The first time I meet Kush and Lush at a south Delhi bakery, they are visibly nervous. The mug of hot chocolate lies untouched in front of Kush. Lush hasn’t taken a bite of his banoffee pie. Outside, Delhi is draped in all its winter finery. Both Kush and Lush are in their lawyer’s garb. A sliver of a crisp white shirt is visible from the sleeves of Kush’s navy-blue pullover. “Will our interview appear in the national edition of the paper?” asks Kush. When I answer in the affirmative, he smiles a hesitant smile.
Perhaps, we could blur their pictures. This almost jolts them awake. They brush off their reservations almost within minutes. “Blurring pictures will seem shady. We are not doing anything shady. We need to do this,” says Lush, taking a determined scoop of the pie. “The idea is to revolutionise the status quo to help others find a voice,” says Kush.
Lush, 27, is a human rights lawyer based out of Delhi. Kush, who is also 27, has performed as a drag queen in a number of queer events in Delhi for the past few months. Their profession, they say, inspired them to embrace their drag persona. “My academic background in law and gender is a major influence. Through drag, I try to go beyond conventional gender roles,” says Lush.
Kush, who has been friends with Lush since their law school days in Kolkata, agrees. “The power of drag gripped us instantly. I loved the freedom and self-confidence that came with understanding that gender is a dangerous construct. Everyone should be able to look, act, think and talk in any way that they like. As lawyers, we are supposed to facilitate that,” says Kush.
The green room at Delhi’s Shah auditorium is surprisingly draughty. It’s a huge hall with a row of mirrors lining one wall. At one corner of the room is a toilet. It has “LADIES” written on the door with what seems like nail polish. Lush and Kush are sharing the women’s changing room with Betta, their drag sister. In a few hours, they will perform for Delhi’s annual queer fest. Kush is applying the first layer of foundation on his face. This is not the Kush I met last week.
“As a child, I always had a fascination for crayons. Mom would groan as she recalled how I would draw inconceivable gibberish on the walls of our home and on every surface I could find. When I wasn’t painting, I could be found in a corner sincerely clothing and unclothing all my toys. Toys which did not wear clothes had their heads and limbs interchanged. I was only half way to becoming a complete monster, and the ability to change appearances appealed to me at a very young age,” he says.
“Monster” is not the word to describe the beautiful but fierce creature that Kush transforms into as we speak. As he talks about his childhood in Kolkata, Kush seems to be mapping his own life for us. Fantasy novels were his first escape. “I would devour Harry Potters and Tolkiens. It was considered a harmless hobby. No one had any doubt I was a good boy, and I otherwise performed my assigned gender diligently,” says Kush. Eventually, law school helped him shape his world view. “Feminism and minority rights drew me with their appeal for social justice. The lessons had a lasting impact. Till that point I had not even realised that everything I did, from the clothes I wore to the doors I opened for girls, was a constant show or performance in order to maintain my identity in the world,” says Kush.
Lush, who is in the process of slipping into a sequinned red gown, excuses himself for a moment. Suddenly, I am conscious of being a man in a ladies’ changing room. Lush swipes away all my discomfiture with a wave of hand. “Drag is about putting on a persona. When a policeman wears his uniform, he is doing drag. When you wear a suit for work, you are doing drag,” says Lush.
Yet, the expectations of his gender role were instilled in Lush from a very young age. “I remember how I would wrap my mum’s dupatta around myself and dance to Madhuri Dixit numbers as a kid. Everyone would think it’s funny, but I could see how it affected my mother. She didn’t say anything but I could detect the tension in her face. That’s when I realised that I have to be a conventional boy,” says Lush.
He learned to ignore his drag self and would have continued to do so had it not been for RuPaul, the famous American drag queen and television host. “I have always been inspired by artists like Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Prince, who bend traditional gender roles. But the fascination for drag culture started with discovering RuPaul’s Drag Race, where drag queens compete for the title of the next drag superstar,” says Lush. The show, which celebrates drag as a philosophy and art form, is a rallying point for many people who find themselves out of place in this world. “In all my years of watching films and TV, never had I come across a show which celebrated everything I was embarrassed about myself. The show became a gateway for me to explore drag in pop culture and around me,” adds Lush.
Drag is Magic
It’s less than 20 minutes before their performance and Kush is adding finishing touches to his tricks for the evening. A swift twirl will magically transform his pant-suit into a shimmering gown. “For me, drag was especially about performing magic. It allows you to be anybody you would like to be. Even in recent shows, I have enjoyed transforming my look mid-performance or bringing out hidden objects to enthral the audience,” says Kush.
Both Lush and Kush agree that the drag scene in India is still in its nascent stage. Yet they are hopeful. “The queer-friendly club Kitty Su in Delhi also provided me my first public stage, and the enthusiasm of the audience that night was quite overwhelming,” says Kush. Lush claims that the biggest battle he had to fight was with himself. “Surprisingly, people around me have been very positive about it. Drag does take some time for people to get used to, but once they are on board, it’s a joy ride. The negativity, if any, has been mainly internal, in struggling to love and accept myself fully and showing the world this fabulous side of me,” he says.