"I started performing in drag in 2014. I came out the very next month," said Alex Mathew, laughing unabashedly. "For 6 months, I had been framing a coming out letter to my parents. I don't like being fit into boxes—I call myself queer, I think sexuality is fluid. So it didn't go well. But Mayamma literally yanked me out of the closet."
Alex is a 28-year-old communications professional in Bangalore, in India—a country where sexuality, gender and identity are deeply intertwined with religion, superstition and caste hierarchies, allowing little or no room to go against the grain. Coming out as gay or lesbian is much less publicly accepted than it is in many Western countries; to claim fluidity in one's identity, then, is an unapologetic and daring move, much less to perform publicly in drag, as Alex does when he transforms into Mayamma (aka Maya).
In India, homosexuality invites the potential for ridicule, social ostracization and the risk of persecution—Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, introduced in 1860 under British rule, criminalizes sexual activities that are "against the order of nature." But Alex, alongside a rising class of performers spreading the gospel of drag throughout the country, has taken his performances to nightclubs and stages throughout his home city, where Maya gets to push the envelope to incite progressive conversations and encourage LGBTQ acceptance.
Whether sashaying in a crisp white sari, singing an emotional rendition of Frozen's "Let It Go" with jasmine flowers strung through her hair, or belting a boisterous cover of "Lady Marmalade" with the lyrics changed to "Lady Mayamma," every performance encapsulates an idea Alex holds close to his heart: to be uncompromisingly true to yourself. It's as much a deeply held philosophy as it is a message about individualism, feminism and gender equality.
"Drag is a performance art; it's what I do. My sexuality is my identity," said Alex, carefully separating the two. Little wonder that it was a brush with drag that spurred his coming out: Growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood movies and classic Hollywood musicals, Alex developed a love of the theater. "I always wanted to be a Broadway performer, so I learned different forms of dance, acting, improv, and performed in local theater productions. But I always felt like I was missing the excitement and adrenaline rush that I expected from being on stage," he said. When he revisited the movie Mrs. Doubtfire as an adult, he was inspired to give drag a shot.
"Performing as a woman gave me a different rush," he said. "It was an entry into a creative life that had been waiting for me."
The act of men donning women's attire to perform as women is far from new in India—it was previously common in traditional and folk art forms, like Kathakali, Yakshagana and Theyyam. But in the western, RuPaul's Drag Race-sense, drag as we know it—as a political act and performance art—has only recently risen in the country. Ironic, then, that to embrace the life of a drag queen is still met with raised eyebrows, given India's cultural history of similar forms of performance.
Unlike Alex, who arrived at drag after searching for a creative outlet to better express himself, 23-year-old Sudipto Biswas' first performance happened somewhat by chance. Training in Western classical music, singing, songwriting and performing have been central to Sudipto's life, but he found performing to be more frightening than exciting, because he was scarred by early memories of being mocked for his effeminate mannerisms.
"I've been singing all my life. But I have also had huge body image issues and stage fright because I'm not exactly a 'manly man,'" he said.
He was introduced to drag in 2014 after watching Alex perform as Mayamma; RuPaul's Drag Race was also gaining in popularity at the time. By marrying his childhood fascination with fabulously unapologetic divas with his desire to sing, he developed his own drag avatar, named Rimi Heart. He had the opportunity to perform as Rimi at Bangalore's Queer Carnival last year, a fundraiser for the city's Pride celebrations, which he said liberated a fearless performer from within himself.
"Once I was on stage, I felt a radical different level of confidence!" he said. "You know the saying ' Give a man a mask and he'll show you his true colors'—I didn't hide my mannerisms. In fact, I was exaggerating everything!"
22-year-old Nilay Joshi is a graduate Engineering and Psychology student with a clear goal—to use his foundational knowledge of psychology to develop his drag performances and bring the realities of LGBTQ lives to stage.
"When you are a drag queen, you get to boldly take to a platform and talk to an audience who wants to watch and listen to you. I feel it's best way to talk about relevant issues," said Nilay. His drag character, Kashtaani, is a portmanteau of Kashibai and Mastani, the two wives of Bajirao I, the 18th century Peshwa ruler of Central India. "I was inspired by their diverse personalities. Kashi is caring and subtle, a typical Indian woman, and Mastani is bold and open-minded," he explained.
For some, drag becomes a way to make a direct political statement about the LGBTQ community itself, like Harish Iyer, a well-known Indian LGBTQ rights activist. You'll find him applying foundation as he reflects on what drag means to him for filmmaker Judhajit Bagchi's lens: "Even some of the supporters of the LGBTIQ community feel that it's okay to be LGBTIQ as long as you don't overdress or go over the top. I know what they mean—they mean drag," he said. He told Judhajit that he does drag to represent "the effeminate gay man, the masculine lesbian…(who) are still largely ostracized," even by the LGBTQ community.
Given the frightening rise of homophobia in India, people like Harish, Alex, Sudipto, Nilay and more are using drag to help subvert the idea that gender roles are binary and sexuality is rigid in a country trying to reconcile deeply ingrained tradition with our modern, global era.
"It's extremely important to understand that just being a man in heels and a dress dancing and singing is a political act," said Sudipto. "But there's a lot of genius and thought process there, and real talent. It would be nice to see people focus on that, too."
Homosexuality is still criminalized in India—in July 2009, a Delhi high court decriminalized private, consensual homosexual acts proscribed by Article 377; then, in December 2013, India's Supreme Court recriminalized them. Last February, the Supreme Court heard arguments against its constitutionality, then decided in June to decline to re-examine Article 377's validity.
The back-and-forth is indicative of the push-pull nature of LGBTQ rights in India. But whether it's Alex speaking in drag at prestigious conferences, Sudipto pushing gender boundaries with daring performances, or Harish going further still to point out self-hatred within the LGBTQ community, drag may be an art form whose time in India has come.
Revati Upadhya lives in Goa, India, and writes about food, travel, culture, women's issues, health and lifestyle.