India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine

ALL THE KING’S MEN

In a compelling collaboration arranged by Verve, Puja Sarup, an actor pushing the boundaries of Indian mainstream theatre with her portrayal of a drag king, plays muse to Pulkit Mogha, a photographer who uses Instagram’s shiny grids as windows into stirring queer stories. Megha Shah discovers a common heart that beats in anticipation of a more accepting audience

PHOTOGRAPHED BY PULKIT MOGHA
STYLING BY OJAS KOLVANKAR, ASSISTED BY AISHWARYASHREE VERMA
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: JOSIE PARIS RENTHLEI


Facing page: latex jacket, stylist’s own. This page: shoes, from Heel & Buckle London by Berleigh; trousers, Puja’s own.

If they see
breasts and long hair coming
they call it woman,
If beard and whiskers
they call it man:
But, look, the self that hovers
in between
is neither man
nor woman
O Ramanatha

This free-verse penned in 12th-century India by Devara Dasimaiyya — a poet who practiced vachana sahitya, a form of rhythmic and allusive writing in Kannada — is just one of many examples from the large repertoire of Indian literary history that alludes to gender nonconformity. A movement away from conventional, stereotypical ideas about how men and women should be isn’t, in fact, a modern phenomenon. Yet modern society — and its various expressions of entertainment — struggles with notions of non-binary gender. The handling of alternate sexualities in mainstream film and television — the furiously beating heart of culture — is slippery, at best. Drag, a flamboyant, decadent art form nurtured by the queer community, may have gained pop cultural status in the West, but in India remains a largely dubious, underground form of entertainment, relegated to a few queer-friendly, after-hours spots and consists mainly of queens (usually cis male performance artists who dress in hyper feminine attire).

And so, The Gentleman’s Club AKA Tape by The Patchworks Ensemble is like a burst of freshness in a space stagnating with stale air. The cabaret-style performance imagines a Mumbai which has a roaring drag king scene. It builds on the premise that there exists an enduring culture and history of clubs and performance spaces where (usually) cis female performers dress, sing, dance and philander ‘like men’. The show, which has had over 50 runs across the country, focuses on one such nightclub and its two competing star performers, Rocky aka Shammsher (Puja Sarup) and Alex (Sheena Khalid), whose drag personas emulate Shammi Kapoor and Justin Timberlake respectively. It’s business as usual as the veteran drag king Shammsher takes to the stage, swaggering, shimmying and rollicking to numbers like O Haseena Zulfonwali and Kis Kisko Pyar Karoon. Often, he looks to the audience, knocking down the fourth wall and winks at a woman or a man in the audience. His likeness to the erstwhile actor is uncanny.

But, it’s quickly evident that the goal isn’t to present a sexy appropriation of masculinity or to parody a celebrity, but to revel in the ability to respond creatively to misogyny in daily life and behave in ways that would not be acceptable to society as a woman. The female actors on stage crackle with life, deliver misogynistic jokes, exercise their sexuality with abandon and indulge their egos. Another character with a Bengali accent (essayed by Ratnabali Bhattacharjee) has the audience singing along with resounding alacrity to the novelty song by Dave Bartholomew, My Ding-a-ling. And in one of the few plaintive moments in the show, Sarup’s character takes the audience on a behind-the-scenes journey of the physicality involved in performing this act daily. A long, narrow piece of cloth, for instance, is wound around the chest like a binder to flatten the breasts. Other drag kings often use duct tape to stick the nipples on either side. The paradoxical cost of freedom.

