"I give them the appetiser and they want the buffet!”
Drag culture is known for its flamboyance, vibrancy, makeup, high-end fashion mixed with a loud personality and the greatest queens are – Desi drag queens.
Typically, drag was mocked in films or performed in dingy bars. However, as time has progressed, drag is considered an art performance.
Yet, this phenomenon has gained momentum primarily in the West. In particular, American drag queen RuPaul is a household name for his hit show, RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Unfortunately, in South Asia drag culture remains in its infancy with slow progression.
Despite this rather slow change in countries like India and Pakistan where the LGBT communities face hostility, Desi drag queens are no longer hiding.
As RuPaul said:
“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.”
Desi drag queens are living by this concept and have smashed the glass ceiling to fulfil their passion and bring forth their inner persona.
Drag is an art form and we explore the finest Desi drag queens who have bought their inner divas to life.
Alex Mathew – Maya
Known as one of the first Indian drag queens, Alex Mathew is fondly referred to as Maya or Mayamma.
On Instagram, Mathew goes by the user name ‘Mayathedragqueen’. His social media is a breath of fresh air for many people who identify with drag.
Maya proves that it is great to express your inner diva and live life full of colour.
Hailing from India, Mathew has been “mainstreaming Drag as an art form since 2014.”
In fact, Mathew began his drag journey as a part-time practice and has worked his way to be a full-time performer.
Interestingly, Mathew’s drag journey began after he watched the popular Hollywood film, Mrs Doubtfire (1993) starring the late Robin Williams.
Seeing the Hollywood actor in drag inspired Mathew to try his hand at this form of art.
This furthered his interest and he began researching other celebrities who have experimented with drag.
His research led him to discover popular actor Kamal Hassan who dressed in drag for the films Chachi 420 (1997) and Avvai Shanmughi (1996).
As well as home inspiration, he also resonated with renowned American drag queen RuPaul and Australian Dame Edna.
For Mathew, Maya is a form of expression, someone who is confident in who they are and is not afraid to speak their mind.
This confidence stems from Mathew’s interesting background story for Maya.
Mayamma which means ‘the mother of illusion’ hails from a fisherman’s family. Her father considered her to be lucky because he caught a big fish on the day she was born.
Unfortunately, her father would physically abuse his wife, something Maya silently witnessed for years.
Despite her difficult childhood, she met her partner – Anandaraja from Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu.
She refused a marriage alliance within the fisherman community for her lover and went on to marry him.
It was her mother’s love and support which gave her the strength to live life according to her own terms.
Speaking to The Better India about her elaborate background for Maya, Mathew explained:
“I wanted people to connect to it. In my life, I’ve seen women abused. I wanted to write a background story where women could relate to it as well as the LGBT community who undergo a lot of abuse too.
“The intention is to make people relate to Maya well as a character.”
Mathew also credited his mother, Renu Mathew as his inspiration for creating Mayamma.
Although many people have mistaken Mathew as a transgender because of his drag queen persona, he has not let it stand in the way of his passion.
For him, drag is a performance art which empowers, inspires and strengthens the LGBT community in India.
Sushant Divgikar – Rani Ko-HE-Nur
Reality TV star, actor, model, and singer Sushant Divgikar transforms into the sassy Rani Ko-HE-Nur.
Sushant has had a successful career. He rose to fame with UTV Bindass’ Big Switch Season 3 directed by filmmaker Rohit Shetty.
In July 2014, he went on to win Mr Gay India. He also made history as the first person to have three sub-awards.
These include Mister Gay World Congeniality 2014, Mister Gay World Art 2014 and Mister People’s Choice.
Sushant is also known for his amazing singing voice which he also showcases as Rani Ko-HE-Nur. He has even won several accolades for the same.
Born to perform, this drag queen certainly loves the spotlight and her audience and fans adore her even more.
Rani Ko-HE-Nur is the epitome sass, confidence, fierceness and beauty.
In an interaction with Vogue India, Rani Ko-HE-Nur recalled her performances on Zee Tv’s Sa Re Ga Ma, Kitty Su and the London Pride Parade.
Crediting her audiences and fans, she said:
“Audiences from age five to 80, eat it up, honey. I give them the appetiser and they want the buffet!”
He continued to reference the influence of pop culture from an early age saying:
“I initially used to watch a lot of drag related material when I was in school and college.
“Courtesy – RuPaul and Diana Ross and ‘Paris is Burning’. My references have been very strong as I have grown up watching all these very iconic stars and films.
“And most of all look at our own culture in India, we have a long history with drag, be it in our folk dances or in the courts of the many kings and queens who have ruled over this country, we have just not called it that.
“I think as Indians we should take pride in drag and claim it within our own culture as well.”
Sushant’s passion and zest for drag have led him to train younger drag queens.
Through his training, he expresses the need for freedom of expression, love and acceptance.
Rani Ko-HE-Nur has certainly led the way for making drag more accessible as an art form.
If you think of pizazz, the finest show woman and a captivating voice then you will surely remember Rani Ko-HE-Nur.
Prateek Sachdeva – Betta Naan Stop
Professional choreographer Prateek Sachdeva, from Noida, India is known fondly as Betta Naan Stop in drag.
After gaining a scholarship programme in Melbourne, he decided to train further in musical theatre before he went back to his hometown in Delhi.
During several disappointing auditions, Sachdeva was told the man is the frame while the woman is the picture.
However, this concept was not accepted by Sachdeva because he knew he was born to be lifted. He was the picture.
For Sachdeva, you could say his drag journey was fate.
When drag queen, Violet Chachki performed at Kitty Su Delhi’s sixth anniversary, Sachdeva attended the show in drag.
