How Bengaluru’s drag queens are redefining Indian masculinity

Drag is an artistic performance that traditionally involves men dressing up as or impersonating women using extravagant costumes, makeup, music and dance. Drag culture has significantly influenced mainstream entertainment, fashion, and social activism, by challenging societal norms and advocating for acceptance and visibility of LGBTQ+ identities. 

While the increasing popularity of drag in Indian cities reflects the growing acceptance of new artistic forms, stigma and misconceptions still persist.

Glad drags

Though the drag culture in India is commonly believed to have been borrowed from the West, examples of similar practices in our country abound. Speaking to The Hindu, Bengaluru-based Alex Mathew, popularly known as Maya The Drag Queen, explained that the custom originated during the early days of theatre, specifically in Shakespearean times when women were not allowed to perform on stage and “effeminate men had to perform women’s roles”.

“This system continues in traditional Indian art forms to this day and is seen in Kathakali, Theyyam, Yakshagana and other dance recitals,” says Alex.

Recalling his first stage experience as a woman, Alex said, “I had dressed up as Nagavalli (a character from the Malayalam movie Manichitrathazhu) for a fancy dress competition. The intention was not to win a prize; I just wanted to express my feminity.” Now, having been part of Bengaluru’s drag scene for about a decade, Alex says he faced challenges in being recognised in the city’s theatre space due to stereotypes about his femininity and for having a “Malayali accent”. 

Shivam Kumar as Queen Shivangi

Shivam Kumar as Queen Shivangi
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Bengaluru’s drag culture is unique due to its inclusivity, diversity and crowd. Having debuted at Humming Tree, a pub in Indiranagar, Alex says, “Bangalore has been very open to outsiders as well as new experiences.” 

Despite the city’s incredible line-up of drag artistes, there seems to be a dearth of venues and sponsors for drag performances. Queen Shivangi, who has been a drag performer for the last five years says, “Drag isn’t widely recognised here and only a couple of venues sponsor drag artistes. We are constantly seeking other venues that will give us opportunities to showcase our talent. In contrast, Mumbai and Delhi offer us numerous performance spaces.”

“This disparity is also evident in how drag is marketed. Despite Bangalore’s substantial pool of drag talent, opportunities are scarce,” Shivangi, also known as Shivam Kumar, adds.

Delhi and Mumbai have dedicated marketing efforts promoting drag shows regularly from Thursday through Sunday across town. However, in Bengaluru, shows are only slotted on Saturday and Wednesday.

Dinesh as Dark Fantasy

Dinesh as Dark Fantasy
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Misunderstandings galore

The world of drag comes with its share of misconceptions and stereotypes, which some of the drag queens who spoke to The Hindu wanted to address. “I started a decade ago, and people believe that drag has a sexual connotation,” says Alex. Other wrong notions are that drag performers are cross-dressers, transgenders and sex workers, which need not always be the case. “My drag personality is only confined to the stage. It is my stage persona,” says drag queen Dark Fantasy, also known as Dinesh.

“Drag is an artistic platform where we can showcase themes, portray diverse characters, tell stories, sing and entertain. It is also a means of earning a living,” says Queen Shivangi. “That is a significant aspect of drag culture — the opportunity to both express creatively and financially support ourselves through our art,” she adds. 

Alex Mathew as Maya

Alex Mathew as Maya
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Drag shows are now being performed in school, university and corporate spaces, which proves that it is a versatile art form with different subcultures. One memorable instance, Shivangi shares, was at Mango Tree, where she performed at a child-friendly event. “For my performance, I took on the role of Barbie. For me, drag is about celebrating and expressing who you are,” she adds.

Shivangi says her mission extends beyond the glittering stage lights — it is a crusade to educate people of all ages about the beauty and significance of drag culture.

Creativity to the fore

“One Halloween, I was given a show opportunity, and I’ve always admired Medusa,” Shivangi shares. “She has been my role model for a while now — a once beautiful lady cursed into becoming a hideous creature, yet her inner beauty remained unchanged.”

The process of embodying Medusa was a labour of love and determination. “Designing Medusa’s outfit was a challenge,” Shivangi recounts with a hint of pride. “I crafted a crown from scratch, using glue and newspaper since I lacked proper materials. I attached artificial snakes to emulate Medusa’s serpent hair,” she continues, describing the meticulous effort that went into every detail.

Shivam Kumar as Queen Shivangi

Shivam Kumar as Queen Shivangi
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“The silicone snakes were surprisingly heavy, but I was committed to authenticity. The entire crown weighed four and a half kilograms and it was very uncomfortable during the hour and a half that I had to don it.”

Yet, that discomfort paled in comparison to the exhilaration of bringing Medusa to life on stage, she says. “As drag artistes often do, I faced the challenge of presenting the character convincingly,” Shivangi says. Her dedication paid off in applause and admiration. “I managed to perform successfully, and received praise from the audience — the ultimate reward for any artiste,” she says.

Dare to drag

Some drag artistes extend financial support to others in the community, having weathered their storms in the past. “By earning through their art, we contribute to educating and supporting others within the LGBTQ+ community,” Shivangi explains, adding that she has two drag daughters who are talented dancers.

Dinesh as Dark Fantasy

Dinesh as Dark Fantasy
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

When these young artistes expressed an interest in joining the drag world, they turned to Queen Shivangi for guidance, seeing her as a maternal figure. “I’ve taken on the role of educating them,” Shivangi says, describing how she imparts essential skills from makeup techniques to stage etiquette.

Other drag artistes in Bengaluru go even further, establishing educational centres to mentor LGBTQ+ youth in the nuances of drag. Centres such as the Keshavsuri Foundation and Queer Awaam, not only provide artistic guidance but also crucial life skills and financial stability strategies, ensuring a supportive environment for growth and success of community members.

Alex sums it up best saying, “Drag is about choosing to use all your colour crayons.”

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