Queer-iosity for social change

Drag artiste Patruni Sastri and Kathhak dancer Vivek Modi discuss how art gives expression to their queer personalities and liberated them from social restrictions.
Bharatnatyam dancer Apeksha, Kathak dancer Vaibhav Kumar Modi and drag queen Patruni Sastry. (Photo | Express)
Bharatnatyam dancer Apeksha, Kathak dancer Vaibhav Kumar Modi and drag queen Patruni Sastry. (Photo | Express)

HYDERABAD: Expressionist dance performer and drag queen Patruni Sastry and Kathak dancer Vaibhav Kumar Modi recently engaged in an insightful panel discussion at Goethe Zentrum Hyderabad on queer identity, art and social change. The discussion was moderated by Apeksha, a Bharatnatyam dancer and a mental health professional. Here is an excerpt from the discussion: 

Conforming to societal beauty standards

Apeksha: …I’m talking about thick eyebrows, bright lipsticks and a way of dressing up which does not conform to societal beauty standards…"Natyashastra speaks about how a female dancer should be - someone who has a petite figure, rounded butt, well-shaped breasts, young, beautiful, who is attractive. It also says that any female with scarred eyes, is bald, or anyone who is either very tall/ short/ thin/fat or has an irritating voice is not fit to dance." I would like to know your thoughts on the urgency for this to change.

Patruni: I still fidget with the thought of whether I’m fitting into a performance or what am I presenting as a performer. When I wanted to dance for the very first time in school, I was asked to play Surpanakha. As a male child, I portrayed the distorted idea of femininity in one or the other way.

Having said that, features are a part of any kind of art form. It may be dance or drag. When it comes to core dance forms, like classical dance, for a long time now has been going through a condition of how the dancers’ bodies are presented on stage. When I was trying to shift from Bharatanatyam to drag, I deliberately had a choice of ensuring that I’m not carrying this particular lineage from here to there. For me, I was always this disruptive and I feel that I don’t need to wear makeup because I’m born beautiful. The only thing why I want to use a kind of makeup is to give an imagery of me, something which is alienated and uncommon in society and disrupts their idea of perfection, leading people to confusion so that they see a new beauty, a new definition of beauty. 

Vaibhav: When I was reading my Kathak books there were things like the female dancer has to be like this. There’s no mention of a male dancer. By the way, the books only talk about how female dancers should look on the stage. Does that mean that the males don’t have expression? Does that mean that males are not capable of art? Does that mean that we cannot, by society’s standards, look good? So these are the questions that you may want to ask before just lightly reading into something, especially now that the standards of beauty have changed. What might be beautiful yesterday may not be beautiful today.

Is art liberating? 

Patruni: There’s this wonderful thing in dance, lokadharmi and natyadharmi, where you become an actor or a performer. There is a divide between the audience and the artiste. There is a space where you are alienating yourself from your Sthaai Bhava, body and trying to create a different idea or perspective or a character that you are trying to play. 

The entire anti-beauty part of drag liberates me from financial burden. Constantly living up to the idea of beauty requires money. However, one thing that I realised is, taking a risk to be able to accommodate your art practice within your own space is liberating in itself. Some way or the other it is also very political, like any art is political. When your voice becomes a part of art, it actually goes ahead and transcends into a space where the people or the audience are taking notes of it, they’re taking something out of it, some experience, and then they kind of channelise it in their own spaces to make a change. 

How does art bring social change? 

Patruni: I am grateful that I am surrounded by people who constantly tell me to change my ideas of what art is. If I were trapped in a Bharatnatyam class for continuous 10-15 years, I couldn’t have had the idea to break the system or come out of it and see the actual world. I would not have learned other things that I did in the meantime like German expressionism and how it transcends into the idea of Uto, a Japanese art form. It gave me a chance to learn multiple theories of art and also multiple theories of practice. I still remember the expressionist movement and how exactly it impacted the world of art at that point in time, followed by the postmodern approach to art. My first few performances on streets and metro stations helped me learn the fact that an art form put in public without any bounty makes more effort of sensitisation than protected and strategised theatrical performances.

Vaibhav: I think the entire idea of art is to draw attention. There’s no artiste without an audience. There’s no audience without artists. Whenever there has been a need for social changes, artists have risen up. Stop us and we will show you how it is. India’s freedom struggle is an example of that. I don’t think there’s any change devoid of art. My experience with societal change is more where I feel that just when you want to express something, there are people listening.

Even if there is just one person listening. I speak for my queer community. I have seen my community being pushed in the heart. I was once performing in a queer club and there was a person from a remote village in Andhra Pradesh, who was not revealing his identity. He, very respectfully told me that ‘we live our confidence through you and that hit me so hard. On the stage when we are performing, we are not only just performing. We are role models. We are people giving inspiration to so many people. That’s why the stage has always been so powerful. 

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