Four Drag Queens On Their Flamboyant Avatars And The Experience Of Performing In Indiaby | December 03, 2019
The year 2019 has certainly been eventful for the drag community with the MET gala throwing its doors open to the queens by adopting the theme “Camp: Notes on fashion” inspired by the articulate and most ardent followers of such style.
As RuPaul alumni Aquaria and Violet Chachki gave everyone a run for their money at the MET red carpet, the waves travelled far and wide and the world learned that they were called queens for a reason. But that wasn’t the only statement that Violet made this year. The first International drag queen to ever perform in India, Violet set the ball rolling on an important conversation around drag culture in India. We were made to wonder: what does it really mean to be a drag queen in India?
To answer the question, Luxeva recently got into a conversation with four drag queens in India and right from unravelling their Indianness to challenges related to drag in India a lot was revealed. Here are the excerpts:
Betta Naan Stop
“In drag, first you pretend to be a rockstar and then you actually become one,” says Prateek Sachdeva aka drag queen Betta Naan Stop. A part of Ashley Lobo’s DanceWorx and formally trained in dancing from Melbourne, Sachdeva got into drag because there was hardly any defined space in Indian industry for a male dancer whose dream was not just to steal the show but to be the show. The rest was history, drama, and a lot of jazz.
Luxeva: You seem to have quite an array of drag moods. What inspires them?
Betta Naan Stop: "My drag moods find their source in mainstream media, pop culture, and a vast variety of aesthetic slates. The costumes are screened accordingly. Also, my acts involve a lot of dancing and I need outfits that give ample space for my legs and facilitate agility. No matter what the mood, the functional aspect of it is always given attention. I also take style inspiration from iconic drag queens—I did a Divine-inspired look recently. Oh, and I am obsessed with playing the character of Egna Turnblad from the American musical Hairspray."
Luxeva: How strong is the sense of community in the Indian drag scene? Do we see a sisterhood budding yet?
Betta Naan Stop: "There was no sisterhood when I was first initiated into the scene—something that has drastically changed over time. There is a strong sense of community and we have formed our own sisterhood in Delhi—we are there for each other. I am sure that if my stocking gets ripped before a show, there would be a sister who’ll lend me hers."
Luxeva: What, according to you, are some of the challenges of being a drag performer in India?
Betta Naan Stop: "People tend to think that all drag queens are hijras, which is not the case. By that, I don’t mean to imply that it's a bad association, it’s just a wrong one. Secondly, the audience often treats us like objects and presume that we are available for sexual favours since we perform in clubs, which is really disheartening and, at times, quite unnerving. People tend to sexualise our artform instead of respecting it, and this attitude needs to change."
Of all the interesting things about Lush Monsoon, the fact that her alter ego Ayushman happens to be a professional lawyer is the most fascinating. Subversion personified, Lush lives two lives in one day, and quite exuberantly for that matter.
Luxeva: We'd love to talk about the evolution of your drag style. Who does Lush Monsoon look up to as a style inspiration?
Lush Monsoon: "With experience, I now feel more confident to make sartorial choices that are different from the norm. Earlier, I would try to edit my drag style to make it more palatable for people. But now I wear whatever speaks to my soul. The bolder, the better! Plus, more glitter, colours, and sequins. Of late, I have been very inspired by the style choices of Billy Porter, Lizzo, and as always, RuPaul."
Luxeva: You have been managing both drag and your full-time career as a lawyer. How do you balance the two worlds?
Lush Monsoon: "Truth be told, it was quite challenging in the beginning. Leading two different lives in two different worlds was like hallucinating. While Lush was all about exuberant fun, Ayushman was an intellectual and it was rather overwhelming to balance the two. With time and experience, the two personalities merged into each other, and Lush started inspiring the man in me and vice versa."
Luxeva: The community in India has dynamically evolved in the past couple of years. According to you what has been the catalyst? Also, where do you think is it all headed?
Lush Monsoon: "The drag community has evolved because of all the people who have given us their love and support. It is not easy to do drag in India, but our zeal to be visible as queer artists and inspire other people has led to the growth of this community. We have been recognised for our creativity and featured in almost every major fashion publication. In the future, I hope drag becomes more mainstream and more people get to experience and participate in the magic that we create."
The youngest performing drag queen in India, Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa seems to be having the time of her life with her drag. She has been trending at fashion shows, attending beauty expos, and more. Shabnam, also known as Nitish Anand, has a way of lighting up everything with his nonchalance, including the Kitty Su stage.
Luxeva: What does it mean to be a drag queen in India?
Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa: "We are talking about layers and layers of stigma here. It is extremely challenging but I have also been witnessing a positive change in recent times. Our country is becoming more welcoming and receptive to drag artists and the reaction that Shabnam gets from youngsters is heart-warming. This doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter haters. It’s in balancing the two that we find ourselves."
Luxeva: Let’s talk about Shabnam Be Wa Fa’s drag style? What/who inspires her?
Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa: "Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa is the hottest yet most maintained drag queen. Think of her as a curious mix of Hannah Montana and Poo from K3G. Unlike others, Shabnam knows how to dance and she knows more than just two dance moves. She absolutely rocks the world with her signature wig, power-packed moves, and stylish costumes".
Luxeva: From Kitty Su to the runway, you have done so much this past year. How has drag impacted you on a personal level?
Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa: "Drag has taught me to celebrate all my failures and changed my perspective towards life and people. It has helped me in growing as a person, in accepting myself and being true to who I am no matter what. It chiselled the artist out of me but more importantly, it has helped me fight my mental health issues."
Maya the Drag Queen
With Broadway dreams and a heavy Malayali accent, Alex Mathew had to experience a lot of rejection when he first started trying to enter the world of theatre. Yearning to perform, Mathew went on to create elaborate storylines in his head which led to Mayamma, the Mallu rebel. She was yet to find an outlet to express this which eventually came through the movie Mrs Doubtfire. "It was Robin Williams' character that made me wonder, 'If he can do it then why can't I. That’s when I came up with the concept of Maya the Drag Queen,'" he says.
Luxeva: How would you describe Mayamma?
Maya The Drag Queen: "Mayamma in English translates to 'The mother of illusions.' That’s who I am. However, I am also the people around me. I am the women in my family, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother. I am the élan with which they have always carried themselves. When I started doing drag seven years ago, the entire idea was thought of as 'camp' or 'fluffy' but I wanted to explore an elegant look and found inspiration in the women that surrounded me growing up. That’s where the Indian inflection in my drag comes from.
Lately, I have progressed to westernising my Indian looks. I mostly look at Bollywood actresses for inspiration because it has to come from a source that I connect with. I really love Madhuri, Sridevi, Rekha, and even Shobha De."
Luxeva: How is drag a means of empowerment to you?
Maya The Drag Queen: "Drag is a great form of gendered expressions if you are comfortable with your gender and sexuality. Our heads are all so full of complex ideas about life and drag, that we seek a cathartic release. The most integral and only pre-requisite for drag is to use all the colours in the crayon box, go wild and in letting go of your inhibitions: this is where the true beauty of drag lies. It teaches you so much about yourself."
Luxeva: You have also been managing queer artists at Kitty Su. What has been the experience like?
Maya The Drag Queen: "Drag Queens are essentially artists and you know how artists are: they come with a large ego because their art demands the respect that more often than not people fail to give. As a queer artist, I can associate with their point of view and cater to their needs accordingly. Though here’s a thumb rule for everyone else who wants to manage queer artists: approach them on a human level and that should do the trick for you.