The success of the act, whether on a cerebral level or even a purely entertaining one, makes one question the lack of drag king culture. Cis men donning feminine attire for theatrical purposes has been a practice from Shakespearean times when male actors played all the roles, even the female ones. Bollywood too has seen a fair share of male actors — from Kishore Kumar in the song Aankhen Seedhi Lagi Dil Pe Jaise Katariya (Half Ticket, 1962) to Govinda in Raja Babu (1994) — cross-dressing for comic relief, mostly portraying hyper-sexualised beings, with high-pitched voices and coy spirits. One of India’s most popular prime time TV shows, The Kapil Sharma Show routinely has male comedians essay recurring female characters. Drag queen shows are possible to be found, if sought out, in major metros in India, most popularly at the Lalit chain of hotels. Why then, is drag, a performance art which is likely the result of marginalisation and suppression, noticeably absent in the LBT women community? It might be influenced, it occurs to me, by the perceived belief among audiences that femininity is something that can be more easily put-on and removed, like loud, glamorous make-up, a sassy pout or the sensuous swaying of hips, providing an easy and more theatrical starting point for the queen persona. Especially when compared to the assumed standard of socialised masculine behaviour and its manifestation on stage. How a man behaves could be considered the norm and viewed as a touchstone to contrast all feminine behaviour with, leaving dubiety in the comic entertainment value of imitating a man. The male characters played by female actors in this performance, accordingly have less affectation and more dimension when compared historically to cis men’s portrayals of women.

Drag kings can also be excellent vehicles of satire, which becomes evident in one of the cleverest scenes in the play. Two female characters swoon over a male one, reciting an article from an international men’s magazine, turning it into a powerful rendition about perceived masculinity: 

‘A man carries cash.
A man looks out for those around him — woman, friend, stranger.
A man can cook eggs. A man can always find something good to watch on television.
A man makes things — a rock wall, a table, the tuition money. Or he rebuilds — engines, watches, fortunes….
A man has had liquor enough in his life that he can order a drink without sounding breathless, clueless, or obtuse. When he doesn’t want to think, he orders bourbon or something on tap.
Never the sauvignon blanc.
A man listens, and that’s how he argues. He crafts opinions. He can pound the table, take the floor.
It’s not that he must. It’s that he can.’

Using a different mainstream platform to chip away at this ostensible idea of what masculinity must look like is Pulkit Mogha. His photography captures the vulnerability of male sexuality by freezing intimate moments between men into 1080px by 1080px Instagram posts. His imagery starkly threatens the framework of ‘normalcy’ as he shows naked male bodies — flaws intact — fondling each other with delicacy, with hands and legs tied in bondage as well as men with stubble and ruby-red lips dripping semen down their chins. Sexually graphic, pregnant with shock-value yet oddly poetic, his work is a result of a studied understanding of how one expects to see gender and heteronormative perfection as portrayed on Instagram and offers the contrary. An architect by profession working on urban policy research, Mogha spends weeks getting to know his subjects, making them comfortable and building a relationship, something he believes plays an important role in his work. In a first for him, Mogha trains his lens on a male persona portrayed by a female actor, Sarup.

Verve delves into the minds of the two artistes, to find the inspirations that drive their works and imaginations.


Jacket, shirt, belt, all Puja’s own.

PUJA SARUP


How was the idea of The Gentlemen’s Club born?
Sheena (Khalid) and I started The Patchworks Ensemble in 2014. Before we did The Gentlemen’s Club, we had another show called Ila. It’s based on a myth from the Puranas, which we read in Devdutt Pattanaik’s book, The Pregnant King. It’s about a king who’s cursed to change into a woman on new moon nights and then slowly turn back to a man with the changing cycle of the moon. We drew a parallel of this story with Mumbai’s local trains which have a ladies’ compartment that becomes general (allowing men) at 11 p.m. and then, at 7 a.m., is back to being for women again. Being in that compartment at 11 p.m. is an experience. Suddenly, the men come charging in, because they’ll have a place to sit. Once, I was there in the train and my body language changed. The men seemed like they wanted to show their masculinity and I thought, ‘Yeah, you are masculine. Okay, I get it.’ We wove a story around this. One day during rehearsals we were feeling uninspired, so in order to shake things up we decided that all the men would dress as women and all the women would dress as men. We didn’t give ourselves time to prepare, we just grabbed this and that and boom: a variety of interesting characters popped up — believable ones. We noticed that the men that dressed up as women went into a hyper-feminine mode. But in the characters the women came up with, there was some sort of fleeting truth. Actor and dancer Mukti Mohan took a pair of black cycling shorts to put on her head and a hairnet that she made a beard out of and suddenly, Harpal, one of the characters of The Gentlemen’s Club, was born.

