India's shifting cultural landscape became a global talking point earlier last year, when the South Asian country overturned the controversial section 377 that criminalized homosexual sex. The move came after years of campaigning and protests led by fierce LGBTQ+ activists in the country, whose very public rebellion spotlighted the longstanding push-and-pull between the rigid and prevailing homophobic cultural attitudes and a burgeoning crop of rapidly modernizing youth.
Interestingly, section 377 was originally a colonial-era law instituted during the 200-year-old British reign was knocked down by a junior Indian court for being "unconstitutional" in 2013, only to be reinstated by the Supreme court in 2016. But despite the recent step in the right direction, much like other parts of the world, homophobia is a startling reality, especially within the more conservative parts of the country.
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Still, things are changing as more safe spaces and community events that were otherwise organized in secrecy, crop up. Earlier this year, the annual India Makeup Show — conceptualized and produced by Salvation Star & Q Temple — became host to a first of its kind drag show in the country called the Bombay Ballroom, where 11 different drag queens whipped up incredible performances.
Inspired by "campy courtesans of yesteryears," the show presented a queer rendition on iconic Bollywood actresses throughout the years fashioned on the lines of the "queer ballroom culture of '80s New York." PAPER went behind the scenes to capture the best moments and spoke to the incredible 11 drag artists who reflect on the changing drag scene in the country.
Sushiel Yaikhom (@sushiru)
Overlay: Amit Aggarwal, Jumpsuit: Alpana Neeraj, Evil Eye Necklace and Choker: Valliyan, Gold Natraj Earrings and Necklace: Roma Narsighani
On the drag scene in India: It's so amazing to see queer artists from different backgrounds come together to celebrate the art of drag. I bump into other queens at night clubs where I perform. It's been a slow year, but I hope to do a tour soon. There is one night club in Mumbai that is actively involved in helping young drag artists shine through. I'm lucky to have been able to be represented by them and be given a platform to perform. There are also other smaller gay organizations that host parties where queens often perform.
"There is no tipping culture in India and sometimes the audience doesn't know where to draw the line when it comes to getting intimate with the artists."
On the challenges: The drag scene in India has an essence of Bollywood in whatever they do, which is both good and bad. There is no tipping culture in India and sometimes the audience doesn't know where to draw the line when it comes to getting intimate with the artists. Hopefully they'll learn with time. Drag artists like any other artists deserve respect. People seem to take us for granted because we're entertainers. Most do not understand why we do what we do. The communication gap needs to be bridged.
Sushant Divgikar (@sushantdivgikr)
Clothes and jewelry: Stylist's own
On the drag scene in India: Drag has been a part of our culture from the beginning of time. According to our ancient scriptures and texts, there were a lot of men performing as women. We just didn't term the art form as drag. We have a very rich culture and I celebrate it at every opportunity. We have a very overt representation of drag in our folk culture, our religious texts as well as in the kings' courts much before the colonial era. But during their colonial rule, the British spewed all the negativity. They looked upon our cultural beliefs and spread hatred within us for our fellow Indian brothers and sisters, implementing draconian and narrow-minded laws. They divided us on the basis of religion, caste and sexuality. Drag as a performance art is not the novelty of the West. However, the only credit the West can take is probably terming it drag and giving it the mass exposure through pop culture.
"Drag is not cheap, so don't expect a queen to turn up looking like royalty when you want to pay the bitch peanuts."
On the challenges: I think the most challenging part of my profession is dealing with some idiots that bargain for petty amounts as remuneration. If you can't afford to book an artist, don't! Don't demean their efforts by bargaining, you're not shopping at Payless. There are no discounts. Drag is not cheap, so don't expect a queen to turn up looking like royalty when you want to pay the bitch peanuts. We have bills to pay and have families to take care of just like everyone else.
Shubham Ladha (@f7aneur)
Metal foil overlay: Kallol Datta
On the drag scene in India: Even though I've never professionally performed, going to any public space in drag is a scary yet liberating experience. People are either repulsed, appreciative or will just plainly stare, and I reciprocate accordingly. Being femme and in drag though, aren't two distinct personalities. They're both part of the same identity. The events can be a cozy house party with close friends or a party at a club. The former's comfortable and the latter can be pretty packed, but enjoyable too.
"Going to any public space in drag is a scary yet liberating experience. People are either repulsed, appreciative or will just plainly stare."
On the challenges: It's burgeoning and is trying to become an important, socio-cultural tool to make our communities more inclusive and diverse. But it still has to surpass its superficial value of being perceived as "fierce" or "fabulous." While the mainstream drag culture — viewed from the lens of the upper class, urban Indian — here does borrow quite a bit from the West, it also tries to reflect the trans culture that's thrived in the country. It has been its own source of drag and storytelling since long. India's hijra culture is drag in the Indian context.
Kean Alvares (@keanalvares)
Embellished cosmos dress: Nabi
On the drag scene in India: When I started in 2011, a man posing and dressing up in his feminine persona was not very well accepted. There were no avenues to be able to showcase my form of art and hence the scope of work was very limited only to those who were willing to take a risk. My pictures have been exhibited at art galleries, and I've also modeled for fashion campaigns. I've mostly done pictures just for my social platforms. It was not very well accepted at the time. However, things have now changed. The drag scene here is very contained and limited; people are still experimenting and trying their hand at it. But thanks to few people who have paved the way for it to be out there, increasingly people are coming out and expressing their love for the art.
