When most people think of drag, their mind goes to RuPaul or performances in bars in the west. But in India, the art form has a long history and it is suddenly booming.
Patruni Sastry is a 27-year-old, gender-fluid drag performer from the south of India. And they have a surprising story to tell about bringing drag to the city of Hyderabad.
They have been able to overcome initial nervousness and prejudice. And by doing so, they have played a key role in establishing a drag scene in a city of over 7million people.
Most amazing of all, they have done it all in just one year.
Moreover, their style of drag brings together centuries of Indian art with the best of the west. And it has created a new way to be an LGBT+ activist in India.
‘My mother did my makeup for my first drag performance, aged 13’
Patruni told us their parents were their first allies:
‘I grew up in a middle-class Indian family. My dad was a teacher and mom was a housewife.
‘Both are also inclined towards art and strongly believe in self-expression. Because of that, they always encouraged me to be myself which made my gender identity flourish gradually.
‘They have never questioned me about my gender expression. Indeed, my father was the one who enrolled me in a dance class. That class ensured I trained in the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam and other forms.
‘I still remember when I did my first traditional drag performance (Kuchipudi) at the age of 13. My mother did my makeup. This initial freedom helped me in being vocal about my gender identity and being accepted for who I am.’Traditional art: The Goddess Durga in Hyderabad. Sandeep Kr Yadav
Drag flourished after India made gay sex legal
Despite that, for all of their childhood, gay sex was outlawed in India. The courts only struck down the colonial-era law, Section 377, in 2018.
That court decision was the biggest single moment of liberation in the whole of LGBT+ history. And it was a personal liberation for Patruni.
They say: ‘Post 377 the major change which I could feel was people were aware that the law was on our side. And its not just the law, but the conversation, fight and discussion changed perspectives about queer people in Indian society.
‘Also, it opened doors for discussions about gender identities as well as sexual identities.
‘When it comes to drag culture in India, it flourished after the verdict. People became aware of drag soon after 377 was stuck down. More venues opened for supporting drag artists and people started talking more about drag.
‘Before 377 we only had a handful of drag artists. But post 377, a new universe of drag performers opened up in India.’
This also changed things for Patruni. Before, they had focused on classical dance and performance art. But the end of 377 and the global Pride Month in June encouraged them to look again at drag.
They told GSN: ‘Hyderabad did not have a drag scene. But a friend pushed me to take up drag and since then I never looked back.’The city of Hyderabad, India. Shiv Prasad
‘We were expecting 20 people as an audience’
Initially, this was tough. It took a long time for Patruni to convince venue owners to allow space for drag.
They remember: ‘I approached multiple venues and spaces within the city. When I used the term drag, an artform celebrated by the LQBT+ community, these spaces didn’t want to be tagged as someone who promotes LGBT+ events.’
Indeed, some venues assumed the performance would be ‘vulgar’ and others that it would be sexual and not right for most customers.
However, Patruni recalls: ‘A friend of mine, Bhagi Shravani, opened the doors of her café, which she owns for our first performance.
‘I and two friends of mine were performing drag for the first time in the city. We were expecting 20 people as an audience.
‘However, to our utter surprise the space was overflowing with people. There were up to 500, both from the LGBT community as well as a huge pool of allies.’
Indeed, that event massively boosted their confidence. And they went on to introduce drag into the club scene in Hyderabad.
Patruni says: ‘That also had its share of fights. But we were able to crack the code and get the drag in. Now just a year has passed and the city has opened up for drag. More and more spaces host drag events.’
Sometimes, they and their friends perform in conventional spaces like auditoriums, LGBT+ bars and clubs. But they have also taken drag to train stations, bus stops, schools, colleges, prisons, hospitals, corporate spaces and shrines.The streets of Hyderabad. Bummi Nagesh
‘Our audience become our frontline of protection’
Unsurprisingly, the drag artists sometimes attract trouble.
Patruni tells us: ‘Safety is always a great concern. At times we have had horrific experiences of chasing, catcalling and abuse which makes us fearful.