How did you select your drag character?
I met with playwright and theatre critic Vikram Phukan, who had written a drag queen piece. He suggested doing a drag king piece instead. He was the one who told me I look like Shammi (Kapoor). I went home that day and watched some Shammi videos and got really excited. And, we knew Shammi was the right choice, because at that point in Bollywood, when all the other heroes were busy being suave and manly, he shattered that image. He came in and he broke the scene with this beautiful, mad energy. He was not afraid of looking like an ass, and he owned it. I was never a Shammi fan. I never thought, ‘Oh, I want to be Shammi.’ But for this play, I started reading up and watching his stuff, and now if I am a little upset, I just watch Shammi. There is this jaan that he brings on the screen, which is beautiful.

As a performer, what was the journey of getting into the character of a man like?
There was a photographer who had come to our rehearsal and was quite unkind to us. He kept scoffing, complaining that my character doesn’t even have a beard or moustache. So, I went to the bathroom made a fake beard with kajal and, somehow, with something as literal as that, there was a change. It was as though he was suddenly threatened by my masculinity. He knew I was a girl, yet the dynamic had shifted. That’s the day I found my second drag character, Vicky Lalwani, who is…well, an obnoxious piece of shit. The sort of guy everyone knows and loves to hate.



Custom-made chest binder, stylist’s own.

What physical and mental preparations helped you feel like a man?
I went to the Helikos International School of Theatre Creation in Florence for three years. And one of the important lessons I learnt was about masks. And even though we worked on physical masks, we were also pushed to look at what else could be a mask when creating a character. The set can be a mask, the costume is a mask, the voice is a mask. For me, with the Shammi drag king persona, it’s that gold jacket. It’s the wig. It’s the make-up. There is a transformation. I look at myself, and I know it’s not me. It’s somebody else.

How did this act alter your perceptions of gender?
I think all of us fluctuate between the masculine and the feminine. I don’t think anybody is a hundred per cent one or the other. We all are a spectrum. But, this play pushed us all to kind of examine the roles that we are playing in life and on stage, and what the expectations are from
gender. There was a lot of collective re-examining of world-views. We haven’t figured gender or sexuality out. These are things that we are still grappling with in our own lives. So, we are in no position to preach to the audiences. The play is very careful about not doing that. We wanted to share our curiosity and suggest a possibility of a world where drag kings are common. If we could have a society that lets that happen, wouldn’t that be exciting?

How has the performance been received?
We have had such an overwhelming response all over the country. Even in cities like Guwahati and Lucknow. There was just this one show in Kolkata where we had a mass exodus. My guess is that some people thought, ‘Could these women not find men to play these roles? And therefore had to do this?’ I think a lot of people still don’t understand the concept of drag.

Do you perceive a difference in the acceptance of drag kings and drag queens?
It’s anyway hard for the drag queens. I think it gets harder being a woman wanting to be a drag king. But, I guess it’s the same reason why we see this pattern everywhere. There are more male pilots, more male CEOs, and there are more male drag artists.



PULKIT MOGHA


How did you come into photography?
It started around five years ago when I began capturing some of my own personal moments. I realised that photos of a very personal nature can become political statements when released to an audience. Right after school, I joined Pravah, an NGO, that did work around gender and sexuality. I used to visit this tiny bookstore in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village that had an attic you’d climb up to. For my first meeting, there were around seveneight people in that cramped space. Men, women, trans people, everybody from different walks of society. Coming from a small town, Khatauli in UP, this was the first time I had ever seen anybody who identified as queer. These meetings happened religiously, someday there were three people, other days just two. Finding safe spaces like this helped me get into a place of comfort myself, and I had a lot to give back. I understand a lot of the issues that young people are going through today and that there is a story to tell. Photography became a remedy. You always start somewhere before you feel more comfortable getting to someplace else — my photos are much more provocative now. I relish the idea of somebody realising that they are looking at something not only deeply personal and vulnerable that gives them discomfort but also something that makes them think. Some people find beauty in that or a message, and I let that decision remain with the audience.