"Challenges depend on what you look at as obstacles. Personally, I take everything in stride."
On the challenges: Challenges depend on what you look at as obstacles. Personally, I take everything in stride. Whatever comes my way, I turn it into something that makes me happy. Most of our work involves people management skills and at times, the communication bit can get a little challenging with regards to reality versus expectations. But that is something I take with a pinch of salt and turn it around.
Suruj Rajkhowa (@glorious_luna)
Pearl necklace: Outhouse
On the drag scene in India: The Indian gay scene is very strong and progressive in the cosmopolitan cities. The events are usually very well organized and open for all the adults, not just the LGBTQ+ community. Times have changed. We can now think of drag also as a career and drag artists can perform around the country and abroad. We have all sorts of queens in India, from singing queens and dancing queens to Bollywood and pageant girls. Still, we are very few in numbers.
"We have all sorts of queens in India, from singing queens and dancing queens to Bollywood and pageant girls. Still, we are very few in numbers."
On the challenges: I believe there are more drag queens in the West; it's really vast. RuPaul has definitely made her mark in a country like India where being a drag queen can be really challenging as there are still not a lot of places where we can perform.
Rabanne J Victor/ Champagne (@rabannevictor)
Sequinned bodysuit: Nikhil Thampi
On the drag scene in India: Drag makes me feel strong and beautiful. Paint my face, put me in a gorgeous dress, shower me with jewelry and I'm at my happiest. I cannot describe the pure joy I feel when I have make-up and a wig on. I've enjoyed playing around with women's clothing and make-up for as long as I can remember. Being in fashion has given me a lot of opportunities to experiment and express myself. The drag scene in India is pretty new and is just starting to pick up. We've got so many incredibly gifted queens, y'all better watch out.
"Paint my face, put me in a gorgeous dress, shower me with jewelry and I'm at my happiest."
Anjali Lama (@anjalilama_official)
Overlay: Kallol Datta
On the drag scene in India: We live in a free society, and according to me each one of us has the right to pick and choose. Being a trans person has always come with a lot of challenges in every walk of life. I remember when I first came out, people didn't really accept me including my family, and friends.
"India has come a long way and I am surprised that a lot of people now are accepting us with open arms."
On the challenges: Back then, it was struggling to find my own identity, my rights, and a job. Even finding a place to live on rent was really difficult. There has been a lot of discrimination. But India has come a long way and I am surprised that a lot of people now are accepting us with open arms. I have been doing a lot of runway shows. It's great that it's legal now. But over the years I have learned that even if people don't accept you, you have to accept your self and be strong. In difficult times, just take a deep breath, calm down and be patient; look for help from anyone who is close to you and you can trust.
Nitin Baranwal (@nitinbaranwal)
Suit: Nikhil Thampi, Earrings: Valliyan
On the drag scene in India: Indian drag culture is not very different from western culture yet it stands apart. It has its own heritage, culture and dignity. There's also the influence of Bollywood, but India does have a long way to go to truly accepting drag culture.
"Indian drag culture is not very different from western culture yet it stands apart. It has its own heritage, culture and dignity."
On the challenges: The belief in India is that drag performers are transgender. But no matter what people say about drag queens, they will always be queens as they live the way they want and create their own path and way of life and make people laugh and accept them the way they are.
Jason Arland (@jason_arland)
Clothes: Stylist's own
On the drag scene in India: Drag queens have been a part of our history for centuries. We just never really termed them drag queens. Drag is more than just wigs, it is a persona that a queen carries on stage to entertain the audience. Drag culture is now a global phenomenon thanks to RuPaul. It has recently started flourishing in India in a new way. It's enthralling how fast it is booming in our country at the moment.
"Drag queens have been a part of our history for centuries."
On the challenges: In comparison with the West, it is not yet mainstream and we do have a long way to go. As a model and beauty influencer, I always wish to be relevant to my audience and be able to deliver authentically. The most challenging part so far is to remain genuine and true to people who watch me.
Sandra Nandeibam (@sandranandeibam)
Embellished corset: Alpana Neeraj
On the drag scene in India: This is my very first time doing drag, but I would love to perform in future if I get the chance. Drag shows are usually organized at LGBTQ-friendly bars and clubs out here. But overall, it's a pretty new scene in comparison to the West. There aren't too many shows and performers out here because of the lack of resources and support from the people.
"As a transgender artist, I think we've got so many challenges in every sphere of our lives. This needs to be changed."
On the challenges: As a transgender artist, I think we've got so many challenges in every sphere of our lives. This needs to be changed. We need an equal, free environment that gives opportunity to talented people without discriminating and accepts all the diverse sexual identities.
Tarun Panwar (@taruntaruntarun)
Silk zari sari: Akaaro, Earrings: Outhouse
On the drag scene in India: I really see drag shows in modern metropolitan cities, but I have seen different kinds of drag in my culture too. This was my very first time doing drag. I am not a drag artist, but it inspires me a lot. I can't fully speak to the challenges of the industry, but if I had to take a guess I would say hair and make up would be the tough parts along with just putting it all together.
"I am not a drag artist, but it inspires me a lot."
Hair: Sonam Singh (of Feat. Artists)
Makeup: Kapil Bhalla
Concept & Production: Salvation Star and QTemple (in Association with India Makeup Show
Fashion Assistant: Sakina Contractor, Sushiel Yaikhom and Nikita Thapa