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In a country where a man’s ultimate shame is to be called a woman, choosing to be a drag queen is itself an act of rebellion. Meet Nitish Anand, also known by his drag alias – Shabnam Be-wa-fa.
This is 2018 and a man can still be easily shamed by a slur “Jaake churiya pehenle,” (Go and wear bangles). So when a man decides to dress as a woman and take that identity while performing in public, it is nothing but an act of resistance. Meet 19 Y-O Nitish Anand, a media student by day and a drag artist by night. This is his story.
Drag is an art that has for long been in practice in India. However it is still not readily accepted. In simple words, drag is a person dressing up as the opposite gender and performing a particular art, be it poetry, music, dance, acting and so on. For 19 years old Nitish who masquerades as Shabnam Be-wa-fa, “Drag is for anyone who wants to put up a fun costume and get on stage to entertain people.”
Being a drag artist also means one needs to face inherent misogyny and ridicule at times.
Contrary to popular perception, drag is not performed only by the LGBTQ community; there are also drag performances by straight men and women. Being a drag queen also helps men get in touch with their feminine side, which can be a very beautiful experience for many drag queens.
Born and brought up in a middle class family, Nitish had this fascination with his mother’s clothes, jewelry and make up. The first game he remembers fondly is playing with his mother, where he played the mother and his mother played the baby. He feels that maybe that was the time he got in touch with his feminine side and absolutely loved it. He still feels that his mother even then, supported his fascination for the feminine without shaming him for wanting to be a girl or playing as one. But his happiness was short lived; his mother passed away when he was still a child. That was when Nitish created a make-believe world of imagination to fill the void his mother’s death left within him. He imagined that he was a girl.
It was not that Nitish had any qualms being a boy but he just wanted to dress up and entertain. As life moved on, he intensely fell in love with a girl in the 10th standard, which eventually ended in a terrible heartache for Nitish. This heartbreak in turn led to sleepless nights of tears followed by counseling.
As if things were meant to change, one fine day, Nitish got a call from NatGeo, who had come across his portfolio from his subscription. They wanted to shoot with Nitish for an LGBTQ documentary.
As excited as Nitesh was, it also meant that he had to come out openly as gay now. The first thing he did was rush to his teacher, who deeply encouraged him to do so. After a few nervous breaths, Nitish reached the NatGeo office for his shoot. The rest felt like a fairy tale. He finally came out to his friends and family, which indeed was a relief for him.
“How did the journey to Shabnam Be-wa-fa begin?” When asked this question, he recounted, “It was not only much unexpected but very sudden. Last year in November a few of my friends dared me to dress up as a girl for the New Delhi’s pride parade 2017. And the next day I woke up to my pictures in many international and national media platforms, and then gradually Shabnam became a trend for DU colleges. And then I finally debuted after my boards at Kitty Su, and then I started doing shoots and events as Shabnam. She’s a part of my life that’s healing my hurts and wounds.”
It also needs to be mentioned here that Kitty Su, where Nitish performs as Shabnam Be-wa-fa (Delhi and Chandigarh) has been a pioneer in India that holds a lot of drag shows in all its franchises owned by Keshav Suri, whose support and work for the LGBTQ community is known. He is also one of the 6 petitioners in the Supreme Court against Sec 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which is still being debated in courts. It was Keshav Suri who encouraged Nitish to take up drag as an art form.
On asked about the reaction of his family and friends on being Shabnam Be-wa-fa, this is what he has to say, ”Initially no doubt, it was difficult for my family to figure out what I am doing. Also, they couldn’t understand it because it’s new in India and that too when I am at this age when I am supposed to study and be carefree… Gradually they all turned out to be very supportive and chill about it. My friends were always okay with it. Even people or teachers from my old schools saw my interviews on YouTube or Internet, and they’ve shown their support. It feels amazing when your hard work pays back.”
Another interesting facet of being a new drag queen is finding a drag mother. It is more like a mentor apprentice relationship, wherein the drag mother teaches the drag daughter the tricks of the trade. Nitish found his drag mother in 25 years old Prateek Sachdeva, who is a professional dancer and choreographer from Noida, also known by the name “Betta.” Under Prateek’s wings Nitish is flourishing in the garb of Shabnam. The relationship according to Nitish is very nurturing.
In a country that is so rooted in patriarchy, it’s never easy to be a drag artist as the gender roles are so rigidly defined. But Nitish is hopeful on the future of drag in India. He says, “When I started drag there was just a couple of queens in the town (luckily I was in good hands) but now there are many people who text me and my drag family members everyday, saying they want to be a drag artist and want more information about it.
Also, after performing in many colleges I realized that the coming generation is much more accepting as compared to the old school ones. No hatred to them, though; they will love us anyway. They have no choice.”
Nitish identifies as a gay man. On the personal front, Nitish still had a series of bad relationships, and when he thought love was an illusion, a man appeared in his life as if an angel who brought him out of all blues. It was the fresh air Nitish desperately needed. Love happened. It all felt like a dream. Beautiful dates, love making and going out. But this too ended. It wasn’t easy but Nitish, who was a little more mature by now, moved on with his studies and modeling assignments.
As the interview was winding up, as a parting note this is what Nitish, aka Shabnam Be-wa-fa had to say: “If you’re lost then you can always be found because it’s never too late to turn your life around. Drag not only gave me a new life but also gave me strength to fight for myself, and it’s really helped me rise above the pain I was going through.”
As the evening fell, the spotlights are on and Shabnam Be-wa-fa is ready with another performance as the audience can’t wait any longer. We left the fiery and fantastic Shabnam Be-Wa-Fa to the spotlight, wishing only the best to him for being so brave in accepting and expressing himself.
Images source: Sahiba Chawdhary
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