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From being a male Bharatnatyam dancer to starting India’s first DragCon in Hyderabad, this man did not have an easy life. This is his story of drag and dance!
At the age of five, my father pulled me out of school early, one day and rushed me to an auditorium. Somehow, we got the front row seats and I kept wondering what movie it was. To my surprise, I saw a dynamic figure perform Bharatnatyam.
She was none other than Guru Smt. Chitra Visweswaran and that was my first exposure to dance. I wanted to see myself as a dancer. A few weeks later, I ended up taking Bharatnatyam classes. Being the only guy in the so-called ‘dance class for girls’ and the only male dancer in my town, got me a lot of cat calls. From being bullied in school to my parents getting free advice to stop my dance training, we have seen it all. It was all a part of it, and both my father and I were stubborn about my dance.
This initial experience of bias on gender expressions helped me develop a keen interest in gender studies. As I learnt and grew with the dance, my gender awareness, too, grew further. Soon, I found an interest in learning about sexuality, sexual orientation, gender binaries, gender non-conformity, etc.
As a person, I was always retaliating on the matters of sexuality and being curious, I went to meet a friend who was an LGBTQIA+ activist. While learning about the struggles and the stigmas associated with the community, I started relating my journey as a dancer with it.
By this time, I was looking for the pseudo non-gender characters who could relate with the subjects. A kind of a format that would help me bring these issues to the common public. I used my dance as a language to talk about sexuality and sensuality.
Seeking training, inspiration and analysis from the German expressionism and the vocabulary of Bharatnatyam, I managed to convey my message to the audience. As I went on exploration of my art I was able to develop a post modernity in my work.
Works like Unicorn (Homosexuality in Animals), Unboxing the Gender and UNTAG were few presentations I made with dance. Performances like What’s My Colour (a performance art piece on LGBTQIA+ Abbreviation labelling), Strip-tease (Performance of Abuse on Men) and FourPlay (a call for legalising same sex marriages) are development with the language of Performance art.
One thing that always fascinated me was the Tradition of Vashem or StriVesham. As we see in Sampradaya Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Yakshaganam. However, this transformation of identity in the west was called as Drag. Literally abbreviated as Dress Resembling a Girl, which soon turned its definition as Dress Resembling a Gender.
Somewhere I think an Indian concept stolen and used by the west. Drag shows frequently include lip-syncing, live singing, and dancing but only limited to club cultures. I could see a drastic similarity with the Indian art cultures like Launda Nautch, Chindu Yakshaganam, Behrupiya, Teerakoouth and Kaniya Koouth.
This helped me develop an Indian Style of Drag something that is traditionally rooted and organically bound. The condition of men performing drag in these Indian art-forms were often prone to sexual assaults and low wages. This made these art forms start disappearing out of traditional cultures. That was the reason which compelled me to start performing Drag. I believed in the concept of Anti Beauty and hence designed my tranimal drag style with a cultural touch. Drag was the thing which gave me an instant image to make my case of using art for LGBTQIA+ activism stronger.
It all started with conversation. I was talking about how the city of Hyderabad is accepting dance and performance art. That’s when a friend of mine said, “Hope we had drag too?”
Initially, I thought that I cannot take a drag, as my focus was on Performance Art only. And I couldn’t imagine taking up something as expensive, hardworking and daring art like drag. My research on performative languages, aspects and issues continued as I read performance art journals, concept notes.
Since drag was something I wanted to do in my city, I approached a lot of friends in the city. I asked them if them if they would like to perform drag. There were times when I bugged people a little. One friend even got irritated with me and said, “Why aren’t you doing drag? If you don’t do it yourself, how do you expect others to do the same?” And the question stumped me.
I needed a reason for talking up a new performance style. And I asked myself why should I do drag. Drag is a performance art where we take political statements on gender issues- this was something I had been doing with my dance.
I wanted my drag to be exclusive and more of a performance than entertainment and I wanted it to be anti-beauty. So I affirmed that I would go the Tranimal way! But for whom? This was a question, I constantly asked myself. I wanted to do it for the city, for the underrepresented people, for acid attack survivors, for people with skin deficiencies and differently abled people.
