‘We Deal with Hurt by Putting It on Stage’
‘I don’t believe any institution can make drag practice.’
Since 2014, Alex Mathew, who goes by the stage name Maya the Drag Queen or Mayamma, has been captivating audiences around the world with mesmerising performances. The name in many languages means fiction, magic or illusion, and Maya wants to form the magic or illusion of being a woman on stage. The conversation below centers on the meaning of drag and its acceptance by society, oppressive norms and discrimination, and the role of drag in questioning our gender and sexual beliefs.
What does drag mean to you?
Drag for me is all about shape-shifting, going on stage, and having a good time. At the same time it tells people not to take gender and sexuality seriously. It’s also about whether I want to be Rekha, the Bollywood actress, one night and a Malayali woman the next. It’s all about living that person’s life vicariously on stage.
Why do you think drag has such a straightforward or restricting definition in media or literature?
As I often say, take life with a pinch of salt and don’t take it too seriously. That, I believe, is what drag is all about. When people try to define it they say things like, “if it’s a drag queen, it’s a man dressing up as a woman on stage for entertainment purposes,” but ultimately, we’re not just being one woman, we’re literally shape-shifting.
It’s almost like if Deepika Padukone decides to play Padmavati in one movie and then another character in another. It’s the same thing, but as drag queens men do it, transwomen do it, genderfluid individuals do it. It’s the same with drag kings: women dress up as men and we’re like larger-than-life personalities on stage.
When you see us on stage don’t expect us to be like that 24x7, we are all different in real life, therefore it’s all about how we project ourselves on stage. In my situation it’s all about femininity, therefore that’s what I do on stage: my femininity is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure.
As you stated, you are all very different in real life: could you elaborate?
Ultimately, all humans have masculinity or femininity, and just because I choose to accentuate my femininity thousands of times larger than I am in real life for my drag queen act doesn’t imply we have two separate personalities or anything. When you turn up the fan dial, that’s what we do with our masculinity or femininity. It’s the same thing when actors like Akshay Kumar and other action stars amp up their masculinity to a hundred to display it in movies and theatres—it’s the same thing we do with our femininity, we amp up our femininity on stage.
Do you believe the definition or concept of drag influences how it is perceived?
It is their definition, it is how they believe or think it is, but it is not always the same thing when someone lives it or acts it. I know that many drag queens go through a path of self-discovery, where they realise that “right, so I fit in this certain section of gender or sexuality,” but it’s also fluid. Drag makes you comfortable with your gender and sexuality—it cannot be mixed with your gender and sexuality.
So many people, when they box the meaning of drag, I disagree with them because we are fluid, so to take a literal meaning of drag as an art form, we cannot do it, because it has existed for centuries altogether, where women were not allowed to perform on stage. Feminine men actually took the roles and started performing, and this dates back to the seventeenth century when Shakespeare was writing plays, which imply it has been around for a long time and people are just not glad to embrace it.
It makes me wonder why people find accepting drag so difficult, simply because it’s called drag?
People are not at ease with themselves. When people witness ‘drag’ on stage, or drag queens or kings on stage, they are concerned or wonder if it is harming them, or if drag performers are mocking them. However, with drag, we do not make fun of someone, rather, we perform or embody the person or personality.
I recently shared a picture on Instagram with the caption “feeling my Shobhaa De moment,” and I was dressed up like her. She shared it on her story saying, “I’m flattered, so kind of you to do that.” Instead of becoming outraged because she thought someone was mocking her, Shobhaa De was flattered.
During my TEDx session someone stated to me, “In Kapil Sharma’s show all of them are drag queens,” which is entirely false: they are not because they are making fun of women, they are parodying women, which is not the same as what we drag queens or drag performers do on stage… it’s happening in the West as well, where people are mistaking drag queens for groomers or paedophiles. It’s just the conservative media making up anything they want.
Now that you’ve brought up the West, where do you believe drag is more accepted?
Drag has always been a component of traditional art forms in India, they just didn’t declare it out loud. Consider a Kathakali performance. I saw a man dressed as the male character and another man dressed as the feminine character, both doing it simultaneously, and it was beautiful to see how they were doing it so differently. It’s all about expressions and how you can communicate to the audience without saying a single word. It exists in our country, but people are not ready to recognise it as an art form.
