Overlooking the imposing architecture of Lutyen's Delhi and its underlying moral codes, the Drag scene in India is a story of hope and despair and a lot of courage.
"To make depression disappear
I screw some rhinestones on my ear
And put my brooches and tiara
And a little more mascara on.”
— Jerry Herman in a song from the 1983 Broadway hit La Cage Aux Folles
Down in the underground you will find some truth. That’s the truth they swear by.
You could say this is an adult masquerade party and a performance.
The conduits to this nocturnal world are the ones who are preparing for what they call a little revolution, one brushstroke at a time.
In the transfiguration, where the four men become exaggerated creatures, called Drag Queens, with long lashes and luscious wigs and customised gowns, there is a story of despair and faith and a lot of dare.
They are in this time capsule where they offer their beings to their imagination with sequins and furs and glitter where performers include a vivacious 19-year-old who goes by the Drag name of Shabnam Bewafa.
That’s what his ex called him.
“Don’t ask for more,” he says as he applies lipstick.
A deep maroon shade.
He began to cross-dress only a few months ago and found the three others — a dancer and two human rights lawyers — to help him become the youngest Drag queen of India.
And when Nitish Anand speaks about his Drag persona, he speaks in the third person.
“Shabnam Bewafa’s look is inspired by Hannah Montana, she likes pop songs and she is master in quick changes. For example, she will come in a lehenga on stage and he will slowly transform it into a long dress and towards the end, she will strip it to a bikini,” she says.
An array of lipsticks, mascara and foundation are what is needed for transfiguration, the moment where woundedness can be filtered and refined, cut and transformed into an empowering other self.
And transfiguration, they say, isn’t a punishment.
You live your two selves. It is a performance, a way of self-empowerment, they say.
“Drag is freedom,” says Prateek Sachdeva, a young 25-year-old dancer from Delhi, who started doing Drag performances a year ago and is one of the fiercest queens around.
In the battle for the rights of the LGBTQ community, queens have been its visible symbol.
Drag is many things. It is also protest.
“It is all these gay boys dressed up in female clothing to bash patriarch,” says Rovin Sharma, who is from the small town of Ambala in Haryana.
Paris Is Burning, the landmark documentary film released in 1991, showcased the life of LGBTQ ballroom culture in New York City and documented the experiences of the black people in the 1980s-1990s. And perhaps the safest moment is when Venus Xtravaganza, a trans woman of colour, is murdered.
Perhaps that's how this battle for the rights of LGBTQ has been.
I first saw the Drag queens in the film and later in New York City.
But I was too timid to walk up to them.
I remember the opening scenes of the film... indiscreet chatter, music and these words - "If you're gonna do this, you're gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined. You have to open the door. You-all have to open that door, too."
I met the three men over dinner at a friend's house. They want to bring in the Drag ballroom scene like they saw in the film. They spoke about how they are open about their Drag avatars and maybe they have lost friends, but they have decided to brave.
And on some nights, they go up on the stage and sing and dance.
"So at a ball, you have a chanceto display your elegance,your seductiveness,your beauty, your wit,your charm, your knowledge.You can become anythingand do anythingright here, right nowand it won't be questioned.I came, I saw, I conquered.That's a ball,"
I read from the script of the film that was my only window to the Drag culture until then. That's when we decided to see the three men perform at a club in the city and to be seduced by the idea of non-conformity.
Isn't is your dream to be invisible and become someone else, leave part of you behind, do all that you wouldn't do in the day when you are playing by the rules? Prateek asks.
The Drag queens know the performance is only a reprieve from their daily existence, but freedom is about being choices that one makes.
And maybe, one day they will be able to proudly claim themselves as the forerunners of what could be called a revolution - the rise of the Drag in a country that is still coming to terms with same-sex love.
But Drag isn't about sexuality even, they say.
"It is a medium to let all the suppressed feelings out and an art to celebrate life," he says.
