Drag is an art form that has existed for centuries, a performative expression that transcends gender binaries, and turns heteronormativity on its heel. Though in the West, the form gained more mainstream exposure through the popular “Rupaul’s Drag Race”, in India the drag scene is still at a nascent stage. And that’s why ‘Mayamma’ – the sweet and sassy drag persona of Bangalore-based performer Alex Matthew – is important, because she is one of the pioneers of drag culture in the country.
Mayamma is bold and unapologetic, and though she’s quintessentially Malayali, her appeal is universal. She does everything from powerful spoken word pieces about gender and sexuality, to parodies of Madonna and Lady Gaga songs, and when she’s on stage, there are no bounds to her self-expression. We caught up with Mayamma for a freewheeling chat to know more about where all that subversiveness (and sass) comes from!
Rohini Banerjee (RB): When did you first decide to take up drag performance as a profession? And what were the challenges you faced?
Alex Matthew (AM): The first time I had ever done drag was for a fancy dress competition in 12th grade. I had dressed up as a character from the Malayalam film “Manichitratazhu”, and the whole experience had given me a huge rush. But at that time it was only a one-time thing – an experiment of sorts. I started considering drag performance as a serious profession only at the age of 25, when I realized that my dream of becoming a Broadway singer wasn’t going anywhere. At that time, I thought I was playing it safe by taking up drag, because it was something I was very comfortable with.
After my first performance as a drag queen, I faced opposition from family, and that was when I came out to them and told them I was going to do this full-time. It has been rough since then, and I have even been mocked by fellow gay men, but I have never let their criticism affect me.
RB: Where does the inspiration for ‘Mayamma’ come from? How similar is Alex to ‘Mayamma’?
AM: I think my biggest inspiration came from Robin Williams in “Mrs Doubtfire”, and watching him crossdress in that role became a kind of creative awakening. But Maya is completely my own creation. I imagine her as a woman from a small-town village in Kerala who loves to perform on stage. She even has a husband, Anand, who always supports her and encourages her to move to the big city to pursue the performing arts. The inspiration to make Mayamma Malayali came from the popular VJ Lola Kutty, who had an iconic South Indian look and was the queen of sass! But there are influences of my own Amma too, and the other strong women in my family, because those are the women I grew up idealizing.
Alex and Mayamma have similar souls, even though they seem like very different people. Maya is an outspoken and fierce woman, while I am more humble and simple, but both of us want to do the same thing – to make people happy, and give voice to those who are not heard.
RB: There are a lot of misconceptions associated with drag, the most common one being that those who dress in drag are transgender. How do you deal with these transphobic and homophobic stereotypes?
AM: I deal with these transphobic and homophobic stereotypes with a pinch of salt. I either create songs to deal with them or ignore them completely, because when I’m on stage, I break all of these stereotypes. That’s the very reason why I want to perform more, and to make more videos and be more vocal – so that people understand that there’s a huge difference between a drag queen and a transgender woman.
RB: What is the Indian drag culture like? Is it limited to queer circles, or does it have a wider audience too?
AM: When I started out about three years ago, there was hardly a culture of drag performances here, and it felt like diving into an ocean of uncertainty. My first show was in The Humming Tree, in Bangalore, and it was both scary and exciting. It was a format that I still use today – using storytelling techniques to talk about issues concerning individualism, gender equality and feminism – and the response was mixed. However, a lot has changed since then. As I have done more shows, awareness about the art form has spread and people have started appreciating it more. Initially, it was limited to queer circles, but now I also see heterosexual men and women opening up to drag as an art form. I have two drag daughters now – Kashtaani from Nagpur and Rimi Heart from Bangalore – who I train and help around.
RB: A common criticism of drag is that it can often be sexist because it almost caricatures women (and we see that happen often in Indian films). What are your thoughts on this?
AM: It’s sad that crossdressing, especially in Indian films, has ended up caricaturing women rather than create a character that is full of genuine substance. It’s so easy to make fun of women in patriarchal society like ours, which is why I actively try to avoid that in my shows and instead educate the audience about gender equality.
RB: What is the best compliment you have received so far?
AM: That I am inspiring people with what I do and going down in LGBTQ history. Helping fellow queer people is the only thing I work towards, so when someone tells me that I am actually succeeding in doing that, I’m always in tears.