Conservative leaders in the West want a way to shift attention away from actual challenges such as a lack of funding for education, healthcare, and other necessities. As a result they are shifting people’s attention to something they are afraid of or do not understand.
This is similar to what is occurring in India with the marriage equality hearing. People here know nothing about the LGBTQ community, which is why they make up tales like “What if incest happens?” And we tell them that this is not the goal of marriage equality. Everything boils down to ignorance when you look at the fundamental source of the problem. There has to be a reason to hate, right? But the source of this hatred is ignorance.
Do you believe that people are so comfortable with the concept of binary that they refuse to perceive anything beyond it?
They feel at ease with the binary, but when they encounter someone from the LGBTQIA+ group and are drawn to them, they wonder what is happening to them. With the contemporary generation, there is a lot of misinformation and elevation.
Did individuals or their opinions concern you when you first started out as a drag queen? How do you interact with those unwelcoming of you?
I was young, perhaps 25 or 26 years old, and I was visibly being affected. Back then I would think to myself, “How do I give it back to them?” or “How do I go in front of them and slap them?” What was ultimately important to me was to centre or ground myself. My goal was not to battle them, but to break down preconceptions in society, and I believe I am doing so admirably because there have been so many changes in society, so many changes in the community itself, that I am pleased to see that they are ready to go beyond the binary. Men can now wear nail polish and go around if they desire. Women are now at ease wearing a saree one day and shorts the next. It’s almost like having the freedom to wear whatever you want and not having to listen to others trying to influence your decisions. It began with feeling at ease in choosing what to wear and progressed to gender and sexuality. I’m delighted I’ve reached a point where I can observe so many changes.
To answer your second question, I can tell if someone is accepting or rejecting simply looking at their face. I find it interesting and amusing because I’ve been performing as a drag queen for almost eight years and now know how people react to me. If they accept, that’s fantastic. If they are not, I simply move on because I will not stand there and ask, “Why don’t you accept me?” Because that is their problem; they are missing a part of me that they should have known or had the opportunity to know.
How do specific performers or performances compel audiences to consider oppressive norms?
Oppressed means for centuries, to the point where it becomes tradition when it has never been a tradition. Someone oppressed them, and they accepted it as tradition. As a performer, I tell people my stories, which always have a conclusion, and people enjoy stories because they find them engaging and compelling. Someone once asked me why I didn’t go up to pride marches dressed as my drag persona, and I replied that my activism begins on stage. When I walk on stage wearing a saree, a wig, and makeup, I am making a statement against oppressive norms.
My ancestors or family members have been oppressed to the point where they are unable to function outside of a certain binary, but I went beyond that, I broke the chain. How come I couldn’t be a drag queen? Why can’t I be a drag queen? Why can’t I demonstrate that the women in my family are more powerful than the men? – I do exactly that on stage to demonstrate that you don’t have to be oppressive for so long.
How do you all explore or express yourselves in the face of oppressive norms?
I have written before about how you can’t just take an exclusive space and reserve it for drag queens: there are other options. Before pride marches, there is always a transwoman ready to perform since she was never given the opportunity to perform in an entire year and chooses to perform on that day because she wants to express herself. Many people are denied the opportunity to express themselves because they are confined to a routine or are forbidden or oppressed from doing so. There are areas that encourage expression, such as the Aravani art project, in which a group of transwomen paint the walls of Bangalore. Some people have discovered locations where they can express themselves, while others have not. I explored it through theatre.
Why do you think drag is a subculture—what can we do to make it more mainstream and should we make it more mainstream?
Drag as you mentioned is being placed in a box. Drag is supposed to be fluid. So it’s all the things that box drag, whether subculture or mainstream culture. Drag is intended to be a part of our everyday life. In the song “Kajra mohabbat wala” for example, there is a drag king romancing a drag queen, which is a part of our existence, but many aren’t ready to embrace it. It cannot be classified as a subculture or a mainstream culture.
Do you however believe that a ‘burden of subversion’ influences drag practice and its influence?
I don’t believe any institution can make drag practice. You cannot call it a drag academy or a drag college because how I want to be a drag queen isn’t the same as how someone else wants to be a drag queen.
Don’t you think drag should be institutionalised in a country like India to be recognised as an art form?