As a young child, he had been at his friend's place, along with the two girls. He had wrapped shawls around himself and pretended to walk the ramp. That's when the friend's mother came and told him to leave the house. He didn't understand what the big deal was then.
In fact, Drag is associated with the LGBT community and the struggles are same of acceptance, he says.
"It's all me with a lot of makeup and glitter," Prateek says.
"We all know at the end of the day it's Drag that has to go forward.. and when Drag goes forward, it takes all of us forward cause we're Drag queens."
And then he extends his eyes with the liner, and holding a mirror in his left hand, he applies blue glitter on his eyelids.
Ministry of magic.
"Remember Harry Potter?" he says.
In the JK Rowling series, the author talks about transfiguration.
"Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts," professor McGonagall says in the book.
In an interview in 1998, Rowling had said, "With a transfiguration you change its nature completely; the molecular structure alters..."
At Lalit's Kitty Su, Thursday nights are dedicated to the LGBTQ community.
The drag balls that started a year ago have made it a popular destination for the ones outside the confines of the societal impositions of gendered roles.
Here, they could be anything they want.
Like Prateek, who says he could paint an eye on his forehead and the other on his cheek. Drag allows you anything and everything. There are no rules. Isn't that the ultimate freedom?
And this is the capital. Not Mumbai, not any other city that has the colonial stamp of the moral codes so visible that one only has to look at the imposing architecture of Lutyen's Delhi.
But this club is in the heart of the city's colonial landscape with all its impositions of the moral code.
The Supreme Court is not far from here. Nor is the seat of the government.
At St Columba's School, he would play the role of Mother Mary in nativity plays and even became a fairy once.
But it was only when he went to London for his studies that he was exposed to drag scene and says in the UK, the drag is crude and rude unlike the US where the ballroom scene is more popular, given the country's obsession with pageants.
Keshav Suri of the Lalit Group of Hotels, where the club called Kitty Su is housed, says he became a huge fan of Drag and, in fact, the club is named after his Drag name, which is a combination of Hello Kitty which his sister loved when they were kids and his last name.
A few years ago, he risked making the club at the hotel a host for LGBTQ nights and tried to convince RuPaul drag queens to come for performances at the club, the larger aim being to develop LGBTQ tourism in India.
At the first such night, when Violet Chachki, a famous drag queen and a burlesque dancer, descended in Delhi, 1,900 people showed up. That was a sign.
"That was a risk we took. The other risk was acceptance," says Suri.
"But there was an existing drag culture and Sushant Divgikar had been performing outside India in drag and was a contestant on Big Boss."
The club launched him as Rani Ko-He-Noor.
"Drag names are a play on words and there are a lot of puns," he says.
The club in four cities has been hosting drag nights since August last year, and have eight permanent drag queens as part of what they call their family besides others who are invited to perform.
The scouting is online and as the drag culture comes of age, many men have their drag profiles on social media with massive following.
"It is a mix of ballroom and show," he says. "But we have to find our own way. And because India has a huge trans community, there is confusion. Trans is what you are and drag is what you do."
And while Lush Monsoon and others are a little wary of donning a sari as they feel they might be mistaken as hijras, there are others like 30-year-old Alex Matthew whose drag name is Mayamma, the mother of illusions, who wears a sari always and Queen Harish from Jaisalmer who is a straight man, a father of two, who is internationally famous for his gypsy dancer avatar and dresses up in traditional Rajasthani clothes.
"In the end, it is all about opportunities and the scene is new here.
Mayamma is our style and what remains to be seen is whether we come up with our own style and we are trying to make space for an indian Drag culture," says Suri.
Mayamma's back story is an elaborate one with an Indian context where she says the character of Maya is from a small fishing town. Her father was a drunkard and would beat up her mother and one day the mother gives her daughter all the money to go away and never come back.
Alex Matthew started performing in drag in 2014.
Queen Harish is the Drag name of Harish Kumar from Jaisalmer and is modeled on a Rekhaesque Mujara 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," he says. "Drag to me is a performance and the act of simply putting on lipstick."
