The Kings of Queer India

A group of young, queer badasses have taken on the Indian Drag King Scene by the dhoti.

The idea of drag is not new to India and its neighbours. We’ve had a history of cross-dressing actors in the courts of kings who then moved to the scenes of movies and continue to, until this date perform on theatre stages and are now reclaiming the streets of modern India.

The first Indian full-length feature film, Raja Harishchandra released in the year 1913 had Anna Salunke, a man, playing the female lead. From then until now we have seen multiple examples of such male to female cross-dressing such as in the very popular Avvai Shanmughi in Tamil or Chachi 420 in Hindi. These roles have been highly revered. Although there have been a few Indian films where women cross-dressed, those roles were not nearly as well acclaimed both critically and in terms of popularity.

Drag has been, for the longest time closely associated to gay men, the association definitely made because men are allowed access to public spaces a lot more than women ever have. It’s long overdue to take the public space back, as those assigned female at birth, as women and as people who want to bend the rules of gender.

‘Desi Drag King Project’ is a collaborative project aimed at breaking gender stereotypes and empowering women. Bidisha Mohanta, who conceptualised the project says, ‘While the practice of cross dressing has existed for centuries , we don’t see a lot of women doing drag, more specifically in India. And this creates a void of representation and empowerment- something we’re trying to fill in our own capacity’.

The beauty of performative drag is definitely in its exaggeration of gender roles and within a culturally diverse space like India, the possibilities are multifold. The project is an initiative to promote and support the idea of more Indian women dressing up as men as a form of performance art. They intend to strike a conversation about gender (and gender identity) by conveying an Indian ‘desi’ imagery instead of emulating Western drag- ‘Here we are, 5 women from different cities, who’ve come together and transformed ourselves into drag personas inspired by different cultures of India. This is only the beginning of our journey in exploring the possibilities of Desi Drag’.

Through the photoshoot, they have embraced the masculinity and Indian-ness that addresses an important part of our being. By bending archaic Indian-informed gender norms, it is ultimately a celebration of extended womanhood.

Conceptualised by: Bidisha Mohanta // @ohdiq
Styling & Make-up: Pauline Perrin // @paulineperrinstudio & Anusha Govindraj // @anushagovindaraj
Photography: Wanda Hendricks @wanda_a_hendricks & Pauline Perrin
Starring: Teenasai Balamu // @grapeguitarbox, Anusha Govindraj, Pauline Perrin, Bidisha Mohanta and Wanda Hendricks

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Jo Krishnakumar is a trans queer researcher interested in all things sex, sexuality, gender and how different groups/people experience these wor(l)ds. Their work is informed by their constant learning/unlearning of the privileges they have due to their social location as a dominant/oppressive caste person (Nair) while also occupying space as a (mentally) disabled trans person of colour. Find them on their unfinished webspace

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