Anything you want to be
Drag artists bust some myths about their art and their attempt to change societal attitude towards them
Let’s start by understanding what drag really is. Drag is the art of men dressing up as women, in an exaggerated way. But that’s basic. For some it’s the only way they experience freedom, shed inhibitions, and feel a confidence they really can’t in the mundanity of everyday life. For some it’s a way of life, a means to pay the bills and get food on the table. And for some it might just be an experiment they want to try out. Nonetheless, it’s an art form. And while drag artists in India find it difficult to find a platform to showcase their skills, events, far and few, are organised in Bengaluru. We speak to three drag artists to find out more about the art and the opportunities their community needs.
Siddhanth Kodlekere always did his make-up practice secretly at home. It was only at an event last month that he went out openly in drag for the first time. “I performed a lip sync on Vajle Ki Bara and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. It made me feel like a performer for the first time, even when I had performed on stage before this,” says Kodlekere, whose persona is called Lady Bai.
She is a stylish NRI with Maharashtrian roots. “Lady Bai has legs for days, and hopes to achieve a waist as thin as Violet Chachki. She lip syncs to Marathi and English mashups, and reads people to filth. She has a wardrobe filled with skimpy yet stylish clothing, but can rock a gown if she makes up her mind,” says Kodlekere, who has been an obsessed fan of Rupaul’s Drag Race. “Drag to me means lifeline. There doesn’t go a single day when I don’t admire the guts of those people who have their lifeline in their wigs, lipsticks, and heels. Drag is something which makes me shed my inhibitions and put on an avatar which I couldn’t have otherwise,” he adds.
He believes that India is a country where dressing up as a woman was never scorned upon and many traditional art forms had this practice. “There is a folk art called Yakshagana, which I have seen personally, where men dressed up as women and performed on stage. But their personal life was never judged upon in the community. I want that opportunity to be there for drag artists as well. At present, there are loads of people, apart from the LGBTQ community, who are witnessing this drag revolution in India. This is a welcome change and I would really love if more people came out and openly supported this,” he ends.
The first time Alex Matthew tried drag was in 2014. “I dressed up in my Amma’s sari and blouse with no intention to pursue drag as a career. All I wanted to do was have fun on stage because I loved to entertain people. I felt awkward because I was wearing saree and blouse for the first time and I could feel air flowing through different parts of my body. I was nervous and excited at the same time because I was playing a character on stage and it gave me the adrenaline rush that I was longing for,” says Matthew.
Drag, to him, is a manifestation of the freedom of choice to be anything one wants to be. What he wants to be is a shape-shifter. “It doesn’t have to be particular gender or sexuality. My persona is named Maya, a go-getter with Malayali roots who loves to make appams in her spare time. She is fierce yet kind, outspoken yet elegant, sassy yet humble,” he says adding that though Maya has been performing in Bengaluru, she would love to take her art to different cities across the country.
“People in India have many misconceptions about drag. I have been breaking those misconceptions one by one since I started drag three years ago. I can feel that there have been visible changes in society in terms of acceptance and enjoyment,” says Matthew, adding that when he started, there weren’t many opportunities but now venues are opening up to the idea of drag artists and helping them promote their drag art in Bengaluru.
Before signing off, he tells us about his dream, “I would want drag artists to perform in each state in India because I feel we are inspiring many people to live lives according to their terms and not according to what society tells you to do.”
Sudipto Biswas always wanted to try his hand at drag, but he didn’t have the courage until one of his friends pushed him to do it at a carnival organised by the Namma Pride (Bengaluru’s LGBT+ pride) last year. “I have always been a singer. I have been singing Western vocals since I was little and had performed as me (not in drag) a few times for the community and it was well received. So, I chose to do two songs. I started with Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman. Then I prepared a bit of standup and that went so well, I couldn’t believe it! People laughed and my jokes landed. Then I ended with a ballad, Rihanna’s Diamonds. It was a very successful night for me. I realised that in drag I wasn’t shy anymore. I was confident and owned the stage. I didn’t have to hide my ‘gay mannerisms’ but instead I could play them up. That performance changed my life, changed me as well,” recalls Biswas.
To explain what drag means to him, he quotes Oscar Wilde — ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ “Drag is like a mask. When you create this larger-than-life character, you free yourself of all the societal expectations of you. All the things that used to make you self conscious about being a gay man, were all just a game here. I could use them, exaggerate them, or not if I wanted to. Play a fool, or showcase my talent. And do it all with confidence,” says Biswas whose drag character is called Rimi Heart.
He reveals that Rimi is an extension of who he is in real life. “But Rimi isn’t real, she doesn’t live with the fear of consequences that real human beings live with. So, when I am her, I could do anything. My dark sense of humour, my aesthetics are heightened. She is a sweet looking woman, but powerful. She likes fashion, performing heartfelt music and inappropriate humour. She’s flippant and unapologetic. She’s what I aspire to be, fearless and free,” he adds.
Biswas feels that there is almost no representation of drag artists in Indian media. “We are often there as a freak or a punchline. I want to see people experience the work and talent that goes into drag. It takes us two-three hours to put on our costume. We stand in tall heels for over five hours. And then we’re funny, witty, bold and brazen on the stage, while still being seen as less by the majority. I want people to see it as an art form. I believe when people do step out of their comfort zone to actually see it for its artistry, there will be a lot more opportunities. There’ll be a lot of media representation. Plays, movies, music videos, comedy clubs, name any performance art, and there are drag queens who can do it, and extremely well too. Things are changing and I am hopeful that we won’t have to just perform for pride or LGBT+ clubs for nominal paycheques anymore,” he concludes.