On a Thursday night at Kitty Ko—the rooftop bar of the Lalit Ashok—I was transported back to my grandparents’ drawing-room. I sat on the edge of my seat, entranced by Raveena Tandon in a tailored suit, gyrating to “Yeh Raat” from Aks. At the 3.06 minute mark, Raveena whips around. She brazenly goes a step further, tearing away her white shirt to reveal a strappy ruby-red bra: a Bollywood nod to bondage. She flings the shirt away. Onscreen, a man lights his cigarette the wrong way. Eventually, inevitably, she morphs into the standard siren in a gold-sequined short dress and shimmying towards us, her audience.
At Kitty Ko, Shakti Power—the drag persona of 25-year-old artist Durga Gawde—didn’t gave in to that male desire. At their gig (a first for Lalit’s nightclubs in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, which host weekly drag queen performances), there was no red hot bra, but just a little bounce of bronzed side-boob. Sexily undoing the buttons of a lime green blazer, Shakti revealed: “It’s my dad’s suit from 1985.” More buttons came off: a velvety black shirt and flashes of skin. A face with 5 PM shadow, topped with a tangle of curls.
Shakti’s moves were gangly and guyish: this king has boyish swag. In the audience, it’s not the men, but the femmes who are fluttering, the dykes getting rowdy. In the short time it took to perform two songs, the ladies lost control. Shakti took a woman in cowboy boots by her waist and kissed her full on the mouth. I whooped.
The green suit and kiss were highlights of Shakti’s first number, set to Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams’ “Lose Yourself To Dance”. I felt Raveena Tandon lip-syncing the breathy basstones of Tamizh playback singer Annupamaa was the jush that was perhaps missing.
As Shakti channelled Adam Levine’s Brooklyn hipster vibe (torn jeans, a vintage Eric Clapton tee and a chic leather jacket) to “Moves Like Jagger”, I wondered whether we—the Indian queer community—still have the cultural literacy to read “Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge” as the gayest song in the world. Plenty of queer performers have taken inspiration from Indian tropes (check out Rovina Tampon, for example). But when we embrace Falguni Pathak as the gender-bender she is, we may begin to trace our own unprofessed histories of drag.
“There was so much shame around my masculine side,” Gawde told me after the show. “Finding Shakti really helped me celebrate it, and be among people who would join in the fun.” Gawde added that growing up, they were “allergic to frocks and skirts and always dressed gender-fluid. It did take time to drop the shame and turn energy into something creative.”
The Bengaluru show was the third outing of the drag king act, and Gawde wasn’t sure if they’d continue. Still, they felt it was a good platform for someone “to showcase their masculinity” without it being ridiculed, or worse “turning into a violent situation.”
If there were choreographed moves in their performance, they went out the window. Every lady in the audience wanted Shakti to twirl, twist and tango with them. They were rogue and raunchy, as if Shakti had allowed them to be free. And that was wonderful.
At the event, someone asked aloud, “What’s a gay party?” I might have pointed to the boy wearing a romper with chai cup prints, a guy paying homage to Michael Jackson, or others proudly wearing kohl. The answer might also be: a safe place for women to cut loose.
The minute you get that neon pink band at the metal detector, you’ve decided that your assigned gender isn’t going to control your expressions. You might be a man and discover your hips, or become a woman who hunts. It’s alright to perform, play and present yourself anyway you’d like. Shakti Power is a reminder that women might need that space as much, if not more, than any of us. Hey Raveena! Hey Falguni! Hey Shakti! Thanks a lot, ya!
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