Exploring India’s Drag Culture Through The Stories Of 6 Flawless Queens

Manghoe Lassi (Left) Maya (Right)
Manghoe Lassi (Left) Maya (Right)

“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.” - Ru Paul

The stage, the make-up, the dress...the performance. Drag culture has it all, it’s high fashion meets huge personality, where beauty is what you make it and everyone’s a queen. Like so many others, my introduction to the drag-iverse was through the show, ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’, and what a dazzling spectacle it was - two episodes in, I was hooked and I’ve never looked back. I know if I had to navigate a catwalk in sky-high heels and lashes like feather dusters I’d wipe out in seconds, but they made it look effortless.

Though Ru Paul may be a household name in the West, drag culture is still in it’s infancy in India. People have innumerable pre-conceptions about what it means to be a drag queen, whether it’s the assumption that you have to be gay or transgender to participate or the straight up fallacy that drag queens are ‘hijras’ (eunuchs), the stigmatisation is never-ending.

However there are pockets of safety for India’s queens, most of which can be credited to Keshav Suri and the Kitty Su franchise which regularly hosts local and international drag performers. Each and every person I spoke to during my research mentioned Suri as either a mentor, ally or friend and I can’t help but be grateful to him for all the effort he’s put in to champion the cause.

Being an Indian or an Indian-origin drag queen comes with a unique set of challenges but for those in the industry today, these are things they have learnt to deal with - whether it’s the inborn misogyny or simply a lack of understanding. The 6 queens on this list are a small representation of a larger movement unravelling in the country, where they’re using their diverse artistic talents and larger-than-life personalities to increase visibility across the board and say to the world, ‘We’re bold, we’re beautiful and we’re here to stay.’

I. Alex Mathew - Maya

One of the first drag artists in India, Alex really set the stage with his performance as Mayamma or to most, Maya. Though he started off part time, he’s now transitioning to be a full time performer, most often at the Kitty Su venues around India. Maya is a more than an alter ego, it’s a form of expression. Maya is an all out comedy queen, she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it out loud, in her Alex found the confidence he needed to pursue his Broadway dreams. Though there is a blossoming culture he feels that there’s still a long way to go before his vision of a open drag club can be realised, “We’ve been very regressive, having a safe space is what we really need to strive towards” He sees it as any other performance art and hopes that the general public will one day come to the same realisation, he doesn’t feel like his sexuality is in any way connected “Being a drag queen is also done by straight men or straight women. So I don’t think it is connected in any way. There were people who connected my being gay with me doing drag which is absolute rubbish.”

II. Humza Mian - Manghoe Lassi

He first discovered drag from a Jackie Beat parody video (she did a parody to “Baby Got Back” called “Baby Got Front”) and was immediately mesmerized by the over-the-top character she portrayed through drag. Living in Toronto he then decided to explore the local gay clubs and found a buzzing drag culture. His friends and family were mostly on board, “I did have a bit of a negative reaction from a few friends though, because they saw drag as a mockery of women, or saw it as something that defines the queer community and encompass all queers (which it doesn’t - if you’re queer and don’t like drag, it’s A-OK with me!)” he says. He’s either cut ties with these people if they become to aggressive or if they’re more open-minded, tries to explain the complexity that is gender identity. Manghoe loves fashion and she always tries to incorporate her Pakistani heritage into her looks. “She loves glamour and she looovvvessss glitter! She is kind but she has a diva attitude when need be. She is everything Humza was told not to be growing up.” He’s so thankful to have been raised in Canada and not in Pakistan for so many reasons, and the main one is me being able to live openly as a gay man. “I am able to express my femininity as loudly as I want to here and it’s presence is liberating people both here and overseas.” He has received so many messages from queer youth from India, Pakistan, the Middle East, etc. telling me that what I do has encouraged them to live their lives more openly.

