We’re almost halfway through Pride Month and of course, we couldn’t forget one of the most important sub-communities in the queer community! Drag is the performance of exaggerated gender expressions that include most commonly femininity and masculinity. Drag is more than just entertainment, it is the celebration of self-identity, and it is a way to challenge the notion of gender as we know it.
We owe many things to the Drag Queens…especially for setting trends in the beauty industry. Contouring, Baking, Highlighting, exaggerated brows, makeup setting sprays, and the cut crease eye shadows are not Instagram trends and are also not invented by Kim Kardashian. All these have been taken by the drag culture. We have to remember that Drag Queens are usually men who adopt the feminine persona. They used deodorants to set their face with makeup for their shows which eventually became the makeup setting spray. They used contouring and highlighting to make their faces look more feminine and narrowed down. The beauty industry is nothing without Drag.
Drag is an essential part of the LGBTQ+ community and as a celebration of self-expression, drag is quickly becoming a big part of our mainstream media consumption. I spoke to one of Hyderabad’s Drag Queens to know more about the drag culture and how it is in Hyderabad.
*Disclaimer: We appreciate that Shashtri agreed to do this with us, however, please note that this should not be used as an excuse to throw questions at Drag Queens about their identities and demand explanations for what they do.
*Patruni Chidananda Sastry preferred pronouns are they/them.
I braced myself to hit the call button. Honestly, I was scared about messing up or sounding insensitive. In the midst of these thoughts, Shashtri picked up my call. Having spoken before once to set up an interview, I quickly introduced myself again and thanked them for doing this. Hesitantly, I asked them my first question.
Question: Can you tell me a bit more about yourself?
Quickly, I got a response. “I am Patruni Chidananda Sastry. Actually, I’ve got a long name so I think this is enough. I grew up in West Bengal and then later moved to Hyderabad. I am a full-time software employee. And I have always been interested in dance and art. The environment at home was such that I had always been encouraged to learn how to dance. My father is a singer as well. I was trained in Bharatnatyam which then lead me to learn other forms of art like Bhutto and then eventually, I was introduced to Drag.”
These sentences rolled off their tongue so eloquently, as if expecting this very question. It was then that I wondered how many times they had done this before, and how experienced they are with this. I scrambled to write, as fast as I could, so as to not miss anything they were saying. As if I would miss the essence of what had been told to me.
Sastry continued, “The way I see Drag, it’s a piece of art. And because it’s a part of the queer community, it also helps a social cause so it works out for me. Dance and art always make me feel more free.” And before I could ask how, they said, “You see, I am a full-time employee and an artist. But I don’t put the livelihood burden on art. Because then it would mean that sponsors and events would cage my creative freedom. I wouldn’t get to do what I want to do and rather, I’d do anything because of financial pressure.”
Agreeing with them, I asked them the next question.
Question: What does Drag actually mean?
What followed surprised me. Sastry said, “I’ve known drag all my life, just not in the western sense of the word. Traditional art forms in India have always had the element of cross-dressing. When I was doing performing Arts, that’s when I got to know about Drag. Drag is essentially to compel the audience to agree with the fact that gender is a vision. When we put on drag shows, that’s what it portrays, that gender is just a social construct. And that’s what we tell the audience too. You cannot contain people in these binaries. So when I came here, I wanted to start the drag scene in Hyderabad. I thought I’d do it for only six months and give up, but I couldn’t!”
Question: How is drag in India different from the West?
Before answering, Sastry let out a chuckle. They said, “This is my view and opinion, from many years of reading and researching. You see, drag was copied from India.” I was shocked. Sastry continued and explained to me, “The first mention of the word drag was in the 1870, during the Victorian Era. However, in India we didn’t have a name for it. It wasn’t called drag but it was mentioned in Natya Shashtra, a text for performing arts in 1900 B.C. The idea of drag is not alienated in the traditional art forms. It was normalized and in fact, it was welcomed in the society. During the British Raj, the Britishers took one element from our traditional art and made it a culture and called it Drag and the queer community took it up. Whereas ethnic groups in India have always been performing it. And after the 377 judgement, Drag is coming up in India.”
I took a second to take in what they had said. It was a refreshing perspective. I was quiet for a second, maybe a second too long and I said, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that, I’m just taking a minute to process that” to which the reply came, “I hope I didn’t overwhelm you.” They didn’t.
I asked them the next question,
Question: Does the drag culture here have any problems that need to be addressed?
Taking a deep breath, they answered, “See, the problem is with the people and how they perceive us and not with the drag culture. When we were starting out, we didn’t get any venues to hold events. There are misconceptions that surround the Drag culture. Like, Drag is not for everyone or Drag is sensual. These are notions that contribute to the stigmatization of the drag culture. Sometimes when I’m in my drag persona and I still get scared as to how I’m being perceived by the audience. Drag has to be sensitized. However, I will say that Drag is flourishing here and now is a good time for artists to put their art forward. Initially, when we approached Lamakaan and Nritya Arts forum to hold drag events, they said no. They were apprehensive. But we found a venue. Nirvana Cafe hosted an event. We expected only about 20 people but the turn out was five-hundred! And after that, Lamakaan and Nritya Arts forum also called us to host an event!”
I was happy to know that the drag culture here was growing. Nearing the end of our interview, I asked,
Question: What would you like to say to future Drag Queens or kings?
They took a second to answer my question. And then they said, “One thing that’s important for any artist is to look into oneself. It’s important to know three things: for whom you’re performing, what you are performing and why you are performing. And this is the relevant time to ask these questions. Asking the right questions is essential. And if this art makes people uncomfortable then that’s good. Because that’s how art transcends. Then they will learn more about gender expression.”
“The best thing to do is to make a community,” they said when I asked about the ways in which we can spark off conversations. “In India also, we have a teacher/student culture, especially when it comes to dance. The West have these communities as well for Drag, where they teach each other how do to make-up and help newcomers. And that’s what creates this culture of having conversations. And that’s why I started a small initiative to create a space about Drag and how India sees it.”
DragVanti is a space for everything you want to know about Drag culture, especially in India.
“Another thing to remember is that Drag is not always performance. You can host events or have conversations or even have flash mobs to start these conversations. The culture here has to be more developed. In India we have 20-30 drag styles.” I admitted to them that I didn’t know there were drag styles. They were kind enough to tell me more about it. “There’s fish style, which is the complete embodiment of the female persona, there’s camp and tranimal drag. Tranimal Drag is a style which does not focus on the beauty element. It challenges the very notion of beauty and these queens usually use found material and the face is covered. It creates an illusion to the audience.”
Before ending the call, I asked them one last question,
Question: How do you cope with these dualities?
They explained to me, “Drag is essentially toiling of gender. Drag Queens have to define themselves as women, with nails and makeup and by doing this, they are agreeing to the guidelines that define gender. Personally, I cannot associate with it. Because this is my way to fight back and to challenge the notion of gender. Yes, there is gender bullying on the internet, mostly. For me, my art is a break from life. It acts as a stress-reliever!”
Patruni Chidananda Sastry is one of Hyderabad’s first drag queens and they have been instrumental in creating the drag culture in the city. Hyderabad’s drag culture is now flourishing
Drag is an extremely important part of our society because they have and continue to shatter the notion of gender, to not only perform for entertainment but through their art and persona fight for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Pause for Perspective