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Verve People
September 25, 2018

Being A Drag Queen In India: Rimi Heart

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.

A Bangalore-based software engineer who codes for a living and transforms into an elusive drag queen to feed his intrepid soul, Sudipto Biswas marches to the beat of his own drum. Having first performed at the pride parade in 2016, Biswas, who goes by the moniker Rimi Heart, plunged into an intense love affair with drag when he first saw RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her premier outing as Rimi saw her turn up in a floral shrug, towering heels and minimal make-up. As a trained vocalist, she chose to entice people with her own voice instead of lip-syncing, which is the route that other drag queens prefer to take. Blessed with a wicked sense of humour, she let on that she adopted Rimi Heart as her drag name because it sounds impishly close to ‘Rim me hard’. In theory, Sudipto Das and Rimi Hard are polar opposites — where Sudipto is a computer wizard who spends hours coding at his desk, Rimi is the dream girl you want to have, but never will.

Tell us about your initiation into drag…
I had been out and proud for a long time before I performed at Pride in 2016. Many of my friends identify as queer and I asked all of them to come — they were very excited about it. Fortunately, the sound system wasn’t a flop show that day, as it often is at community events. My voice was projected clearly and loudly, and I realised that I had a stage presence that I hadn’t tapped into until then. I interacted with the crowd and they enjoyed my comedy and stage persona, as much as they did my singing — it was one of the best nights of my life.

Maya the drag queen, or Alex Mathew, as I knew him, was the first person in India to label herself as a drag queen. Her act was highly influenced by the queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. I am a Western singer, and I could never imagine wearing traditional outfits and dancing to item numbers. When I saw Maya, I knew I didn’t have to do anything my heart wasn’t completely invested in; that’s the kind of honesty and flair she performs with.

Your most liberating performance as a drag artist…
It would have to be my first one. I grew up shy and looking back, I know it was because of my sexual orientation. I was cautious about my body language, as being effeminate was something that you were bullied and ridiculed for. When I went on stage as Rimi for the first time, I was absolved of all those worries. I could be as gay as I wanted to, and people would cheer me on instead of sniggering. I didn’t have to worry about my wrist being loose or my walk being unmanly. Once that weight of self-policing was lifted from my shoulders, I was creatively free and unbound from my shackles. That night was a turning point in my life.

Tackling the mindset of a regressive society…
You won’t catch a drag queen dead in a non-inclusive environment. Drag is an intense and excruciating process. It takes three hours of detailed makeup, and weeks of planning to create a look and a performance. We do it because we love to do it. But if we are doing it, we have to be sure that our efforts will bear fruit. Even in places that we’ve previously performed at, censorship issues pop up from time to time. You are pushed towards doing certain things that the organisers believe would attract a crowd. But hey, that’s showbiz.

A few straight people — especially the ignorant ones — confuse us with crossdressers. Drag is an art form. It takes a lot of money and effort to create a single look and it’s quite uncomfortable to be in it for long durations. I have my eyebrows glued, my hair tucked and stand on tall stilettos for hours. My genitals are squished or taped below my garment; my waist is cinched and there are lashes, rhinestones and glitter glued to my face. I design my own nails and they take two hours to shape, file and decorate. My wig is tethered tightly to my skull and I brush it for hours to make it voluminous. So, believe me when I say that I do not want to maintain that character 24/7. Drag is for show, for the stage, for your entertainment. So, I am not a trans-person or a crossdresser because I do drag. Keshav Suri, Executive Director for the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, put it aptly when he said, ‘trans is who you are, drag is what you do.’

Drag culture in India
It’s only beginning to take off now; we have miles to go before we rest. We don’t have drag mothers or ballroom culture — there is no structure. We are building it as we go along, making mistakes and learning from them. No one can make a living out of this in India, which is not the case in the West. There are successful queens who have drag as a full-time job and can pay their bills and invest in their art. We don’t have the liberty to do that yet. For drag queens in India, it’s more like an extremely expensive hobby.

Section 377 got decriminalised a couple of weeks ago, but the situation is going to take some time to radically change. The good part is that we now have the law on our side, and when a policeman tries to threaten us with the law, we can tell him to go read the law first. Are we suddenly going to start receiving accolades from people who think this is against the order of nature? I expect not. But they can’t harass us either and that much is enough for now.

Attention to detail
RuPaul looks for C.U.N.T (Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve and Talent) in her drag superstars. If I had to choose one of the letters to define me, it would be talent. Rimi is a polished queen and her sense of style is precise and detail-oriented. Her fashion is always inspired by the songs she’s singing. In my last performance, I sang La Vie En Rose, and I wore a red bejewelled corset, red faux leather gloves and a red beret. My face was painted in hues of violet and red and topped off with a defined white cut crease.

It is my dream to see more queens come into their own. Queer expression is vast and multifaceted, and they all have something worthwhile to say. But I am not too worried about it. We are just a handful as of now, but I know that more of us will reveal ourselves before you’re done reading this piece.

Inclusive palaces that queens deserve
Pride month in any city is a good start for a fledgeling drag queen. Most queer groups seek out fresh talent, in hopes of allowing diverse participation. These gigs won’t do much for your bank credit, but they allow you to make mistakes and learn from them. They also set the ball rolling for interactions with a wider audience apart from the rich folks that frequent Kitty Su and Kitty Ko. Keshav Suri has paved the way for drag entertainment to make money and Kitty Su nurtures an environment that looks at the medium as a legitimate form of performance arts that deserves its own space. There aren’t any other clubs like that at the moment, but now that section 377  has been struck down, I have absolutely no doubt that more avenues will open up for us.

Follow Rimi Heart on Instagram at @heartrimi

Read Part 2 with Veronique here.

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