Pride Month: Indian Drag Culture Through The Stories Of 5 Drag Artists Advertisement
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#PrideMonth: Exploring Drag Culture In India Through Stories Of 5 Drag Queens & Kings

“What it says on your driver’s license isn’t really who you are—you are something much greater than that” – RuPaul

By Gargi Agrawal & Shaeroy Chinoy  June 4th, 2021

Avant-garde outfits, dramatic makeup and larger-than-life personas—drag is where people come alive, and it is where stories are made. An extension of a person’s character, the medium lends a platform where people can be anything they want with the fear of judgement at bay. While RuPaul is a household name in the West, drag culture is beginning to pick up in India, and we’re here for it.

From how their drag avatar liberates them to their perceptions of pride, we asked five drag queens and kings to weigh in on their opinions about drag and more.

1. Zeesh 

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Photograph: Nithesh Naidu

ELLE: Does your personality change when you’re performing drag? If yes, do you take on a larger-than-life persona, or are you the same?

ZEESH: When I am in drag, my persona is more precise, accurate and more specified because there is a purpose, reason and agenda for whenever I am in drag. When I change characters and layer them over my original personality, I tend to create a different dynamic altogether.

ELLE: What are the pros and cons of drag culture in India? What is its future?

ZEESH: There is a variety of drag in India: pop culture, mainstream, indigenous, and regional. However, I feel drag artists are not given enough opportunities in big events and major workplaces, which can lend them more visibility. The platform for drag artists to showcase their work, art, and performances is very limited in India, which needs to change.

ELLE: How has drag helped you to overcome your struggles in life? Do you feel more comfortable in your drag avatar? 

ZEESH: Drag has provided me with a medium to showcase my skills and talent. I use my body as a canvas along with my makeup, modelling and designing skills. This is how I have created my drag character Zeesh. In this journey, I have realised that through drag, I have been able to really express myself and explore my thoughts and ideas to people who matter to me.

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ELLE: One piece of advice you would give to people who haven’t gathered courage yet to express themselves fully?

ZEESH: I think that it is important to find common ground and take baby steps to get there. My parents have always viewed art as just art. They have appreciated it for its existence. I have been blessed to have amazing parents, siblings and a self-chosen family who have constantly pushed me to explore myself and become my truest self.

ELLE: What does pride mean to you?

ZEESH: Pride to me means acceptance of who you are and who you truly want to be. Living that reality every day is what pride is for me.

2. Durga Gawde

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Photograph: Durga Gawde

ELLE: What is the story behind your drag name? 

DURGA GAWDE (DG): My given name is Durga. Durga is the goddess of power in Hindu culture. I have always identified with the power my name holds, and it inspires me when I am uninspired and feeling weak. Shakti means Durga to me without the implication of goddess. For me, shakti is more about feminine energy and power versus the connotation of womanhood that comes with the word goddess. 

ELLE: What are the pros and cons of drag culture in India? What is its future?

DG: I do not think of pros and cons. To focus on them would only cause me stress. The future is what I focus on. Through my actions, I am building the future of drag and queer culture in India and the world. Being the first drag king of India can feel like a big responsibility to represent the community. But I realised a few years ago that being the best version of myself will enable me to represent my best self. That is the space where I come from—being aware and humbled by the fact that I make history every single day by just being me.

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Photograph: Durga Gawde

ELLE: How has drag helped you to overcome your struggles in life? Do you feel more comfortable in your drag avatar? 

DG: Drag has helped me understand the true meaning of family. My drag mother, Rani Ko-HE-nur (Sushant Divgikr, out of drag), has not just mentored me but helped me understand the real meaning of a mother’s unconditional love. I didn’t know what it’s like to be loved without expectation from a mother before I met Rani. My drag sisters, Luna and Seventeen, are the most adorable people. We are each other’s chosen family.

Photograph: Durga Gawde

ELLE: How easy or difficult was it for your family to come to terms with the art form and accept you for who you are?