Urged by his friends, this was the first time he has interacted with the LGBTQIA+ community in Delhi.
Needless to say, his first night it drags was a success with Violet spotting him in the crowd.
After this, Betta Naan Stop went from strength to strength and was asked to perform at Kitty Su.
Speaking to Luxeva, Betta Naan Stop revealed what inspires her drag mood. She revealed:
“My drag moods find their source in mainstream media, pop culture and a vast variety of aesthetic slates.”
“The costumes are screened accordingly. Also, my acts involve a lot of dancing and I need outfits that give ample space for my legs and facilitate agility.
“No matter what the mood, the functional aspect of it is always given attention.
“I also take style inspiration from iconic drag queens – I did a Divine-inspired look recently.
“Oh, and I am obsessed with playing the character of Egna Turnblad from the American musical Hairspray.”
This stunning drag queen has proved time and again that she is the picture and the only one you need to see.
Humza Mian – Mango Lassi
Up next, we have another fierce drag queen known as Mango Lassi. The person behind this amazing persona is Humza Mian.
Interestingly, he initially discovered his passion for drag culture while watching a Jackie Beat parody video of ‘Baby Got Back’ (1992) titled ‘Baby Got Front’ (2007).
Mian was left enticed by the dramatisation through drag.
He then went on to explore local gay clubs which led to further interest in drag culture.
Mian, who lives in Toronto, Canada has incorporated his Pakistani heritage into his drag. Speaking about Mango Lassi, Mian revealed:
“She loves glamour and she loves glitter! She is kind but she has a diva attitude when need be.
“She is everything Humza was told not to be growing up.”
Mian also opened up about some of the negative reactions he faced for his drag queen persona. He said:
“I did have a bit of a negative reaction from a few friends though because they saw drag as a mockery of women or saw it as something that defines the queer community and encompass all queers, which it doesn’t.
“If you’re queer and don’t like drag, it’s A-OK with me!”
While Mian hails from a Pakistani background, he is grateful to have been bought up in Canada.
Pakistan is a nation which does not widely support drag culture as it is considered taboo.
Although in Canada, Mian was able to openly express his sexuality as a gay man.
Through Mango Lassi, he has been able to inspire and encourage many queer youths in countries like Pakistan, India and the Middle East to accept who they are.
Britain’s first Asian drag queen, Asifa Lahore is one of the most visible symbols of raging confidence among the British Asian gay community.
Lahore, who prefers to be called by her stage name came into the national spotlight when she appeared on BBC’s Free Speech.
Despite the backlash she faced, Lahore also featured on Channel 4’s Muslim Drag Queens in 2015. The show received 1.1 million viewers.
In the same year, she was awarded the Attitude Magazine Prize Award as a leading figure in the Gaysian community.
Lahore also made the judging panel for the Independent’s 2015 Rainbow List, a feature she appeared in the previous year.
This strong-willed drag queen has championed activism in several key areas. These include race, religion, intersectionality and gender.
Lahore’s passion for equal rights has seen her be a spokesperson for prestigious institutions like the British Library, Channel 4’s Diversity Festival, Women of the World Festival and more.
Not only that, but she continues to DJ at London’s popular clubs Disco Rani and Club Kali.
Her journey of discovering herself as a transgender and a drag queen has led Lahore to become a voice for intersectional Britain.
Her Instagram is a glimpse into drag culture. There is no doubt she has inspired many people with her journey.
Hailing from New York, Laila Gulabi comes from an Indo-Guyanese and Italian background.
This multinational heritage is vivaciously seen in her drag persona which she considers a reflection of being raised in New York.
Speaking to Homegrown, Gulabi expressed her views on gender. She said:
“I see my gender being extremely fluid. I feel that I relate most to femininity, but I sometimes feel masculine, both feminine and masculine and sometimes neither.”
In fact, Gulabi who prefers to be known by her stage name discovered her love for drag queens at the age of 15.
While watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, she felt “so much joy” and quickly “became addicted.”
Interestingly, Gulabi also gained inspiration from a fellow drag queen, Asifa Lahore. She said:
“If Asifa could do drag and accept her Muslim and Pakistani identities, I felt that I could too.”
However, Laila Gulabi points out a perceived issue in drag culture. Drag queens are often viewed as overly sexualised beings.
Gulabi aims to dismantle this concept as she believes gender, sexuality and race should not be linked with drag.
This fierce drag queen proves that conventional societal constructs can be broken to pave way for art to flourish.
Nitish Anand – Shabnam Bewafa
Known as one of India’s youngest drag queens, Nitish Anand goes by his stage name Shabnam Bewafa.
Despite only being 21-years-old, Bewafa has accomplished a lot throughout her 3-year journey.
She is a TEDx speaker, manages PR for Nazariya and is also a part of the Kitty Su ensemble who perform across India.
Shabnam Bewafa’s Instagram takes you inside her high street fashion shoots. We must say she looks stunning while striking a pose.
Despite initially being hesitant to try her hand at drag, she was also eager to give it a try.
Needless to say, this young drag queen fell in love with this art form and has not looked back since.
She has been inspired by international drag queens, Indian cinema to the general public.
Shabnam Bewafa finds inspiration and joy all around her. She is synonymously known for her bold personality, style and charisma.
We are certain this young drag queen has a lot more in store, so be sure to follow her journey on Instagram.
Desi drag queens are thriving in their field and continue to inspire thousands of people across the globe.
Combining their love for drag with their rich cultural heritage, these drag queens certainly know how to steal the spotlight.
Other admirable mentions include Rimi Heart (Sudipto Biswas), Gentleman Gaga (Sanket Sawant), Hashbrownie (Raghuveer Singh Sandhu), Seventeen (Neelesh Mehrotra) and many more.