Shadowing A Drag Artist: Photoseries Offers Glimpse Into Life Behind the Stage

Shadowing A Drag Artist: Photoseries Offers Glimpse Into Life Behind the Stage
Sarang Gupta

Popularly known as ‘Drag’ in the West, the art form of cross-dressing (in elaborated and exaggerated form) is not an alien concept to India. If we trace some steps back into history, drag as a form has always existed much in the mainstream within the Indian context. Whether it was in theatre re-productions of Ramlīla where men would oft-dressed and essayed female characters (as women were excluded from spaces of public entertainment) or whether it is the two-day festival in Kotakulangara (a small town in Kerala) where men cross-dress as part of a ritual to worship goddess Devi, drag was bring experimented within India without being called as such.

Talking about the annual Chamaya-Vilakku festival which provides space for transvestism within the religious sphere, PhD scholar Anu Kuriakose, in her research paper, says , “The religious space in Kottankulangara temple in Kerala offers the transient realm of transvestism. The cross-dressed males here commemorate the annual Chamaya-Vilakku festival ... those gender non-conforming people who live as men due to social pressures get the chance to flaunt their gender identities at this occasion.”

But as is with gender roles and subverting them, not many in the country are accepting of this display of gender identity and expression (especially if it exists as a part of individual freedom and not as much in the realm of rituals). Exploring drag as an art form in India away from the mainstream drag queens and drag kings that inhabit our popular imagination is 27-year-old Sarang Gupta, a Mumbai-based photographer who spent time shadowing a drag artist.

Says Sarang, “I met Nitish during an assignment back when I was working with Hindustan Times, where he was present as his alter ego, Shabnam Bewafa. There was something very peculiar about the way he had dressed that day, with the hair and makeup of drag, he wore a saree and was present there as his or I should rather say her usual self. I found her to be an interesting subject and I started talking to her and photographing her at the same time. Some of those pictures made it to the newspaper the next day which made her really happy. That day embarked upon our friendship.”

But why do people indulge in drag as an art form? Is it merely a matter of art and expression or is it a larger part of one’s identity? What encapsulates the person behind the makeup and wigs? Is the persona larger than Nitish himself or is it a hidden, latent desire to truly express their identity?

Sarang’s time with Nitish as his alter ego, Shabnam Bewafa, opened doors to these answers, “After some time of knowing Nitish, one thing became very lucid in my mind – for someone like Nitish, drag isn’t just a legit profession for the members of LGBTQ, it’s also a way for them to identify themselves the way they want to. Nitish feels more comfortable in the skin of Shabnam, (apart from those expensive wigs which are an absolute nightmare to wear and maintain).”

For Nitish, choosing to perform drag in public platforms and spaces is a way to promote, spread awareness and move towards a more gender-neutral space. “Nitish feels that the Drag is still a fairly new art form in our country and gender taboos make it difficult for a lot of youngsters to venture in it leaving it an unexplored space in India. Instead of just performing professionally in the clubs, these artists are trying to take the performances to public platforms like cultural youth fests, theatre, the pride parades etc. to promote the art form and use it as a means to spread awareness,” Sarang elaborates.

Sarang tells us that much of the process behind his photography is the need to capture people and things in their everyday reality, “In my personal work, I deal with the mundane realities of life, events which are not necessarily remarkable but still hold some importance and aesthetic value, which is the core nature of street/documentary style of photography.”

So, to capture Nitish, it became important for Sarang to interact with him in their daily spaces, to understand who they were in their everyday life with the people they had conversations with. “Post that first meeting of ours, I continued meeting him and his friends who were a jolly bunch of college kids – some of them were proud members of the LGBTQ community and almost all of them were practising some kind of art form which they would use as a tool for their expression,” elaborates Sarang on the process behind his photography. He also goes on to tell us that Nitish and his friends were a “bunch of young teens who used art as a tool to promote gender neutrality. I started photographing them casually during/before/after their performances. I have met them at protests, their respective performances in auditoriums and open public spaces.”

When we asked Sarang what his major takeaway from the project was, it seemed evident that shadowing Nitish had also allowed Sarang to explore his own identity in a way and allow him the space to find a sense of community in them. It also served as a reminder that many people continue to hold and create spaces that are more gender-neutral and inclusive for all in a true sense.

“At such a young age, being a college student, an activist, a performer altogether and identifying yourself as a human with non-binary gender in a not-so-gender-neutral society can be overwhelming and hectic, of all things. At times, in my head, I would tell myself that there was no way I could have done all that, and look at these younglings! But it is necessary for them to initiate today so that they can hope for better things to come tomorrow for all of the LGBTQ community,” adds Sarang.

As a parting note, Sarang adds that the photo series project doesn’t end with Nitish but rather is an ever-evolving project – “It’s an ongoing project and will age well as I continue to meet and photograph more of these young artists turned activists.”

Sarang’s evocative and introspective photo series also serves as a reminder to us all that there is a long way for us to go, aiming towards a gender-neutral society – one where people are able to express themselves and their identity openly without the fear of judgement. There is a need to de-gender public spaces and it starts with us.

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