‘Drag is political’: the pioneering Indian event uniting art and activism

Two years ago, in early June 2019, a young man stepped on stage at a small cafe in the south Indian city of Hyderabad to sing Lady Gaga’s hit song Born This Way. He had chosen that song for the line “don’t be a drag, just be a queen” because this would be his first public performance as a drag artist. He had expected no more than a handful of people to turn up for this show with two other drag artists, but as the evening progressed, the cafe filled with more than 500 people. In a conservative city like Hyderabad, that was a huge surprise.

It has been a long journey for Patruni Chidananda Sastry, who began to learn classical Indian dance at the age of five. Now 29 and working as a business analyst, he performs Tranimal – a postmodern drag concept born in Los Angeles in the mid-2000s – and more conventional drag using the avatar of SAS (Suffocated Art Specimen – how he describes himself). On 25 June he is organising the first drag conference in India, as part of Dragvanti , his online initiative to bring together drag artists from across the country.

Patruni Chidananda Sastry: ‘Drag by its very nature is political’
Patruni Chidananda Sastry, who performs using the avatar SAS (Suffocated Art Specimen). Photograph: Bharat Basavaraj

This one-day virtual event, in which more than 250 people – including popular drag artists – are expected to participate, will cover a wide range of topics, from drag in classical arts to the globalisation of Desi drag via Bollywood.

“The idea is to give the drag community a space to talk about themselves and all the issues that are relevant to our lives,” says Sastry.

For a few years before he got into drag, Sastry was using classical Indian dance to explain complex concepts of gender and sexuality, and raise awareness about the challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in India. “In 2016, I came out as a gender fluid person, and my art became my reflective voice,” he says.

But it is as a drag artist that Sastry has come into his own as an activist. In 2019, people in his home town were startled to find Sastry and a couple of other artists in drag talking about Aids awareness on the streets and at bus stops.

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He has also used drag to protest: against the 2019 Transgender Persons Act (seen by the trans community as regressive), against the rightwing government’s discrimination against the country’s Muslim minority through the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, and in support of the more recent farmers’ agitation in northern India.

“The way the world is changing, any artist has to be political. And drag by its very nature is political. Without going into a march or protest, I am protesting because I believe drag can be influential in bringing about change,” he says.

According to Sastry, there have always been traditional drag performances in various Indian communities, such as launda naach in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh and kaniyan koothu in Tamil Nadu. But a new wave of drag has emerged in India in the past 10 years, with influential artists like Maya the Drag Queen and Miss Bhenji at the forefront. Now, he estimates, there are more than 100 artists scattered across the country (36 are currently registered on the Dragvanti website).

Hiten Noonwal, a performance artist from Delhi.
Hiten Noonwal, a performance artist from Delhi. Photograph: Sahil Kalash

The drag scene has greater visibility in the cities. “There are drag artists even in smaller towns like Jalandhar and Nagpur, but they don’t have the resources to connect with the larger community or find space to present their art.”

Hiten Noonwal from Delhi, a gender fluid performance artist, fashion designer and speaker at this weekend’s conference, is excited at the idea of this event shining a light on how drag is a medium for storytelling and social change. They have been dressing in drag since the age of 10 but discovered the formal world of drag only a few years ago.

“When I finally found drag, I knew that I had found my calling. Art became my companion from then on,” they say. A postgraduate from the prestigious National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, who says they were bullied at school for “being different”, Noonwal now teaches at various fashion and design colleges, dressing up as they please. “For instance, if the class is about the history of fashion, I go dressed as Cleopatra. And everyone loves it now.”


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