When covid-19 hit and performance spaces closed, Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a Hyderbad-based dancer and drag performer, decided to create a one-stop-shop for Indian drag. Enter Dragvanti, a website launched in June last year to offer the community a safe virtual place to converge and have conversations.
For Indian drag artists, who have struggled to find spaces to perform and express themselves since the covid-19 outbreak, this provides some relief. “2020 was a slap on the face,” recalls Cologne Doll, a Delhi-based drag artist. “I didn’t know what I could do.”
Dragvanti helps facilitate performances, live-streaming shows and creating a drag directory, enabling event organisers to book artists for gigs. The website focuses on building community, disseminating information and holding events, all in the virtual space. “We are all in survival mode,” says Cologne. “Online is the only thing we can do right now.”
Indian drag needed it, believes Sastry, who identifies as pomosexual and uses the pronoun they. “When I started performing drag in 2019, there was no content about Indian drag available; the only content coming in was that from the West.” Moreover, they point out, drag is present in classical Indian culture—a mention of it occurs in the Nātya Śāstra, a record of Indian performance art estimated to be around 2,000 years old. Yet today, says Sastry, “We don’t acknowledge what drag artists are doing within India”.
Dragvanti, hopes Sastry, will make a difference, bringing traditional performers to the fore. For instance, one of the presentations at the Indian Drag Conference, a virtual symposium held on 25 June, focused on folk art. “There are traditional drag performers in every state in India,” says Sastry—like the folk dance form Launda Naach. “However, we don’t acknowledge what these artists are doing,” adds Sastry, who believes colonisation played a big part in the decline of these art forms. “These artists are now struggling to put food on the table,” adds Cologne.
Sastry says Narthaki.com, a resource for classical dance, was an inspiration. “It was my core go-to place for classical dance,” says the 29-year-old in a Zoom call. “I wanted to create a similar platform for drag.” Sastry hopes Dragvanti will become an anchor point for drag artists. “This way, we can help each other.”
Like biologically male dancers who train in feminised dance forms such as Bharatanatyam or ballet, Sastry has dealt with exclusion and bullying and spent years grappling with ideas of sexuality and gender. Art, therefore, became a means of self-exploration, a way of coming to terms with identity. Over the last seven years, Sastry has used dance to talk about some of these things, merging classical dance vocabulary with the uninhibited ecstasy of German expressionism. “Classical dance comes from a certain lineage of caste and hierarchy. I wanted to break the structure and talk about issues that are really important.”
Drag, which they started performing in 2019, was an extension of this conversation. “Drag gives me a space to hide my privilege,” says Sastry, who performs tranimal, or “terrorist drag”—a postmodern concept that emerged in Los Angeles, US, in the mid-2000s. Queens, who are tranimals, deliberately wear unkempt wigs and clothing, essentially subverting and redefining traditional notions of beauty and gender. “We work as a distractor, distracting from the idea of beauty,” says Sastry, who performs under the moniker SAS (Suffocated Art Specimen). “Tranimal is an exaggerated version of anti-beauty. Beauty (in the drag ecosystem) today is being standardised—it doesn’t include a lot of people.”
Sastry has done over 150 shows, both offline and online, even using drag to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and support the farmers’ protests. “If art is not political, there is no purpose of art,” believes Sastry. “It is high time we are considered equal to any other artist.” Sastry is now in the process of launching an online school on the Dragvanti platform, allowing aspiring artists to access video content about drag, “sort of like a masterclass”.
“I like the idea of this platform because it makes me feel seen among the different drag queens of the world,” says Miss Bhenji, a Nagpur, Maharashtra-based drag queen known for her Bollywood-inspired aesthetic. “I feel Dragvanti is the kind of space much needed in modern India where people are so stuck on binary genders.” Cologne agrees. Dragvanti, she says, highlights a community that is often ignored; it’s visibility, after all, that leads to acceptance, she points out. “People have been brainwashed into thinking that binary is the only way that society can go,” she says. “This is a good effort in a positive direction to try to educate people about something that has been around for a long time.”