‘I still remember one incident where I was accompanied by a couple of queer friends and police protection too for an AIDS campaign event at a bus station.
‘I could see cisgender men following. One was touching himself inappropriately. The police made a barricade around me to ensure my protection and helped me reach my van safely. I wonder what would have happened if they weren’t accompanying us.’
However, it’s heartening that the public themselves protect the drag artists.
Patruni adds: ‘The audience for all our performances are so inclusive and supportive. They become our frontline of protection whenever there seems to be a hostile situation or disturbance.’
The original, vivid history of Indian drag
In fact, there’s nothing contradictory about true Indians supporting drag. The detailed history of drag in India is lost to time. But it goes back hundreds of years.
Indeed, every Indian state has its own stylized drag art form. For example, in the state of Andra Pradesh near Hyderabad, this art form is Kuchipudi.
Patruni says: ‘These forms are rich in originality and vivid from each other and all had drag as a part of the artform.’Enjoying color at a festival in Hyderabad. Shubham Bochiwal
However the colonial era, caste politics and more held drag back.
Despite this, Patruni says: ‘The art form and the vocabulary was more diverse and different than the west.
‘Like in one of the drag styles, there is a unique performance on a brass plate. The performer must balance his weight and dance on it.
‘Indian drag style is more culturally rooted. There is a lot of ethnic texture with a balance of sensuality, sometimes dipping into spirituality as well as exoticism.
‘The Indian drag style which I follow is an amalgamation of all the different drag practices within India into one form.
‘Indian drag is usually performed barefoot for the grip of footwork. The outfits are mostly sarees or ethnic clothes with a lot of color.
‘Most of the makeup is stage makeup but sometimes we use natural makeup such as using turmeric or saffron.’
Some Indian drag sees impersonation, other performances are more about being androgynous. Performers can either sing or perform with a troupe. It can be be performance art, dance or political satire.
‘Tranimal drag talks about anti-beauty’
Patruni has another twist to the drag they do – it’s called tranimal drag. Their drag name is SAS, which stands for Suffocated Art Specimen.
They describe tranimal as more of a performance art:
‘Unlike traditional drag where beauty, class and elegance is given attention, tranimal drag talks about anti-beauty. The costumes are made of trash material, with makeup and dress placement in no order and random.
‘Traditional drag has always been about standardized beauty and elegance. Because of that, it makes it a privileged affair. It lacks representation from under-privileged classes, people with disabilities, acid attack survivors, people with rare skin conditions.
‘Tranimal gives a strong effect of anti-beauty and exclusion which makes the audience commit.’Suffocated Art Specimen or SAS shows off tranimal drag. Manab Das
‘I always challenge intolerance, discrimination and inequality’
But this desire to level the social playing field goes a step further. Patruni uses their SAS persona to be an activist.
‘Since I was first exposed to drag, I could see the richness of this wonderful art format.
‘It can be used to raise awareness on multiple issues. These LGBT+ issues, awareness of menstrual health, sexual health, gender awareness. And we can use it to fight casteism, homophobia, fascism and for environmental protection.
‘I always challenge intolerance, discrimination and inequality on the basis of caste, color, gender, sexuality and religion.’
In particular, they advocate for LGBT+ awareness, same-sex marriage and representation of LGBT+ people in media and entertainment.
Moreover, they try to promote mandatory sexual education in schools and colleges, safe sex and awareness of HIV. They are also campaigning against tax on menstrual sanitary supplies and force genital mutilation.
For example, in one act, SAS’s co-performer molests them to demonstrate the ‘horrific’ process trans people have to go through to prove their true gender ‘which is equivalent to molestation’.
Meanwhile, in a performance on same-sex marriage they mock the rituals of Indian marriages to show that these rituals make no sense for a homosexual couple. Despite decriminalization, same-sex marriage is still not legal in India.
Patruni says: ‘In this way, drag performance and performance art gives me a language to build my voice and articulate it to the audience to create an impact.’
In a culture where LGBT+ people have been silenced for too long, Patruni and their brave peers are true pioneers.
Moveover western drag – it’s time to make space for your amazing sisters.