Being A Drag Queen In India: Maya
In a country that only recently decriminalised the archaic section 377, the story of Alex Mathew’s preparation for his first drag performance feels like a small victory, since it was his mother who presented him with his first sari. Though she secretly hoped her son’s curiosity would be satiated with one act, what she didn’t know was that drag would go on to change Mathew’s life, transforming him into Mayamma/Maya the Drag queen. Ask Maya why she chose this rustic name for herself instead of something more flamboyant and she sagely reveals that she came across the term during her search for an appropriate stage persona. Maya translates into magic/illusion in English and amma is mother in Malayalam. An amalgamation of the two words led to the birth of Mayamma — the Mother of Illusions. A Malayali drag queen who performs parodies of well-known songs, giving them her own twist, Maya’s rendition of Lady Marmalade as Lady Mayamma has grown to become quite the hit with patrons.
The premiere outing
“My first experience with drag was in school for a fancy dress competition where I dressed up as Nagavally from the Malayalam movie Manichitrathazhu. I completely owned the character and clinched first place. Pretty neat for a first attempt and this was all the way back in 2005. Fast forward to September 2014 when I made my drag debut at The Humming Tree in Indiranagar. I’d never worn a sari as a grownup before and it felt strange to have the air brush my bare midriff. I gave myself a pep talk for a bit, went on stage like a professional, belted out a Malayalam song titled Appangal and danced to Kajra Re.”
“When I first started out, drag didn’t exist as a culture in India but there were smidgens of it in traditional art forms like Kathakali and Theyyam. My first brush with drag was when I watched Robin Williams dress up as a lady in Mrs Doubtfire and Kamal Hassan perform in a sari with much finesse in Chachi 420. I perceived the community to be funny and out of the box, but it was only when I started to perform as a drag queen did I grasp the passion and struggles associated with it. My most liberating act as a drag artist was when I performed for the children of Bangalore’s Poorna school. I believe that if we truly want to spread awareness about gender equality, individualism and feminism, we need to start at the grassroots.”`
Winds of change
“Before section 377 was scrapped, people came with their own prejudices and would tell me that I was crass and undignified and that I would never be able to perform at a nightclub. There were many misconceptions about us that were floating around — that we were prostitutes who were out to solicit customers, that we were mentally retarded, that we were crossdressers on the way to becoming trans people.
People have now started looking at us as human beings which is a good start. Drag queens in the West display visible hate towards women, but that’s not the case in India. I keep saying that women’s rights and LGBTQ rights go hand in hand. Indian drag queens have immense respect for women and vice versa. That being said, I would like to see Indian drag queens and drag kings own their ethnicity instead of aping the West. Indian drag is an ocean and we haven’t even begun to swim the length and breadth of it.”
Follow Maya on Instagram at @mayathedragqueen
Read Part 2 with Veronique here.
Read Part 4 with Kushboo here.