I finally decided to go ahead and have an exclusive drag event. So I reached out to Nirvana Café and a dear friend Bhagi Sravani came up with the idea of doing the Hyderabad Drag Show. I found three other people to perform with me and we decided to perform in the month of June, as it is Pride Month. We set a date and only had three days for the preparation, promotion and propagation. On the day of the show, I didn’t expect any more than 10 people to show up.
The day finally arrived and as we were getting ready, we were informed of a homophobic post that claimed that the event had been cancelled. We were angry. But we did not lose hope. The event saw as many as 200 people.
That was the day I turned myself into ‘Mohini D ‘vi.’ Mohini is the unnumbered incarnation of Vishnu in the form of women. And means someone who can attract the world. D ‘vi the first letter adapted from D’vin Chi the painter known for his conventional way of expressionism, surrealism in his art and abstract of Devi the goddess.
Mohini was created by the people of Hyderabad. She is badass, blunt, always masked, poor, available and non-beautified figure who has no gender, caste, or style and all she had was audacity. Mohini never performs a drag with shoes since shoes are a symbol of class and status.
Post the initiation I started a collective club called the Hyderabad Drag Club. The vision was to lead drag in twin cities for acceptance and equality and bring it a status of live music or dance in and around Hyderabad.
With curating and executing consequent events post the first one, we did an event mixing drag and Carnatic music called Kanandragoulam. In this event, we brought a south Indian flavour to drag and followed by a mega celebration of World Drag day at Nirvana café. But nothing goes smoothly in life, does it? The only space which embraced drag was shut and the journey after was tough for me.
People embrace dance, music and stand up comedy but they think drag is an unfit art to be presented. They think drag queens are sexual (so is the standup comedy session with subtle double meaning jokes) That drag queens are loud (so are the metal and rock singers) Or that drag performers are highly or highly dresses (so are the classical/ belly and other style dancers)
People think that drag queens are transgender or crossdressers. But the reality is Drag queens are performers who just dress in opposite gender clothes quite similar to Kuchipudi, yakshagana or kathakali where men dress as women while impersonating characters from Indian mythology. Transgenderism is an identity which a person carries, and cross-dressing is an act for the identification or sexual interests.
Anyone can be a drag queen right from people belonging to LGBTQIA to heteronormative people. Breaking this bubble for getting spaces to perform drag became a tough fight. I was often told that either the policies of the place don’t permit or there might be a legal issue (not sure for what)
Few places did welcome open-door support for drag such as Giggle Waters, Nritya forum and People’s Choice Café. However, we still couldn’t crack the code to be a constant space for drag performances for various reasons. I thought that proposing drag as an alternative to the music and comedy scenes for clubs and cafes will be the best approach to keep the art running in the city.
After reaching out to more than 10 pubs for drag performance we were constantly rejected because of DRAGPHOBIA (yes, it’s a thing). Meanwhile, I faced backlash from people within and outside the community on my style of drag. Some thought I wasn’t doing drag the right way as seen on RuPaul’s drag race with high heels, big wigs, wonderful makeup and elegant costumes.
I tried to constantly keep people informed about my style of drag “Tranimal.”And tried to convince and educate people on it stating Tranimal is a drag and performance art movement that began in the mid-2000s in Los Angeles. Finally running a fight about spaces, we approached Hylife with an open heart.
We got the dates and had only one week left. We wanted a premier event for DRAG in Hyderabad and launched “DRAG CON HYDERABAD.” In one week’s the time we pulled up humongous support. Six drag performers from all walks of life poured into the scene and we had a blast. The event was so well curated.
Each performance was an epic and all of us together made something special for yourself. It was then I realised the power of drag. That day Mohini was an outburst, outpoured and made statements with her performance. The performance had songs with messages telling “I am born this way” and “they don’t care about us.” This event gave me the courage to be me.
It is high time where we create an awareness on gender and create an inclusive space for gender performances. We need our Indian cultural drag formats to shine around the world and make India too a leader of gender performance. And with that vision in my mind, I am still taking one step at a time. Still there struggled didn’t end, there is a long way to go but let me remind you “Shantay” the drag stays!
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