It is not necessary, in my opinion, because drag has existed for so long that there has been no need for subversion. The beauty of it is that it brings people from various backgrounds together to perform their interpretation of drag. I don’t think institutionalising it is the best way to proceed because our cultures are so diverse that we can’t all be the same. One cannot say, drag artists can only communicate in Hindi, what about south Indian drag artists? I doubt it will work unless there is room for fluidity.
How do multiple kinds of discrimination affect drag performers and the people who watch them?
We deal with hurt by putting it on stage. That is how people understand the hurt we experience. If you witness a drag performer giving their all on stage, it is because they have experienced so much discrimination that they are letting it all out by expressing themselves. For example, in the West, people protest in front of drag events, but the drag queens don’t give a shit, and they continue to perform. Similarly, the individuals who watch the performance are unconcerned about the protests and are only there to see them.
Do you think that with your work and dedication people will be more open to the notion someday?
This is how history works. Drag has long been a part of our culture, it’s just a cycle: there’s a time when people love drag artists, and then there’s a time when people despise drag artists. This is simply the point at which they are dismissing all drag performers because they fail to understand them. People enjoy spreading tales about situations in which they wish to instil hatred. There is no fact-checking. For example, there are videos floating around of children being around a woman stripper who has been portrayed as a drag queen: imagine how far they have gone to demean drag queens.
How do drag, parody and non-traditional gender expression challenge the traditional ideas that only cisgender, heterosexual people are ‘normal’ and should dictate how everyone interacts with each other?
We don’t take life as seriously as cisgender, heterosexual individuals. We don’t classify anything abnormal or normal because who decides? We identify abnormal or normal based on what we hear or learn, which may differ from generation to generation. But no one tells us how to interact. It is simply the established standard that has been instilled in us.
How does the view that some types of drag are misogynistic in nature connect with discriminatory attitudes towards trans people?
It stems from the concept that transwomen should not be included as a woman bracket. Basically, they believe that drag queens make fun of women, but if you come to see us perform, you’ll realise that we don’t make fun of women, we genuinely become women. People’s perception that we make them feel bad is incorrect—we really elevate them. For example, we show them that if you can see how we do our eye makeup, you can do it too. You can contour your cheeks just like we do. See how I move around in a feminine manner, you can do the same.
Referring back to the Kapil Sharma show example, there are people, specifically women, who find it amusing when it isn’t. So why do they find drag performances offensive?
Ours is a patriarchal society. Women are viewed as the weaker sex in patriarchal societies. If someone makes fun of or parodies a “weaker” sex it is always considered as something especially amazing. There are men who prefer not to be drag queens but will make fun of women, putting on a horrible wig, and lipstick, but still having a slight beard on their face, which people find amusing since that is how a patriarchal culture works.
Do you believe the paucity of drag performances on various accessible platforms or accessible shows is one of the reasons people are unaware that drag is an art form aimed at uplifting gender and sexuality?
No. To begin with, we will make them uncomfortable since they have not addressed their gender and sexuality issues. We are presenting them the mirror. Second, when I first began coming out as a drag queen, I was concerned about why I had to be so loud on stage. After a while I discovered that if I am not loud on stage, people may judge my character or personality as lacking. There are a lot of influencers out there, and their personalities are loud because that’s what sells on social media—the louder you are, the more attention you have. On stage, I do it. I enjoy performing and dancing on stage.
So the crux is the stage, not the large screens or show business?
We want to be on big screens, on television, and everywhere else, but we haven’t been given the chance. Straight men who make fun of women get all the opportunities. Instead of an actual gay person, they cast a popular actor as a gay character.
All of these folks will act, but they will look the other way when it comes to marriage equality. They are not even close to posting anything about it on Twitter or Instagram. They don’t even say anything. That is not correct; at the end of the day, this is tokenism.
This is how we get hurt; we supported and promoted their films when they were launched. Suddenly they are deaf, dumb, and blind when we ask for support. I understand that they are actors, not activists, but don’t only demonstrate your support for the community during the promotion. When the government is after our life with the marriage equality decision, we actually need them.
Any final thoughts?
If you believe you know nothing about the LGBTQ community, please speak with someone from the LGBTQ community before drawing conclusions. Please talk to them and learn about their life story because it is critical. At the same time, if you are a part of the LGBTQ community, remember that you are not alone, that there are people out there, that you have a huge family, and that we are here to support you.
Cover photo Aishwarya Raj / Brown Girl Magazine