Kali Zine: The Drag Queen & the Dancer

Read__17 May 2018

It's hard out here for folks with big femme energy, but we got art to see us through - Alex and Abhinaya talked with us about their journeys through gender.

Most Indian mythology employed frame narrative where stories of various characters developed and overlapped, allowing its readers to understand the bigger picture, and view characters holistically. Nigerian author Chimmamanda Adiche once said, “A single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that are untrue but that they are incomplete. When we reject the single story of a place we regain a kind of paradise.”

If paradise is a place where people are viewed in their entirely, as multi-faceted personalities then India, a country whose social and political systems are deeply dictated by patriarchal values, is a feminist hell. Patriarchy imposes the single story of what it means to be female and often represents feminine qualities as timid, submissive and weak.

In a fast modernizing society the identity of the Indian woman is constantly changing, and being redefined through the resistance and acceptance of patriarchy.

In this issue we are trying to show, through the lives of Alex and Abhinaya, the different ways that people approach femininity. We reject the single story, resisting stereotypes of what it means to be an Indian woman and how that can be expressed and represented in different ways.

Kali Zine

Pictured Alex Mathew as Maya, photo by Maharaja Patiala

Alex Mathew is a queer boy from Kerala, with a thick Malayali accent and a background in theatre. He lives in Bangalore, and by day works as a communications officer at an NGO, by night he performs drag as Maya. Through drag he has found a way to express not only femininity but also a part of himself.

A new art form in India, people often confuse Alex for a cross-dresser or transgender. Consequently, Alex has faced difficulty with coming out as a queer man and at the same time as a drag queen.

Abhinaya Penneswaran, on the other hand, is a cis female from Tamil Nadu. She grew up in Delhi under various cross cultural influences. She is a performing artist, and growing up distanced herself from being too “girly” for fear of not being taken seriously, and deriving strength from adopting “masculine” qualities.

In her essay Notes on Camp Susan Sontag states, “What is the most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.” Although her statement could not be more true, it seems that both Alex and Abhinaya’s approach to femininity seems to stem from a resistance to the constraints of patriarchy.

Alex, through his drag character Maya, portrays the empowered Indian woman. A woman deeply connected to her roots but rejects the Indian stereotype of being submissive. Alex was careful not to have Maya’s character be a caricature of an Indian woman, and the backstory he created for her reflects this.

“I wanted her to be a woman of substance, I wanted her to go through what women go through in their daily lives. So I built a background story for Maya, that she came from a family of abuse and how she came out of it. How she moved into a new city with her lover,” Alex tells us.

Much of Maya’s character draws from Alex’s observations of his mothers life.

“My mother used to help women go through physical, mental and sexual abuse in their day to day life. And I was always around to hear those stories since I was young,” he said. “So as Maya, I take examples of those experiences in order to project her as a strong willed woman, a woman fighting for issues like individualism, gender, equality and feminism. That’s what I do.”

Alex’s mission is especially admirable in Indian society as the embodiment of femininity through a patriarchal lens is always seen as weak, timid and submissive.

Kali Zine

Pictured Abhinaya Penneswaran, photo by Maharaja Patiala

"Resisting stereotypes of what it means to be an indian woman and how that can be expressed and represented in different ways."

Abhinaya on the other hand, lives the life that Alex tried to portray through Maya. Abhinaya‘s relationship with being female and embodying femininity in a patriarchal is a much more existential process as she is a cis female. She grew up adopting more “masculine” traits as thats what made her feel empowered in her reality.

“Growing up I found a lot of girls around me who didn’t really make me feel very good about being a girl, from the way I looked or the way I spoke or behaved,” she said. “I think I was a little too brash and I think I still am. There were a lot of people, girls especially, who tried a lot to put me down, in small simple ways. Initially that did push me away from femininity as I associated it with being delicate or weak in some ways.”

But when she turned 20, she started to train as a professional dancer. A female dance teacher whom she admired greatly showed her that a woman could be strong year fiercely feminine. Abhinaya now through dance and performance counts her feminine energy as her strength and her masculine energy as the force behind her adamant drive to chase her dreams.

“Where I am right now is a very harmonious place with it. Majorly because feminine energy for me means power, strength. All my life I’ve tried not to be delicate and always tried not to be one of those girls who puts other girls down. I want to be the girl who helps other girls feel good about themselves cause I didn’t have that when growing up,” she said.

The ultimate goal of feminism is to make itself obsolete, and in the same vein, the stories of both these individuals seem to illustrate how arbitrary gender is. It is almost as if gender is fluid.

Had there been more representation in popular culture, on the different expressions of femininity, then perhaps Abhinaya would be more accepting of her inherent “girliness” and Alex more inclined to live his life as a queer man without having to dress in drag to express femininity.

Hopefully by telling more stories like that of these two extraordinary people we give other girls who feel the pressure to be a certain way, permission to be themselves and live their lives with conviction and a strong sense of self.

Words & Design by Natasha Sumant
Photography by Akshay Bhoan
Models: Abhinaya Penneswaran & Alex Mathew