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Verve People
September 28, 2018

Being A Drag Queen In India: Kushboo

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

They are frequently mistaken for crossdressers or trans people and are accustomed to police humiliation while travelling in their drag avatars. In a post section 377 world, our series explores the impact on drag culture and performance in the country through the eyes of 5 queens.

Bangalore-based lawyer Ikshaku Bezbaroa didn’t pay too much heed to his nickname when he was growing up, but when Kush was substituted by Kushboo by his classmates — who scoffed at his effeminate appearance — it left a lasting impact on Bezbaroa. Years later, when he embraced the drag performer in him, he decided to adopt the sobriquet as his drag name, which was his way of reclaiming a traumatic experience. Having shed the shy persona of his childhood years, Kushboo is now famous for being the first locally-based and completely self-reliant drag queen to perform on stage in Delhi, and also belongs to the very first generation of India’s drag artists, before it became the huge phenomenon that it is in the past one year.

Dissecting first impressions
“My initial brush with drag culture was when I met a Portuguese queen at a pride event in Delhi many moons ago. At the time, it was not a very serious art form and people would take it as a form of light entertainment. There was no concept of drag culture in India, but the country has always been famous for its age-old heritage of gender fluid art. Dance forms like the Mohiniattam and Kathak often see participation from male performers who use exaggerated gestures and make-up to portray god-like creatures in a story. If that is a respectable medium of art, what’s wrong with drag?

My first few performances took place in the comfort and safety of my room where I would only practise for online competitions. For my introductory public outing, I decided to perform at a nightclub and was absolutely terrified because I’d never been on stage before, and in full drag at that. All my worries vanished into thin air when the audience clapped and egged me on; that boosted my confidence massively and I belted out a memorable performance.

I began this journey with my drag sister Lush and a couple of close friends and when people got to know about my art form through media coverage, my drag family helped me take stock of the reactions. Most people were supportive and ecstatic, although some people had rude and condescending things to say. The worst response came from my family and an ex-boyfriend who eventually broke up with me because of my choice to perform drag. Eventually, my parents came to accept my passion but I still try to normalise gender-queerness in the household on a daily basis.”

Life-changing performances
“My most liberating experience was performing a song about heartbreak. I was dumped by my boyfriend of six years because I refused to give up my art form, and this was causing me a great deal of pain. It was a dark phase for me, especially since I could not talk openly about it for fear of further alienating myself from society. On an impulse, I decided to project this inner pain into my next show. I chose Shirley Bassey’s Greatest Performance of my Life which was about putting on a brave face for the world despite being broken on the inside. I used props and dress-reveals to perform this song, and I still remember how cathartic it was to express myself. The performance has stayed with me through the years. I felt the song in my bones and I still remember someone later asking me if I had shed real tears on stage.

My performances are all about powerful lip-syncs. They are full of emotion, be it anger, sorrow or joy. I use dramatic facial expressions and gestures to convey emotions and tell the story of the song I am performing. Visual metaphors like suspended lights on my dress, a deluge of flowers from my wigs and dress help me keep the audience surprised and entertained.”

Debunking myths one fabulous act at a time
“People often assume that drag queens suffer from paraphilia or they dress up because they are attracted to themselves. Sometimes, they think we are confused about our gender; other times they think we are trans people. All of these groups may comprise the bigger set of drag queens. It’s like this — someone who likes chocolate biscuits may be a drag queen, but that does not mean everyone who performs drag likes chocolate biscuits. They’re completely independent of each other. Drag operates on the principle of being an art form, so anyone at all — whether they are male, female, trans person, gay or straight — can do it. As long as you dress up in a dramatic, exaggerated way and entertain a crowd onstage, you are performing drag. To be honest, the queens do not take gender very seriously. For me, gender is a construct which is problematic because of the expectations it imposes. I find much freedom in breaking the rules of gender and class by wearing what I want as per the diktat of my imagination.”

Comparing drag culture in India to its Western counterpart
“The country’s current drag scene draws immense inspiration from the West but is also heavily rooted in local culture. For instance, the format of the shows — where an artist entertains for a few songs and then engages with the audience — is quite similar. That being said, drag queens here have far bigger struggles with familial expectations and social safety. It isn’t possible for us to take the Metro in drag because the public can be pretty insensitive to artists in general and queens in particular. Even at clubs, unruly men will pull your hair or try to close-dance with you, and one needs to fend them off. Basic respect for women continues to be an issue, and artists presenting as women have it worse.

Since drag is such a new concept in India, the media and academic spaces are abuzz with excitement and every queen gets publicity and attention. This is not true for drag queens in the U.S. because the novelty has worn off and the country had made huge strides in legalizing queerness. There is a strong arts lobby in Western countries and people can hope to make careers out of it. Over here, there is no such industry, and my drag sisters and I are entrepreneurs trying to create a market so that the future is secure for us.”

Challenging social conventions
“I don’t think people look at me differently since section 377 was decriminalised. People who were sensitive and involved in queer culture will walk down the same path, and those who have dealt with it from a distance will continue to do so. Legalising it makes no discernible difference except to my parents who might sleep better knowing that at least the law, if not society, is on the side of their son. Businesses are now more open to hosting drag performances, and many people have come out to me since the judgement was passed. The ruling has certainly made a positive impact on the queer society by boosting confidence and pride.

Queer artists especially have a degree of responsibility towards the community they represent and depend upon, so it is vital for the art to benefit everyone. Having a large community that helps each other deal with abusive organizers, and also nurtures upcoming talent is something that will help queer India to truly blossom. I would like for there to be a stronger sense of community in the drag world. It is all very new and everyone is professionally oriented, but very often, those who become known in the field make it too much about themselves. It’s sad to say that some segments of the drag population have become an elitist wet-dream.”

Follow Kushboo on Instagram at @kushboothekween

Read Part 3 with Maya here.

Read Part 5 with Lush Monsoon here.

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