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Meet the Desi Drag Kings

A new photo and performance project throws a spotlight on the community of male impersonators in India

The Desi Drag Kings. Photo: Wanda A. Hendricks
The Desi Drag Kings. Photo: Wanda A. Hendricks

Drag is commonly associated with queens—men dressing up in elaborate women’s costumes—but the community also includes women who dress up in men’s costumes. Drag kings haven’t found the same popularity or media representation, and have only started coming into focus in recent decades with figures like comedian Murray Hill and model and activist Rain Dove. In India, the idea of male impersonators is even less known and explored only sporadically like Tape: The Gentlemen’s Club aka Tape, a 2015 production by The Patchworks Ensemble, a Mumbai-based theatre group. Bidisha Mohanta, 21, who goes by the stage-name Badshah Mayur, is the founder of Desi Drag Kings, an initiative that aims to spotlight the community with photo projects (@thebidisha, on Instagram) and drag performances. On a recent trip to Delhi for a performance at Kitty Su at The Lalit Hotel, Mumbai-based Mohanta spoke to Lounge on the potential of drag in India to start a social movement. Edited excerpts:

What is your earliest memory of watching drag and how did the Desi Drag Kings project come about?

I’ve always been interested in drag—I watched RuPaul’s (television series) Drag Race and things like that. In India, there are many instances of men dressing up as women which have been prevalent for a long time. But I don’t think women dressing up as men are celebrated as much. Today, there are a lot of drag queens in India, but hardly any drag kings—I myself knew only one. I thought of drag as a way of channelling my inner masculinity. My girlfriend, who is a fashion designer (she also features in the photo project) pushed me into it. I got her as well as a few other friends to come for the shoot, and together we came up with the look.

Costume is integral to the drag experience. What made you take an Indian route to dressing up?

Drag is always seen as a very Western concept. But the cultures in India and the costumes that we have can be hugely explored in drag. Men in India wear such colourful and flamboyant garments like the beautiful turbans and puff-sleeved kurtas worn by men in Rajasthan. Nowhere will you see men being so expressive about themselves through their clothes than in India. I’d like to explore these intricacies of couture in India. Right now I get things done on my own, because this movement hasn’t gained that much leverage yet. This whole look (I am wearing) with the blazer and dhoti-pants, is sourced and designed by me. Like, my shoes were just plain velvet and I got them studded. But I’d love to reach out to Indian craftspersons and those who make traditional garments so that I can channel those identities.

You are also using drag to make a social statement.

For me, doing drag is not just about looking like a man and getting my pictures taken. It’s a way of facing all these prejudices that surround us. Being a man isn’t easy in our society. For instance, men are always burdened with this pressure to provide all the time. I would like to strike such conversations because if we call ourselves feminists, it’s also important for us to see how feminism affects men. I want to really create a platform for a larger social dialogue through drag. I would like to do plays that concern the social issues, especially what it’s like being a man—and a woman—in today’s society.

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