III. Laila Gulabi

“I cannot tell you my full name. I have been receiving death threats, and it is crucial that I protect my identity” Born and raised in New York, Laila comes from an Indo-Guyanese and Italian background. Her great-grandparents and their parents came from what is now India and Pakistan. They were Muslim and Hindu, but she identifies as Muslim. Because of this she has a Desi identity as well as a Caribbean one as well. “ I see my gender being extremely fluid. I feel that I relate most to femininity, but I some times I feel masculine, both feminine and masculine, and sometimes neither.” She first discovered at fifteen by watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. “It brought me so much joy, and I became addicted.” She later discovered Asifa Lahore, the UK’s first out Muslim drag queen and says “If Asifa could do drag, and accept her Muslim and Pakistani identities, I felt that I could too” Laila’s drag persona is very multicultural to reflect her own heritage which she thinks is also a reflection of growing up in New York. “I believe Laila Gulabi also creates a bridge between cultures and religious identities given my unique and complex identity.” She also wants to present a new idea of a queen to the world “Drag queens are thought of being overly sexual, and I have a lot of issues with that. I have seen shows where I was not comfortable with the way performers ignored or blurred consent.” She believes that drag no longer is defined by gender, race or sexuality in the same way that it was and hopes to demonstrate that her art transcends the constructs of traditional society.

IV. Randy Scarhol - Veronique

Subconsciously, Randy always knew that drag was in the cards. This July they were introduced to the Indian drag scene by Maya and hasn’t looked back since. Though their family has been a bit slower in accepting the change, they have an incredibly supportive group of friends that helped them make the change. Veronique is a total diva, high fashion, high style, think Lady Gaga with a desi spin. They believe India still has a long way to go to true acceptance “India is too used to the heteronorm, queens are even looked down upon by gay men. They can be very misogynistic” they say. Veronique is all about pushing the boundaries and changing the perception India has about drag “People believe that if you do drag, you have to be trans, that’s not the case. It’s an inclusive art, irrespective of gender or sexual identity. It’s not meant to hurt any sentiments, we just love to perform”

V. Rovin Sharma - Roveena Tampon

An outspoken Genderqueer activist for the Lalit group, Roveena was already working towards making professional spaces comfortable for the LGBTQ community. It was one day when they were urged to perform lipsync in Kolkata that they truly found a calling. Keshav Suri mentioned that they already had a ‘hint of drag’ about them and since typically ‘feminine’ things had always fascinated them, they decided to give it a whirl. They believe that visibility is the best way to spread awareness, Roveena Tampon was designed with the intent to shock and awe. Though outwardly a play on the name ‘Raveena Tandon’ it also has the additional layer of drawing attention to the visibility of menstruation campaigns, as they say “I call it the menstruation miracle, why does everyone feel they have to hide something so natural behind layers of black plastic bags?” They also believe that India has actually regressed over time, “Through our history we have as a culture always been very diverse in gender and sexuality, now people are scared of it. It will take time, but if you talk about being religious, remember this is your culture.” Roveena is a voluptuous, chic, sassy, bitchy queen that stands for the hope of acceptance and until that day, they won’t back down. As they say, “We’re fighting in our heels and gowns with our make-up on. Just accept it.”

VI. Sushant Divgikr - Rani Ko-HE-Nur

An actor, reality TV star and phenomenal musician (he has a range like you wouldn’t believe) Sushant was already accustomed to being in the spotlight and that spotlight loved him back. For India’s LGBTQ community, his win as Mr. Gay World was a crowning moment, not merely for his outstanding achievements but for so many who are still suffering under the country’s repressed outlook and rigid laws. He is a performer at heart and drag is simply another means of expressing that passion. The endless possibilities that come with hair and make-up are just the cherry on top. Rani Ko-HE-Nur is the very definition of fierce, fearless, sassy and totally unapologetic, she’s flawless and she knows it. Sushant has always had the support and love of his friends and family and confesses that his parents are probably his biggest fans, he wants to bring the acceptance and love to India’s LGBTQ community and to all the haters all he simply says “F**k them...I don’t care what they think.”

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