The struggles are plenty. "Normal performer struggle: fees, production budget, stupid social media manager, economy class instead of business class…" he says
He says he started dancing in front of the television watching Bollywood.
"Then I took 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 detail of feminity," he says.
Nitish is a student and believes life is like a Disney movie where everything is possible. And Shabnam Bewafa is his way of celebrating his own underdog, the coming of age of a shy boy in childhood, who lost his mother when he was five years old.
When you are a child, the world is larger than life. The childhood is a space of horror and boldness when a child supplied his own answers to questions he isn't allowed to ask.
That's when he had dreamed of becoming a blonde pop star.
Childhood is full of demons and fairies, dreams and nightmares. Only a few carry them onwards. Nitish never let go of the dream. When he dresses up in a sari and he always wears a sari, he says he can get a glimpse his mother in himself. Maybe, that is why he would do Drag forever. That's reason enough. And besides these four, there are a handful of others who are trying to establish Drag as an art form, to tell people they aren't cross-dressers or transgendered, but men who want to express their feminine side.
They are 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. It could be the blonde pop singer, a Cindrella-like character who is full of hope or a role play modeled on Priyanka Chopra's role in Saat Khoon Maaf who is good and little evil at the same time. It is about who you can't be offstage.
"The struggle is real," Nitish says.
This club, Kitty Su, at The Lalit Hotel itself is a laboratory for what they call their most ambitious project - to herald a Drag ballroom culture in India where performers and arrivistes can come together like none other than the RuPaul's Drag Race - a television series looking to crown America's Next Drag Superstar that premiered in May 2008 on Logo in the US.
Since 2017, the Lalit Group's Keshav Suri has been hosting performances by the famous Drag Queens from the RuPaul's show and by the time Ishaku Bezbaroa, a 27-year-old legal researcher from Kolkata, debuted as drag queen Kushboo with a song called 'Hiee', by Alaska Thunderfvck, in October 2017, the Drag scene in India had found quite a following.
Dressed in tights and a blonde wig, she lip-synched to "And I walked off youAnd I walked off an old me" and celebrated her crossover as she shook objects (dildos) in the face of the audience. It was October 31."It was Halloween," he says.
In a small one-room tenement in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar, a neighbourhood that manages to be both stodgily middle-class and conventional and provide shelter to the city's migrant hordes, a young woman, Binaira Vaishno Pawar, is his only friend.
"Drag, as a concept, fascinates me," says Binaira, whose sister Tanya was Kushboo's first confidante. "I'm so proud of him (Ishaku)."
But Bezbaroa knows that the rest of his neighbours are unlikely to be as accepting, and he keeps himself to himself.
Still, he insists, "Drag is an art and my body is my canvas."
Prateek performed on November 7 and then it was the turn of Lush Monsoon.
They met in the club when the organisers flew down Violet Chachki, whose marquee act drew almost 1,900 people to the nightclub last year.
"Come Through... said Violet Chachki," Prateek says.
In the room, smoke curls up and so do the eyelashes. But first they apply glue to their bushy brows."You see men have these kinds of brows," says Aishwarya Anshuman, who calls himself Lush Monsoon, a name he stole from his friend, when he debuted as a Drag Queen a year ago.
The friend is sitting next to him. His hair is pulled back and sealed with a net cap, his face caked and with expert movements that come with practice, he has divided his face into three spaces.
He says contouring is important to cut the masculine features and make him desirable to the men he would perform in front of, later that night.
They both bought cheap makeup from Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi once and in their amateurish way applied it on their face, wore the tacky wig they bought for the pride parade and wrapped themselves in shawls and danced.
To them, they looked beautiful.
Of course, it wasn't easy to become a Drag Queen. They started off with online competitions. And then, at a club they watched a Drag Queen from their favorite show RuPaul's Drag Queen perform.
"That was something," says the friend.
Entertainers, like Prateek, say, Drag is more about expressions and they are not transsexual or transvestite. They are more akin to illusionists or female impersonators that have been around in the country for a long time.
