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Dates with drag
Thirteen queer women pose for a calendar that lets them playfully deal with the masculine sides of their personalities.
Tanya, 30, stands on the banks of a lake brandishing a sword. Legs apart, mouth curved in a snarl, one hand stretched out in a slightly foppish gesture, she looks menacing and a little comical at the same time - much like the character she represents. From the beads in her hair to the heavy kohl lining her eyes, she is the spitting image of a character who anybody with even a passing acquaintance with popular culture can identify as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Tanya is one of 13 women who are part of a unique photography project, ManiFest, which will be developed into India's first Drag King calendar (12 photos for the year and one for the cover). The calendar girls are all queer women who have cross-dressed as male characters from pop culture. So apart from Jack Sparrow, there is Maverick from Top Gun, Indiana Jones, Clark Kent, Zorro, Michael Jackson and uniquely Indian characters like Quick Gun Murugan, Chulbul Pandey and Alex, the ball-scratchy coconut seller from the Channel [V] show Lola Kutty.
"It all started quite casually, " says photographer Indu Antony, who developed the idea for ManiFest with several of her friends from Bangalore's queer community. Antony has a built up a considerable body of work involving queer men and women. Among her earlier photo projects are 'Beauty in the Blur', an effort to showcase the beauty and grace of transgenders, which became an exhibition that travelled to many Indian cities, and 'Bitch, Please!', a collection of photos featuring gay men in drag. In fact, both these were precursors to ManiFest, which became quite more ambitious as Antony and her team chose to shoot in outdoor locations.
"My earlier shoots with transgenders and crossdressing had been done in the studio. With the drag king shoot, we kicked it up a notch up by taking it to the streets, " says Antony. "You could say these are attempts to understand the fluidity of human sexuality. "
The easiest part of the project was finding the 13 'models' who would don male avatars and the toughest was completing the shoot in two and a half days. Calls went out on WHaQ! (We're Here and Queer!), a support group founded in Bangalore in 2009 for queer, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. On WHaQ!'s Facebook page and email group, responses poured in and the 13 women had soon been signed up - 11 from Bangalore and two from Mumbai;among them a school teacher, a lawyer, a financial analyst, a technical writer, a real estate executive and a few students. "Most of them were pretty comfortable with their identity being outed. The calendar will carry their real names, though a few requested that only their first names be used, " says Antony.
'Jack Sparrow' Tanya says she chose the mincing pirate as her avatar because "it was a total departure from my personality". "I'm quiet, he's flamboyant and sharp-tongued. At the same time, he has slight queer undertones. The whole experience of shooting was complete madness, with the costumes and the makeup and the real sword that I was very proud of, " says Tanya. But it was more than just a costume experience for her. "Binding the chest, striking a more 'manly' posture and adopting male mannerisms - it was about letting go of your femininity, exploring the masculine side of your personality. We often forget that everyone has both feminine and masculine sides. "
Diana Morris, a 36-year-old film-maker whose Love, Lust And Leela screened at this year's Bangalore Queer Film Festival, says she had reservations initially about being part of the project. Morris, who also works at a business consultancy, was worried about how this might affect her professionally. "I'm out to my family, so that was not a problem. They've always been great, really supportive. So I discussed it with my mother and sister, and they said, 'why not? You have to be out publicly some day, so do it now', " says Morris. She's Michael Jackson in the calendar - a performer she feels a strong emotional connection with. On the calendar, she appears in the trademark Jackson garb of white shirt, black pants, gloves and fedora, one hand in the air and the other clutching her makeshift crotch.
"Creating the fake bulges led to a lot of giggling, " recalls Rahul Pillai, who helped with the costumes and makeup. The toughest part of the transformation was flattening breasts, he says, and they did it with the help of sports bras, crepe bandages and cling-film. Pillai, who works with a recruitment firm, has been interested in drag culture for a long time, and working on this project was an extension of that. "As a gay boy growing up in India, there were not that many role models. I was attracted by wigs and high heels, but scared to step out in them. But drag has been part of Western culture for a long time, and I was inspired by Western drag queens, " says Pillai, who sees drag as an art-form and different from cross-dressing in being more exaggerated, heightened and 'professional'.
Pillai, who has also assisted with the makeup and costumes for 'Bitch, Please!', says it's easier to transform men into women because the aids for it are more accessible - from makeup to hair epilators to wigs. "This was a challenge. Contouring feminine features to make them 'heavier', adding texture to the skin to make it look rough... I've never done this before and it was a challenge just to find the right aids. For some of the models, I ended up using tea powder to create a light stubble, " he says.
The shoot took two and a half days and was pure madness from start to finish, says Antony. The photos will be part of an exhibition right before Bangalore's annual Pride march, which will take place in early December this year. That's when the calendar will also be unveiled. "When I saw the girls dress up and act out their masculine sides... it was incredibly empowering at some level. Shooting at public locations was not going to be easy, but they were so confident, " says Antony.
Ultimately, she feels, it's all about creating confidence - in the individual and the community. "After 'Bitch, Please!', I've had boys writing to me from Bihar, Pune, Ahmedabad, saying they felt like doing this too. One guy wrote in saying, 'I steal my sister's saris and wear them. I want to come to Bangalore and get my picture taken by you'".
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