How do you pick your muse?
The people I photograph aren’t models. I am not looking for pretty; I am just looking for people who have stories to tell. My photographs are less about the people themselves and more about what they have experienced in their lives, whether it’s instances of abuse or insecurities about their bodies. They’ve grown up being body-shamed or bullied for being too effeminate. The idea is simply trying to document ‘flawed’ and scarred bodies. But not in a tokenistic way. They’re just people that I happened to meet. I was deeply angry about the political climate, and the only way I could feel some form of release was through online spaces. Lately, it’s come to a point where people from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan have reached out to me. I’m working on a project entitled 100 nudes, which is a small zine book that I’m coming out with. I asked men to send me nudes, and we had a conversation. I picked an extract from the conversations and juxtaposed the photo with it, and the result is quite powerful.


What are your thoughts on the medium you use to showcase your work — Instagram?
People think of me as an Instagram artist, which is a bizarre place to be in, because that is a platform that deeply limits me. Social media platforms are inherently biased, and there is an element of human screening. While one can see a lot of white muscular bodies and accounts that celebrate them easily on the ‘explore’ tab, you won’t be shown those four handles that highlight brown bodies. They have to fight twice as hard to be seen. And working around nudity, one always has to navigate between what is censored and what isn’t. But still, the same photo, if it were to come from somebody within a different context who had a different body or skin tone, it would be received differently.

What has been your experience with Instagram’s rules of censorship?
I am used to having dozens of posts reported and removed on a regular basis. It still happens. There is an account, @pulkitmogha, that I had lost to censorship. There is a human team at Instagram that screens content. So, India would have somebody with their own biases, making a call on something that has been reported. Another problem is that there is no back-end. You have nobody to reach out to and ask why. They owe you no answers and, like most queer artists, you live with the constant threat of losing the support that you have managed to gather over time. I gave up for some time after my account was closed, but then I set up another account, @pulkitxmogha, and it slowly began finding support. But, recently, Instagram finally reached out. They reinstated the earlier account, saying that they had made a mistake. I am working with a technological think tank, and we are in talks with Instagram to be involved in the process of coming up with policies about the biases that minorities deal with.

What themes do you explore through your photography?
I am very interested in exploring the idea of sex. There are different forms of sex and sexual subcultures, which are especially relevant in the queer community. For example, cruising, which is when gay men go into these very public spaces, like alleyways, because there aren’t enough safe spaces where they could have sex. By word of mouth, you would know the spots in the city, where you could go
scouting for sex, looking for a stranger that you could have a fleeting moment with. It’s also called cottaging because in the UK, back in the 1700s, the gentlemen’s washrooms used to be called cottages, and men used to frequently visit some of these in order to get sex. Our understanding of cruising has been very limited, and we limit ourselves to the examples we know, in terms of more elite spaces like Palika underground and Nehru Park in Delhi. But even in a village, there will be a space like this.

You don’t tend to photograph many women. Why is that?
I generally tend to feel comfortable shooting men. That is simply about me not being able to relate to women. I feel like I wouldn’t understand where they are coming from, and whether it is my right to represent them in any form. Even when I am documenting queer subcultures, I maintain that I am not representing anybody’s opinions but my own. I am only able to do justice to somebody else’s, when I can understand it completely, and women are new territory for me.

What appealed to you about shooting Puja Sarup in her drag persona?
The performance of a man is very interesting to me. I am excited by the potential to capture the elements of masculinity — without the man. It offers a very different challenge, and it’s something I haven’t done before. Exploring performativity is a captivating proposition.

How would you explain the significance of a performance like The Gentleman’s Club?
Historically, theatre has seen men playing female roles. But in today’s society, it has much more meaning and depth when men perform as women, and vice versa, in a queer subculture space. Anything that tries to push boundaries of gender is in stark contrast with the cultural and political context that we are in right now. In some ways, this play is a movement, and these small movements need to keep happening. And for a lot of cis, straight audiences, drag kings are a revelation. Even within the queer community, a play with drag kings is a subject of education. It is a little odd that the actors who perform are cis or straight. So, perhaps, they themselves don’t see the political potential that this actually has.

Why do you think there is a lack of drag king culture?
There are very different cultural set-ups for how queer women expect their spaces to be — more intimate and personal. Queer men and their spaces are more sexual, more experimental, more brazen and more risqué. In the spaces of gay men, there was always room for drag queens, but drag kings are a different ballgame.