"Men have been playing the role of Sita and Draupadi," he says.
But then that has its origins in patriarchy 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.
It is a craft where gender itself is part of performance.
Like, when the fourth Drag Queen comes in the room and lights a cigarette, she starts to fret about her makeup. She has arrived with an entourage. As she drapes her sari, Shabnam Bewafa, the youngest and the most daring, says nobody should look at a woman wearing her sari. And when she has applied glitter to her inches-long fake eyelashes and her pumped up lips, she bags her eyelids and asks, "Am I not hot?"
Prateek exchanges his wig with Aishwarya. They are not competing with each other. They are united against what seems to them a little cause that could help others come out and perform. They get emails, messages from others in smaller towns like Gorakhpur who want to be like them.
"There was this young person from Agra who would message me asking for suggestions, tips," Prateek says.
"The message is unabashed. Can you help me is what they ask."
Prateek's Drag name is Betta Naanstop. It is not an alter ego. It is a name he has made up with associations to convey what he aims to be.
Betta is the name of a vibrantly colored Siamese fighting fish that can live together with females from the same species. The name of his Drag Queen avatar is a metaphor for many things, an ode to things he likes.
It is not an alter ego. It is part of him. And the name Betta Naanstop means just that. He is here to claim his territory. He is the friend, the mother and the most popular of them all.
"In the Drag world, a fish queen is the best version of a woman you are aiming for, I mean," he says.
"Drag queens are visions."
They have all watched the cult documentary film of 1991 Paris is Burning where the Drag ballroom culture of New York is documented.
There are terms of the subculture that have been eternalised.
Realness wasn't just a term, or a convincing costume makeover, but almost a "tragicomic disguise of the chasm between what is being emulated".
It wasn't and isn't about performed glamour, but about gender non-conforming people. It is about dreams and a crisscross of the identities of resilient people.
It is like how in the mid- and late-eighties, Chi Chi Valenti, who was called the empress of nightlife and who chronicled the emerging sub-cultures of New York, said "All who have grown up restless, in a thousand sleeping cities."
In Kolkata, he had once been sitting in a park with a friend.
That's when a plainclothes policeman came up to them and lifted his shirt to see if his pants were unzipped. "We weren't doing anything. Just sitting there and when this happened, I felt sad," says Kushboo.
He is a human rights lawyer and they decided to use their real names and identities on their social media network.
"We are putting everything at stake to create awareness about Drag. Drag is art form where my body is my canvas, the makeup and clothes are my painting and the stage my exhibition. To me, it is essentially a way of performing the magic I always dreamt of doing as a child. It is also simultaneously a form of therapy for myself. If I don't challenge my own masculinity, what is the point?" he adds.
When he first performed on the Halloween night last year, he knew it was the start of something.
"Drag reaches out to the world, it is loud and visible and entertaining. It can't be avoided," he says.
His parents had accepted his homosexuality but when they discovered through his Amazon account that he had ordered wigs and padded bras and makeup, they weren't happy.
"There is backlash from family and boyfriends who have not wanted their 'man' to 'behave like a girl'," he says.
And that's when he remembers his favorite Drag Queen quote by RuPaul Charles- "If you can't love yourself, how in hell are you gonna love somebody else".
It is the friendship between them that makes him go through the ups and downs. When he gets messages from people across the country who are in small towns and wanting to perform like them, he feels something is brewing.
"There is a happiness and empathy that we feel for each other. We all have different struggles, but have been together on the same journey. We encourage each other, learn from each other and help each other out. We only do better together, and that's why this sisterhood," he adds.
They call Betta their sister and mother.
The three of them have watched each other grow as Drag performers, and have been there from the beginning of their public drag lives.
For hours, the Drag queens, who identify as male offstage, apply layers to their face and neck. On a chair, there is a pair of foam half cushions.
"My father got the cushions and I cut them to make them bum pads," says Aishwarya.
Long ago, a physical training teacher in Ranchi, where he grew up, had called him sissy. For years, he thought it was a cuss word.
