Making / Prologue to Performance
It was a late winter night when I met Patruni for a shoot, and I was not too sure about the whole shoot because this was the first time I was going to photograph someone in drag. I had always been ignorant of the drag aspect, and as a loner/asocial person, I never really liked parties. I had heard about drag nights and whatnot in elite circles, and it was honestly inaccessible for a student like me. But, when Patruni called himself and told me that he is interested in being photographed, I was shocked. I thought for a few moments before agreeing to it. Anyhow, we started with a general conversation about drag culture and how inaccessible it is for some people, and we agreed to a lot of things. Our common interest in folk art forms, classical Indian music and dance also made us comfortable with each other. As we started our conversation on how and why he performs the tranimal form of drag, he transcended from classical Indian dance to popular culture, from classical forms of impersonations to modern notions of drag; however, I never expected it to be an introduction to performance aesthetics and its various manifestations in the socio-cultural fabric of a nation so old. While getting dressed in the drag format, Patruni told me about how he saw Guru Smt. Chitra Visweswaran’s performance and how it influenced him. He notes, “One thing which always fascinated me was the Tradition of Vashem or StriVesham. As we see in sampradaya Kuchipudi, Kathakali and Yakshaganam. However, this transformation of identity in the west was called Drag. Literally abbreviated as Dress Resembling a Girl, which soon turned its definition as Dress Resembling a Gender”.
As he transformed into S.A.S, he kept saying things that made more and more sense. He said, “While learning about the struggle and stigmas associated with the community I could find resemblances with my journey as a dancer as I was considered an outsider owing to my gender expression. I was looking for that pseudo-non-gender character that could relate to how I feel about things. I wanted to use my dance as a language to talk about sexuality and sensuality. Seeking training, inspiration, and analysis from German Expressionism and the vocabulary of Bharatanatyam, I was able to convey my message of LGBTQIA+ awareness to the audience. As I went on an exploration of my art and within I was able to develop a strain of post-modernity in my work. Few works like Unicorn (Homosexuality in Animals), Unboxing the Gender and UNTAG were few presentations that were with the approach of dance. Few performances like What’s My Color (a performance art piece on LGBTQIA+ Abbreviation labeling), Strip-tease (Performance of Abuse on Men) and Fourplay (a call for legalizing same-sex marriages) are developed with the language of performance art”.
Shock might be a word to describe the appearance of S.A.S. Fascinating can also be a word, intriguing too. The more I was trying to know this person behind a stack of clothes, the notions of performing gender and (un)performing it confused my ideas. S.A.S noted, “Meanwhile, I faced backlashes from people within and outside the community on my style of drag. Some thought I am not doing drag the right way as seen on RuPaul’s drag race with high heels, big wigs, wonderful makeup, and elegant costumes. I tried to constantly keep people informed about my style of drag “Tranimal”. I tried to convince and educate people on it stating Tranimal is a drag and performance art movement that began in the mid-2000s in Los Angeles. Deriving from ‘transvestite’ the aim as to create interpretive, animalistic and post-modern interpretations of the ‘drag queen’ and the part of imperfection is a deliberate attempt to look animaltranimal”. We shot for almost 2 hours while this conversation went deeper and deeper into the arts and aesthetics of performance and living.
As we reached the end of the shoot, I asked S.A.S. the kind of prejudices attached to drag, and it said, “People embrace dance, music and standup comedy but they think Drag is an unfit art to be presented. People pursue drag queens are sexual (so is the standup comedy session with subtle double meaning jokes), drag queens are loud (so is the metal and rock singers). People also confuse drag queens and kings with transgender and cross-dressing”. I requested Patruni to take a few pictures with the whole act of unmaking S.A.S. S.A.S is not merely a constructional idea, but a performative reality that aims to educate, disturb and deconstruct our ideas of beauty and perfection. Our obsession with perfection has led to the rejection of numerous imperfections. S.A.S. was in the unmaking while it said, “The struggle hasn’t ended, but let me remind you, “Shantay the drag stays!”, and like a chameleon, Patruni emerged out of it.