, nationality and more.
SS: Tell us a little about your pieces, ‘Kali’ and ‘Ganesha’? Why did you choose to use Indian mythology in your performance?
A: Since my drag performances originated while in the US, I’ve felt an extra desire to want to define my own Indianhood and brownness. There are so many expectations, stereotypes and fetishizions of Indian culture that I was confronted with as a performer, that I thought the best way to deal with them was to reclaim them. And since much of Indian culture, especially the predominant fundamental Hinduism, doesn’t really have much space built in for queer people, it made it extra important to confront that as well.
Those performances were literally taking two of the most easily identifiable Hindu deities and doing a queer spin on them. Both those performance were to M.I.A. songs and mashups, with outfits I made and constructed. It’s a rebelling and re-appropriation of a culture I’m not accepted into, being performed in another culture that isn’t inclusive either.
SS: One of the biggest criticisms of drag is that it makes fun of women and femininity. What are your thoughts on that?
A: I think when you simplify an entire gender identity it turns into something very second wave feminism. It becomes essentialist and attempts to create a universal definition of womanhood and femininity, which is really problematic. We need to think about engaging with femininity as not tied to one’s gender identity without their gender being called into question. A woman can be butch, a man can be femme, and a transman can be femme. We also need to begin to dissociate the idea of womanhood as tied to biology and biological functions, and also to “time spent identifying as a certain gender”.
Another common critique of drag is that performers can “go back to being men and having their male privilege,” which again is a complicated discussion. First it tries to blanket all drag as “men in wigs,” and excludes multitudes of trans and non-binary performers. It then doesn’t acknowledge that those who do identify as men may be queer, men whose relationship with femininity is one of power and self-identity even if it’s only on Saturday night. It also fails to acknowledge that they too face misogyny and transmisogyny because of actively being in drag, as well as various forms of misogyny and homophobia (which stems from looking at femininity as weak) due to remnants of their drag still being present in their body once their not in drag (nail polish, makeup that hasn’t come off, or like the fact that once you or someone posts a photo on you in drag on the Internet, you’re on the Internet in drag forever.)
This is very different from a cis straight man wearing a ratty wig and doing a comedy sketch like “Comedy Nights with Kapil,” “Chachi 420,” or “Mrs. Doubtfire,” where the gag is “it’s a man in a dress” rather than the finesse of womanhood as a powerful identity.
I also personally believe that it’s okay and actually important to make fun of pillars such as femininity, and womanhood should be critiqued and made fun of, but by people whose identities aren’t fully allowed to function in those current definitions of womanhood and femininity. Ask yourself, what is feminism doing for trans* people and drag queens? But also know that this isn’t a claim that drag culture is free of misogyny, transmisogyny, racism etc, much like any other culture as well.
SS: Given that so much of drag involves elaborate costumes and fashion and a familiarity with a certain lifestyle, would you say there is an overlap between doing drag, and class-aspirations or upward mobility?
A: There’s definitely a very big intersection in drag with structures of class, counterfeit and authenticity. While drag is certainly seen as, especially in its current climate, a very glamorous and fashionable lifestyle, it’s really important to see its other side.
Most of what performers earn during their gigs goes back into supporting more drag- Tipping other performers, makeup, clothes, hair are all expensive. The more popular someone gets the more they must put into the furthering their drag.The history of drag in America is also definitely tied to ball culture which predominantly involved black and Latinx queer communities. Most of these queer people came from economically underprivileged parts of society, often kicked out of their homes and families, and came together to form their own. Their aspiration of making it big but also making do with their resources led to some of the most creative and iconic performances and cultures being formed. They reference high fashion but make it from a yard of scrap fabric. And that’s where drag comes from. All the glitz and glam and diva stems from the immense urge to be – to be real, to be realized, to be more than what’s portrayed, to be royalty. When you talk about drag in India, its relationship to class becomes even more apparent and complicated. Only a certain class of privileged people have access to media talking about or showcasing drag (the Internet, in most cases) or drag resources. This means that a system of gender performance and identity, when transferred from an American context to a different one, changes its accessibility. An important conversation also needs to be had between queer and drag-performing Indians who have class (and often caste) privileges and their treatment of and kinship to underclass and underrepresented trans and Hijra Indians.
I myself am not exempt from these critiques and conversation, but it’s important to be aware and active decolonize and destabilize these structures.
SS: It’s been just over two years since the Supreme Court of India re-criminalized homosexuality. When that happened, many LGBTQ people felt like they had been forced back into the closet. But that kind of response seems to be the exact opposite of what drag stands for – which is a very overt expression of the self. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I remember going to my first Queer Azaadi March in Mumbai in 2011. It was so beautiful to see so many people together rallying for a cause, but at the same time more than half the people had their faces hidden/covered. The reality of that hit me hard. It felt so sad knowing how many people simply can’t be who they are and want to be in public for fear of losing their families, friends, housing, jobs and even their lives.
It made me angry to see so much consumption of queer culture, queer talent and queer people in industries such as fashion, music, movies, and even science, technology and business being exploited and used, but never given the praise, support and platform they deserve.
It’s part of the reason my drag is as confrontational as it is. I view it as aggressive and taking a stance, and just simply and unashamedly accepting my identity and living it is a protest enough. I live to occupy space through my drag, my femininity and my queerness. I like standing out and being a spectacle because I am in a situation where I can afford to do that when my queer and trans* siblings can’t.
SS: Do you think that Indian audiences would enjoy an Indian version of a show like “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?
A: I think that before we can have an Indian version, we need more Indian drag performers and personalities making waves. I also think that currently an Indian version wouldn’t work with the sad and stereotyped way media and cinema portrays queer, trans and Hijra people. Most people in any industry can’t be out because of the social stigma, and when queer characters are cast in any production they’re most played by an exaggerated cis straight person. I would love to see more Indian queens take the drag world by storm. I would love to be a part of that army.
To see more of Abhijeet’s shows and the Chicago drag scene, check out their Instagram!
Featured Image by Kater Jayne Photography, Fashion by BCALLA, Hair by Arda Wigs.