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Between two lines — Design Fabric X Durga Gawde Studio

Cover Story 15 Jun

To ring in Pride Month, we turn the lens on three up-and-coming Indian drag artists. In between hair tosses and flashes of the camera, they unravel the stories of becoming and owning their true selves. 

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There is something about identities that lie outside the pre-defined gender binaries that rattles the human brain. Gender is a diverse spectrum that cannot be put into comfortable boxes nor is identity, or the external expression of identity, synonymous with sexuality. To kickstart a conversation about the complexity of the human experience, we got together with three non-binary individuals, who also happen to be drag performers, to share their stories of navigating life in India.

Through a series of telling portraits captured by photographer Tito, artists Durga Gawde, Suruj Rajkhowa and Randy Scarhol give us a taste of how drag culture has enabled them to express parts of their personality that normally gets suppressed in a heteronormative society.

Tucked between their bare, intertwined bodies and the layers of shimmering organza is an investigation of gender expression coupled with a celebration of their individuality and unabashed beauty.

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Shakti, Durga Gawde's alter ego, is a toast to their past melded with the promise of where they're headed with their career as an artist.

Durga Gawde, 25
'Shakti'

Last year, after I came out to my family as a gender fluid person, my life completely turned around. When I realised how difficult it was to explain what gender fluidity really meant to my own parents, I began engaging in a lot of on-ground activism around the subject. I wanted to make some images that would challenge gender binaries to iterate the fact that one’s gender isn’t determined by what’s between your legs; instead it’s about what’s in your mind and how you feel as a person. This understanding is ever-so-important in a country like India, where pre-conceived gender roles dictate one’s place in society. 

Sometimes I am a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes both and at times, neither. The way I experience and express my gender is ever-evolving. Shakti, my drag alter ego, is an extension of Durga. I am proud of my family, their artistic influences and where I come from. I did not want to leave all of that behind when creating Shakti. Durga, in the truest sense, means the goddess of power, but it is also a very feminine representation of power. I stripped off the connotations of gender and arrived at Shakti, who stood for the essence of what Durga signifies.

The switch between masculine and feminine could be organic or happen in the flick of a second; I have no control over it. I remember being at Randy’s show one day as Shakti. In a momentary switch, I started feeling more feminine, so I wiped off my beard and slipped out of my shirt. At times, these flips take me completely by surprise, but if I do not express my gender identity moment to moment, I fail to function, owing to the mammoth-sized discomfort I feel because of the way I am treated by society. Gender identity is a complicated labyrinth, not just a two-way street. So when people lie in between the perceived binary ends of the spectrum, society has a hard time engaging with their gender identity. More often than not, non-binaries are treated without respect. With this project, I wanted to broach that idea and begin a discourse that would help every non-binary person feel accepted and celebrated for who they are and remind them that they don’t have to spend the rest of their lives being anyone but themselves.

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Last week, Suruj Rakhowa took the stage in Mumbai for their debut act as Little Mickey. For the 26-year-old, this marked a milestone in their journey of owning their true self

Suruj Rajkhowa, 26
'Little Mickey'

My identity was always a part of my conscience, so I never had a defining moment when I realised that I am a gender fluid person. I was born gender fluid. I don’t think gender can be put into two neat boxes of a man or a woman. There are days when I feel like neither. On those days, I would rather put on two horns and strut out into the world as a non-human. I’d be more comfortable in my skin then.

I had a hard time growing up in Assam as a boy who was too feminine for his own good. At the same time, I was very aware that I didn’t want to become a woman. My body was my own and I never wanted to change anything about it. My identity was very lucid to me, but I struggled to explain the complexity of the emotions I had bottled up inside myself to the rest of the world. So when I turned 21, I came out to my parents in a 30-page long letter as a gay boy, knowing all too well that a man who was really a woman would be too convoluted a concept for them to grasp.

When the idea of becoming a drag artist first popped up in my head, I questioned why I needed to put on a dress, go up on stage and perform. The questions answered themselves when I realised that this isn’t really a performance; it’s something I had been doing all my life. As a child, I’d wrap a dupatta and dance around the house, always putting on a show for my mother and sister. Last week, Durga and I debuted our drag shows, marking a milestone in both of our lives. I have never felt more like myself as I did taking the stage as Little Mickey. 

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Through Veronique, Randy Scarhol celebrates their identity as a trans femme in all its glory

Randy Scarhol, 23
'Veronique'

For years, I struggled to define who I really am. I always knew I was gay. But there were other facets to my personality that eluded me, and I couldn’t quite place a finger on it. That confusion can be maddening; it was very hard to deal with, especially as a teenager. I rebelled in whatever way I could - I got piercings and dyed my hair every shade imaginable. In 2016, I got into a lot of trouble and my parents forced me to dye my hair black and be more of a ‘man’.

Looking back, I realise that it was a turning point in my life, almost a jolt that I needed. Being shoved into a corner made me face my unhappiness and do something about it. I wasn’t going to let the world question my identity as a trans femme in the name of archetypes born of a social system that is corrupted by centuries of toxic patriarchy. My identity is transitional; it is ever-shifting. So I decided to stand my ground and revel in my individuality.

I’ve had alter-egos all my life because I was never at peace with, or rather, understood who I was. These personalities helped me bridge the gap between my assigned gender and my internal gender identity. At 16, I transformed into Randy, and she helped me move on from my cisgendered self and shed the unnecessary baggage that belonged to my past. With her, I overcame the twisted expectations of patriarchally-defined masculinity to inch closer to my real self. But I hadn’t truly found myself until last year, when I invented Veronique. She’s my drag ego; she’s unapologetically bold, beautiful, with a shock of blonde hair and inspired by all things Lady Gaga. Drag has been an exceptional experience for me and I just finished my national tour. Things can only get better from here.

Produced by Design Fabric.