But in 2014, he heard RuPaul's song "sissy that walk" from the album "Born Naked" released in the sixth season of his show and he smiled.
"And If I fly or if I fallLeast I can say I gave it allAnd If I fly or if I fallI'm on my way, I'm on my way," the lyrics go.
Perhaps that was the moment of crossover. It wasn't dramatic. Just a song. And it was that breaking free moment.
Aishwarya says Drag to him is playing with the rules of gender through performance, sometimes breaking them and sometimes embracing them.
"Drag is also a commentary on our obsession with identity and the politics of our lives. For years, I had repressed a part of my personality, in particular, my femininity, because I feared how our society treats people who are different. Drag allows me the platform to unleash my femininity and gives me the license to be everything that the world may not allow me to be. Drag also helps me to become more free and confident in my day to day life and teaches me self-love and acceptance," he says.
He explains that people have many misconceptions about Drag. For some, it is a celebration of femininity and queerness; for some, it raises questions of identity; and for others, it makes them question what they desire, he says.
"The definition and rules of Drag keep changing, so it's okay to not understand Drag fully. Very often society shows us that certain 'other' lives do not matter. We don't get to be the heroes in the mainstream stories. Even if it's for a short while, Drag makes me feel like my life matters; that I can be the star of my own story. That is very empowering," Lush Monsoon says.
But it isn't easy. The struggle is two-fold, he says.
"The most common struggles involve how to make this a career, how to navigate already-existing relationships and get them to support Drag, etc. The more important struggles are internal, such as understanding what Drag means for your identity, why you are doing this, and whether it actually helps the society in any way. These questions are complex, but important for me to answer," he says.
At 11:30pm, they are all ready. Lush Monsoon wears a wig that Betta Nanstop usually wears. Tonight, they have decided to play with their avatars. She is decked in a yellow bodysuit and a yellow cape.
Kushboo dons a sequined white dress he bought from Sarojini Nagar and Betta wears a short tank dress held by a corset leather belt.
Before the final act on the stage, they get together in the salon.
It is past midnight.
They have announced Kushboo’s name and she walks on the stage to perform on Annie Lennox’s song, “No more I love you”.
Figures appeared to join her. You could call them apparitions.
Beautiful and shimmering around her.
And she? She was enveloped in shafts of pink and blue light as if the skies had poured the light on to her.
“On stage, I feel they are seeing me for who I really am inside; a fierce, beautiful creature who just wants to spread love,” Ikshaku Bezbaroa had said before he turned into the white blonde creature.
Perhaps, he is closer to his ultimate Drag avatar Mystique from X-men, who can turn into whoever she wants to be, and be a total badass, but also not afraid of being vulnerable and blue.
When he is nearing the end of his performance, his dress is lit with fairy lights he has stitched them on.
And you remember his words: “On stage, I feel powerful. I feel desirable. I feel fully myself. I feel like the world is finally watching and is here to listen to what I have to say through my performance. My Drag character is an unexpressed aspect of my life.”
Desires, wishes, hopes and dreams expressed through the wee hours of the morning. Men and women danced in the packed club. No judgements. No catcalls.
This is what freedom looks like, said someone in the audience.
And in the corner stood Lush Monsoon, resting against the wall.
He had said his favorite quote was the one by RuPaul himself: “We are all born naked and the rest is Drag”.
The truth is often simple and maybe you could add some glitter to it.
That’s all there is.
I dropped him home that night. He had taken off the wig and the makeup. But kept wearing the sandals.
Last I saw him was when he performed at the Kitty Su club on September 15. He wore a shimmering orange onesie and flowers in his hair.
And he sang, “Take me as I am...”
I waved at him. He didn’t see me. The court had read down the IPC Section.
But I saw him.
And I remembered my favourite quote from the old queen Dorian Corey in Paris is Burning.
“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world, if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you,” she said in the film.
I wanted to text them that they made their mark. But I chose to write the story instead.