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Why I Recreated Queer Characters From The Mahabharat Using Drag

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When I was a child, I used to fantasise about dressing up as gods and mythological characters. Being born in a Hindu family, I always thought about the idea of religion. As and when I grew up, my belief transcended from agnosticism to pantheism. Let me tell you a bit more about how I ended up recreating four queer characters from the Mahabharat.

Pantheism helped me see the world of beliefs as a spectrum, and not as a stagnant structure found in a rule book. This thought also helped me relook at and seek inspiration from mythologies of different cultures, religions and tribes.


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Being a queer person, we are always told that queerness is anti-religion. Time and again, governments, institutions and organisations, play the “religion” card for not accepting people from LGBTQIA+ communities.

These cards of religion come from a surface level understanding of and heteronormative notions about their texts. They hardly intend to study it, but just mug up some lines and use them to silence queer voices.

“I Refuse To Accept A Hetereosexual God”

These were the instances that made me disown the idea of the religion I was born with. I refused to accept a heterosexual god. I wanted a god who is like me—queer and powerful.

When I was in an on and off relationship with my belief, I came across a book, “Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You”, wonderfully written by Devdutt Patnaik. It helped me investigate some references to so-called queer gods in the Hindu mythological pantheon.

As I started exploring my gender and sexuality through drag, this was something I wanted my art to reflect and present my creative take on. In 2014, I worked on a dance production called “Pancha Pandhakas” i.e., based on five queer characters from Hindu mythology.

I toured with the production in multiple national and international venues. I really loved the reception it got and hence, the concept of integrating mythology made me present a different take. As time passed, my perspective towards drag shifted.

I Picked Queer Characters From Mahabharat

Next time I thought of creating conceptual art, Pancha Pandhakas was on my mind. However, I thought it is important to take a closer look. I wanted it to be specific to the “Mahabharat”, a story which has been told many times.

The Mahabharat has multiple queer storylines. These were mainstream queer characters, celebrated and crucial to the entire epic. As I picked my brain on how to go about it, I met Alekhya Grace, a photographer and a friend, who has been watching my performances for a while now.

As we broke into a conversation about doing a photoshoot around the same theme, we rethought why we are doing it in the first place. We couldn’t come up with a strong enough motive.

It was around the same time that a court hearing on marriage equality was taking place. It was opposed by the ruling government on the grounds of gay marriage being against ‘the ethos of Hinduism, or Hindu culture’.

That became the moment we understood why our work needs to be highlighted—to show how ancient India was more inclusive LGBTQIA+ people. With that in mind, we worked with queer characters from the Mahabharata and recreated them, one by one.

The title of our work “Chaturabhanga” translates to the ‘four unbreakable’. All the four characters are gender non-conforming, sometimes included under the trans umbrella, with their sexualities varying, across the entire epic. Alekhya captured the story-bound emotion via her photography and we recreated the following images.


Shikhandi was born as a girl named Shikhandini, to Drupada, the king of Panchala. In a previous lifetime, Shikandini was a woman named Amba, who was rendered unmarriageable by the hero, Bhishma.

Humiliated, Amba undertook great austerities, and the gods granted her wish to be the cause of Bhishma’s death. Amba was then reborn as Shikhandini. A divine voice told Drupada to raise Shikhandini as a son, so Drupada raised her like a man, trained her in warfare, and arranged for her to marry a woman.

The author in drag, posing as Shikhandi from the Mahabharata.
The author in drag, posing as Shikhandi from the Mahabharat. Photo credit: Alekhya Grace, Alekhya’s Pixels.

On the wedding night, Shikhandini’s wife realises that her “husband” is a woman, and insults her. Shikhandini flees, but meets a yaksha (nature spirit) who “exchanges” his sex with her. Shikhandini returns as a man with the name Shikhandi, and leads a happy married life, with his wife and children.

During the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma recognises him as Amba reborn, and refuses to fight a “woman”. So, Arjuna hides behind Shikhandi to defeat the almost invincible Bhishma. After his death, Shikhandi’s masculinity gets transferred back to the yaksha.


When Arjuna refuses the nymph Urvashi’s amorous advances, she curses him saying he will become a “kliba“, or a trans woman. Krishna assures Arjuna saying that this curse would serve as the perfect disguise for him during the last year of the Pandavas’ exile.

Arjuna takes on the name Brihannala, and dresses up in women’s clothes, causing the curse to take effect. Thus, Brihannala enters the city ruled by king Virata, where she teaches the art of music, singing, and dancing to the princess Uttara, and her female attendees.

The author in drag, posing as Brihannala from the Mahabharata.
The author in drag, posing as Brihannala from the Mahabharat. Photo credit: Alekhya Grace, Alekhya’s Pixels.

In the “Padma Purana”, Arjuna physically transforms into a woman, when he requests permission to take part in Krishna’s mystical dance, which only women could attend.


Ali was a warrior woman who was raised as a man, She was also called Ali Rani. Arjuna was so besotted by her beauty that he wanted to marry her. She, being self-sufficient, refused to marry him. Arjuna sought Krishna’s help.

Legend goes that Krishna turned him into a snake, and he slipped into Ali’s bed at night and frightened her into becoming his wife. Some say he forced her to be his wife, as he managed to spend the night in bed with her in the form of a snake.

The author in drag, posing as Ali from the Mahabharata.
The author in drag, posing as Ali from the Mahabharat. Photo credit: Alekhya Grace, Alekhya’s Pixels.

Ali fell in love with the way Arjuna spent the night with her and agrees to take him on as her husband, losing her masculine traits and accepting femininity. This clandestinely erotic folktale alludes to the pisacha vivah (marriage by the way of ghosts), that is condemned in the “Puranas”.


According to Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, took the form of Mohini and married Aravan. This was to give Aravan the chance to experience love before his death, as he had volunteered to be sacrificed in the Kurukshetra war.

Krishna remained in mourning as Mohini, for some time, after Aravan’s death. The marriage and death of Aravan are commemorated annually in a rite known as thali, during which hijra women take on the role of Mohini and “marry” Aravan, in a mass-wedding, followed by an 18-day festival.

The festival ends with a ritual burial of Aravan, while the hijra women mourn by beating their chests in ritual dances, breaking their bangles, and changing into white, mourning clothes.

I wanted to name this piece Aravani. However, since it is a word many from the hijra community identify with, I thought that me, as a non-hijra person, using it would be disregarding the community’s sentiments.

The author in drag, posing as Mohini from the Mahabharat.
The author in drag, posing as Mohini from the Mahabharat. Photo credit: Alekhya Grace, Alekhya’s Pixels.

I also thought to call it Amohini, as this image is more about the pain and sympathy. Mohini, meaning the enchantress, is depicted as a non-enchantress here as she is not “mangal” (auspicious). She is filled with regret. I decided against using it because it discriminates against the idea of widowhood, and sees it as unauspicious.

These images definitely helped me relook at queerness and religion. They reinstated the thought that religion need not be seen as something which is submissive or seeking.

It’s high time to rethink religion and let one’s art reflect progressive thinking about religion, as a holistic system. It’s important to read between the lines because no religion discriminates and this project enabled me to tap into the same.

Featured image credit: Alekhya’s Pixels, via the author.
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