Goodbye, Queen Harish: The famed drag performer was truly Queen of the scene
The stunning Rajasthani folk artist died in a road accident near Jodhpur in Rajasthan. His is an extraordinary story, danced to the filmi rhythms of Bollywood and the unrelenting sounds of reality.
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In the digital age, some stories remain in your inbox. This was one of them.
We could never make it to Jaisalmer to meet Queen Harish. But we spoke over the phone and over email for a story on drag culture. Some interviews never make it to the final version of a story. But when I read about his tragic death in an accident just last Sunday, I remembered that email exchange with him several months ago.
They called him Queen Harish Kumar — the famous Rajasthani folk dancer. They also called him Desert Queen.
This isn’t an obituary. I am just honouring the time he had taken then to write to me. Because we are always losing time and people.
Since 1997, he had been dancing to Bollywood numbers. He looked beautiful in his lehengas with bold makeup outlining his sharp features. He also acted in The Accidental Prime Minister which starred Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh and in Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangajaal, the sequel to his cult classic Gangajaal.
Folk dancer Queen Harish, born Harish Kumar, passed away in a road accident on June 2, 2019. (Photo: PTI)
Perhaps it was that urge to become someone else, leaving a part of you behind and do all that you wouldn’t do in the day when you are playing by the rules imposed on gender roles. Harish Kumar was not gay. He was married and worked as a school teacher. And long before India staked its claim on drag culture, he set out as a dancing queen to say that gender is a performative act.
Perhaps he was one of the first ones to say drag queens aren’t cross-dressers or transgenders but men who want to express their feminine side.
So, he was just channelling his feminine alter ego — Rekha.
Happy faces ???????????????????? pic.twitter.com/eiXW7gSG28— Queen Harish (@queenharish) May 25, 2019
Drag performers could be gay — but that’s not important. Drag isn’t only about sexuality. It is an art form, a performance where you become an entity you create in your head. They are more akin to illusionists or female impersonators that have been around in the country for a long time. But then, that has patriarchal roots where women were forbidden to perform in front of an audience. But now, dressing up in drag is an extreme performance, a political statement, a subversion tactic.
And Queen Harish did all of that and more.
We spoke last on July 27, 2018.
What is drag to you?
An art form.
Why do you do it?
I don’t do “drag”. You just call it like that in 2018. First, I’m a dancer. Then, I embodied a character which is the Rekha-esque Mujra Dancer. Since then, I have only carried this character (like an actor doing a single role in its entire career) across every episode of all seasons of the series of my dancing life, I have seriously worked on my skills with much international training.
Do you feel people don’t understand drag?
There is nothing to understand, it is pure entertainment only.
Filmi Forever: Queen Harish considered his drag avatar a character he'd play all his life. (Photo: Twitter/Queen Harish)
Is it self-empowering?
Of course — my profession feeds comfortably an entire family.
What is the ultimate drag avatar?
Smiley gif putting on lipstick.
Why is it a struggle?
Normal performers struggle: fees, production budgets, stupid social media managers, eco class instead of business class...!
When you are on the stage and people are looking at you, what do you feel?
The power of their joy.
Is it projecting a part of you?
I’m giving 200% of myself every time I am on stage where I wish to spread irrepressible joy.
And your favourite drag queen quote?
You are all friends and help each other. There is no jealousy? Why?
Who is “You”? A drag queen community? I don’t know any other drag queen. I belong to an international network of dancers which is based on human experience and the sharing of skills.
Folk dancer Queen Harish called himself the Dancing Desert Drag Queen. (Photo: Twitter/Queen Harish)
Tell me about your life — how did you start doing drag, who inspired you and why?
I started dancing in front of the TV watching Bollywood. Then I took to the stage by necessity as my brother, sisters and I became orphans. Strong women inspired and continue to inspire me, these women happen to be all stage performers, watching them teaches me the details of femininity.
You are a straight man and you do drag. There is a lot of confusion about sexuality and drag. Can you tell us why a straight man gets into drag?
Call it gender fluidity.
How is Indian drag culture different from the rest of the world?
India and the rest of Asia, from the Middle East to the Far East, built such culture — which is not to be found in the Christian world until they had their own sexual revolution in the sixties.