Photo Essay: Quest To Drag In Quarantine

Pictures by Rakesh Assileti

I am an extremely extroverted, optimistic person, and for me, a regular day wouldn’t end without meeting with at least 50 people. It was around 5 years from the time when I quarantined my art, and that was to crack AIEEE. But I couldn’t withstand staying without it. The next time I came, I came as a dancer who never wants to leave the stage. Since then I have always ensured to not stay at home even on the weekend. I ensured to rush, run and engage myself with lots of people around the city. I never want a day to be spent without art. Somedays it is dance or drag or performance art. My body is accompanied with a constant adrenaline to create and create more art.

But, soon the news of Corona virus creeped into my devices, I tried to convince myself – it won’t come to my country, or my city and as it developed, I ensured, I can still get a place. I can still get people and I still share my art with personal effect. However, as the time passed the boundaries around me sucked in and became tight. Post the lock down announcement, I got confined in four walls. The first week majorly went in retrospection and telling myself, I cannot stop. Thankfully I had a camera and a friend who can click pictures. It was then I decided to create art with this medium.

I started performing drag in 2019, June. Drag, an art form usually a man who performs as a woman but now evolved from dress resembling a girl to dress resembling a gender. For drag I used to shop a lot, pick up clothes I loved, items I liked. I used to create looks and then shop and spend a bomb to make that look. Drag gave me a way of expression. Drag also helps me to create voice for myself. While quarantined, I started telling myself “Queer people lived half of their life in closets, so it would be a cake walk for us to be isolated for a few days and it also puts the heteronormative society within a confined space so they get a feel of our closet experiences.” This is why it’s important to be in drag when in quarantine. Every day I picked up a look. The first week as I started, I got the very inspiration from the excessively heard word over the week “Corona Virus”.

While the pandemic was already threatening the country, it was important to call it “Ordinary” to ensure we don’t create panic but create awareness. Culture of anti-art gives the opportunity prevailed to represent even diseases. Taking an example from Japan, when in the 1960s and 1970s where Hijikis Tatsumi was dancing in the Butoh, after the end of the postwar reconstruction of the Second World War, was entering a high economic growth period. Meanwhile, the manufacturing industry in Japan abandoned all the waste to the river, and the sea on the coast of Japan was contaminated with garbage, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium that caused mutations in human cells, causing a number of pollution diseases. In the past, Minamata in Kumamoto prefecture was affected by mercury sulfide dripped from the fertilizer company Nippon Nitrogen, the spine of the fish curls and cannot be sold on the market, the local fisherman ate it without knowing were contaminated with mercury pollution. Many people were victims of serious Minamata disease. Tatsumi Hijikata, who continued to collect the weakened bodies, incorporated it into his own dance with the deepest resonance in distorted limbs of Minamata disease patients.

While the modern dance people were enjoying the creation of a beautiful dance, Tsutsumi Hijikata alone has resonated deeply in the shape of its deformed and disabled human life and had created a novel Beauty that has never been in human history. This was the idea to decentralize drag to representation of disease in human form. When you present something in a human form there is an awareness, a reliability and an imagination which makes people be aware. Just as how Liberty, Nation’s, Elements if life are represented in multiple art forms, it was also essential to represent a disease to untag the fear and make it just a person to fight with.

As the days followed, I was running out of my ideas of cloths and fashion. It was then when I started picking up trash or lump material which I already had and started using it time and again to create an image of what art needs to look like. As I went on, I created a drag Art specimen called “Hairy Fairy”. When it comes to body hair, society’s standards for beauty for women are certainly stricter than they are for men – many people expect them to be cleanly shaven and even the slightest hint of hair is seen as ‘gross’ and ‘unsexy’. This series of photography was to challenge the idea of beauty and natural hair. Showing it to extreme view point on what if the body had so much of hair. I used some of my wigs to create this S.A.S (my drag name which stands for Suffocated Art Specimen) named “Hairy Fairy” through which I wanted to pass the message of being bold and embracing the body and its every part of it.

This madness of converting trash started so high that I started looking for things around me. Due to the lockdown a friend of mine couldn’t procure cigarettes as cigarettes being considered not an essentials item. All he could do is to curb himself and I making talking this opportunity to motivate him to leave them. As a result, he gave me all his previous cigarette packets which he stored in a box. I Created a look from 50 empty cigarette boxes procured from him. the look titled “Smoking God” is more than just a look. It’s a performance art sitting and making it while passing the inhibition to choking oneself with smoke. This calls out a wave to end the choking game. A campaign to ensure there is no more smoke lighting up.

As the days passed my madness of creating drag grew more and more where I was trying to work on placing certain object in certain space to create a certain outlook. Calling them the avant-garde (from French, “advance guard” or “vanguard”, literally “fore guard”) which are works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to fashion, art, lifestyle or culture. The avant-garde pushes the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo. I worked on another look with all the waste silk cloths I had collected for a while called “Rotten Silk” where I wanted to create a bright image with things available to me. The #Tranimalization of fashion and color need to be scrubbed into a dis-formed structure and that’s how the rotten silk was born.