DG: My biological family didn’t abandon me right after I came out. They tried to ‘groom’ me into being an acceptable version of me in their minds. I was always told to ‘tone it down’. When they realised that version of me doesn’t exist and never will, they decided that I didn’t deserve their time or energy. So, they didn’t accept me. I don’t know if they will ever accept me, and I have made my peace with that. My chosen family sees me for what I am, and my dog sees me for what I am. To me, that is enough.

To people who haven’t come out yet, know that your safety is important. You need to find love within your heart for yourself and be emotionally and financially independent. Anything that gets in your way isn’t worth it. Come out when you are fully capable of looking after yourself.

ELLE: What does pride mean to you?

DG: To me, pride isn’t about my gender or sexuality. When I think about pride, I think about taking pride in everything I do—everything I touch, everything I feel. It means to take pride in my own existence with every breath I take.

3. Glorious Luna

Photograph: Raechelle Rapozo

ELLE: What is the story behind your drag name?

GLORIOUS LUNA (GL): Luna means the moon, and my real name is Suruj, which refers to ‘the sun’ in Assamese. I feel just how the moon shines because of the sun is how Suruj helps Luna thrive.

ELLE: Does your personality change when you’re performing drag? If yes, do you take on a larger-than-life persona, or are you the same?

GL: Yes, my personality does change after I get into drag. I am louder and more confident because, in my real life, I am a bit of a loner and introverted.

ELLE: What does pride mean to you?

GL: Pride for me is to be respected and to be treated equally. I am a functioning human in society. I pay my taxes like everybody. In India, the LGBTQIA+ community is still seen as the other part of the society that people don’t necessarily want to talk about. But we need to keep the conversation going, and for that, we will need representation from all over—showbiz, sports to science. People are still afraid to come out because they fear losing family, mockery, bullying, and more. As a society, it is every person’s responsibility to make it safe for us.

4. Gentleman Gaga

Photograph: Arunima Rajkumar

ELLE: What is the story behind your drag name?

GENTLEMAN GAGA (GG): Since childhood Lady Gaga has always been my inspiration. Her aura, creativity, beauty and extra-terrestrial perception leaves me awestruck. I consider her as my Mother Monster for this very reason, and that’s how Gentleman Gaga was born.

ELLE: How has drag helped you to overcome your struggles in life? Do you feel more comfortable in your drag avatar?

GG: More than comfort, drag has always given me a different power. It has made me realise that my capabilities are not limitless but way beyond. I always feel like myself, whether it’s drag or casual because that’s what self-acceptance is all about.

Photograph: Arunima Rajkumar

ELLE: One piece of advice you would give to people who haven’t gathered courage yet to express themselves fully? 

GG: Life without struggle has no meaning, and difficulty is just a phase that keeps visiting you. You have to face it with all the sass that you have. Gather the courage to come out and embrace others like you.

ELLE: What does pride mean to you?

GG: For me, pride is a sense of freedom, self-expression and honouring people of our kind.

5. Bettanaanstop

Photograph: Ankkit Singh; Make-up: Aratrika

ELLE: Does your personality change when you’re performing drag? If yes, do you take on a larger-than-life persona, or are you the same?

BETTANAANSTOP (B): There’s a boost of confidence and fearlessness. The main thing to know is that this new person is still you, maybe it was hidden, and you did not know how to harness it. I have always been the shy kid inside a shell. Betta helps Prateek become more confident, feeling more powerful, and I don’t have to confide in anyone’s perception.

ELLE: How has drag helped you to overcome your struggles in life? Do you feel more comfortable in your drag avatar?

B: I used to feel more comfortable in drag. A tight corset can be comforting. But now, I can say that confidence and self-love have ultimately helped Prateek grow as an individual and be a happier person.

Photograph: Arush Pandit

ELLE: What does pride mean to you?

B: Pride means to have pride in who you are and being proud of what you are despite all the challenges. There is no shame in being different or unique, and everyone should be celebrated in their own skin and forms.

While we have had some positive change in representation, the biggest challenge which stays is society’s acceptance. Online bullying and harassment have increased during the lockdown. People need to know that there is a difference between an opinion and a hate comment. Society needs to stop promoting that ‘being different is wrong’ or ‘what you’re feeling is wrong’.

Photographs: Instagram