The blue and the pink denotes the color of expressions and symbolizes the trans flag, blue being masculine and pink being feminine and out of which emerges a dis-formed figure which gender delusions. The too muchness presents the spectrum of gender and the visual eyes shows up a mirror to the society to self-reflection.

Creating these images for myself made me realize how much time, Money and affordability was the experience going and buying my drag materials from outside. I still remember the stares the society shoots when a boy steps into a Women’s wear shop or a cosmetic shop and asks for Kajal. Quarantine has taught me to be free within the walls loving myself daily. It taught me that how we abuse privilege for art and how can we get inclusive and bring the essence of art in everything around. This quarantine helped me develop the ideologies to relook Drag art and create a new version of the art form something  which is a  function of subversion is to reveal the absurd, the intermediary between the day-to-day and the intrinsic ideology creating it, which then opens up that ideology to responses of judgement, mockery, quiescence or anything that satisfies the immediate, visceral shock. Drag serves as the subversion of gender, revealing the ideology of capitalism, though more often and less correctly identified as detached patriarchal structures. To articulate the minimality of the art form I picked up available trash which I could get. With the same thought I created a DADA-Drag image with something so easily available like cardboard boxes which astonished the packed privilege or affordability for being a drag persona.

The most exciting time I presented drag was by recreating painting of renowned Telangana Painter Thota Vaikuntam where His stokes brings Telangana women and stories of Urban India with a bright illuminating color. Recreating Painting with photography was something which was done majorly for Raja Ravi Verma however, Brining the originality of other painters work to life was a bit rare. These paintings were so inspirational that I wanted to present it via a vision of drag. Though the paintings were of Women, I presented is as Transvestite Men in drag replicating each poster with body modelling and the output was something which was closer to my heart. This gave me an opportunity to investigate the roots of Telugu land and carve drag out of our culture.

I used a Silical Saree with a bright yellow and black face paint. The representation was to ensure to go as close to the paintings as I could with minimum resources, selecting once painting at a time and recreating the same with a camera.

As the days passed another interest look which I made was with more than 50 Masks of all kind, mixing Super Hero masks with traditional masks such as cherial, hand painted to printed masks, synthetic, clay and paper masks all mixed together to create an image of Masking Out. This image was indeed an essential for me to bring in an aspect of how people form Queer community must wear mask one or other time to hide their true selves. While some have overcome, there are countless kids who still needs courage to come out. Masking out was an ode to all those kids.

The other day I asked a question to myself, what’s the most beautiful thing in the world? and the answers we usually get are “Flowers”. I wanted to make the most beautiful things together to make most anti beautiful being. Using fake flowers and plastic floras I created the look called as “Floral Witch”. The idea was to acronymize the too much beauty may also be called as Anti beauty and passing a message on the atrocities of Plastic surgery and modulation of something Natural to something man made. Though everyone has right to look as they prefer, however the choice is only let for the privilege society and not the one from under the line of privilege.

An activity everyone likes, some have rush of adrenalin when they see a bubble wrap and some think and burst one after the other. People believe that bursting bubble wrap is a great exercise for stress relief. It controls anxiety and helps in focus. Corporates provide a pseudo bubble wrap tab for their employee as a part of wellbeing program. And, I am not endorsing bubble wrap. #Bursting Bubble an idiom used as to reveal oneself to the world, finding insights of a person and so on. We use it quite often to refer a person sharing his thoughts, actions, confusions, fears, happiness and sadness to someone whom he /she trust. Bursting bubbles is used as an idiom to open too. A bubble busted does make a tiny sound which hardly can be heard, the bubbles is invisibly transparent. When one bursts a bubble, the person is making visibility to invisible and a sound which is unheard. A sound cannot be visible but often heard. The confusion of visibility of sound is an abstract of the idea if mental health which is undefined and vast. A person suffering from mental health disorder must burst multiple bubbles. So many like that of a giant bubble wrap. These sounds cannot be heard and breaking them all himself / herself is a toughest job. The more he feels alone the more he feels the burden. but a bunch of people can burst the entire bubble wrap in few seconds. That’s what is required for people suffering from mental health too. They need people who can listen to sounds (as minute as bubble wrap) and help the person in coping up with the illness (by bursting each bubble).

Business run around world always tells us the importance of Beauty. They need high classes styled people to run their business and develop their revenues. They employee only fit and functional people with a par excellence appearance and assume them to be smart. The corporations need a happy, smiling and perfect face to endorse their products but what we fail to understand it they tell their truth as the truth. Human body has been diverse, and corporation cannot represent all of them. What if business were run based on anti beauty? What if the body itself kicks the stereotypes of perfection and how can we create a space for all the people? A case study I had on why acid attack victims are never given a job or preferred to be bought into corporation because of their appearance, sometimes we have only perfect images which we as a society are served to exemplify from which might not be the situation for all and for that we have to see images of all kind. I created this look “Boss Beauty” with more than a 100 pantyhose and created a look to represent these images which needs be take up the business.

As a famous poet said “Keep an artist in a dark room for few days and ask them to draw and that is what becomes a master piece.” similarly the more days I start sitting and internalizing as a part of quarantine, it creates a likely madness to new art which is refreshing as well as inspiring. I may not be fighting directly with the pandemic, but my art gives me a veto power to keep myself motivated and sometimes mass social messages through drag.

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