"There would be times when you’ll feel that the artists around you hate you and anything you do but that should never stop you from doing your own craft." - Hiten Noonwal.
1. What does "Drag" mean to you personally?
To me, Drag means self expression.
2. When did you start doing drag?
I did my performance when I was in the 6th standard and it truly was a very happy moment for me. That time, I was like this is how I want to live. I wore Lehenga, make up and wig. The song I performed was Parde mein rehne do, the feelings I had in that moment were so beautiful that it cannot be expressed in words. But I was very happy and content.
3. How did you start doing drag?
I’ve been always inspired by Helen. Growing up, watching Helen perform I wanted to be like her. I was extremely fascinated by her costume, dances, make up and head-gears. All of those things amazed, inspired and motivated me. I was mesmerized by her and I used to think to myself that this is what I want to be and this is how I want my life to be.
4. When was the first time you performed in drag?
They say, “we’re all born naked and everything else is drag”. So, if I try to recall my first Drag it would be on Janamshtami which was on 14th August, 1997. My sister and chichi (Aunt) helped me in doing make up and draping up the saree. That was the first time I ever did it. It made me so happy and till this day I have those images.
5. How would you describe your drag style?
My drag style is very much comes from the Behrupiya culture in India. People in this dress up like Krishna, Hanuman, Kali Mata and Shiv ji So I feel whatever I’m doing with my Drag, I’m trying to bring out characters that are inspired by my daily life. Whatever I see and feel from my environment, I create my drag around. So, my drag comes directly from my emotions. Whenever I’m out in public whether it’s photo shoot or live performances, I just don’t dress up and go. My drag is more like a work of art. <y Drag is very abstract, tribal and sometimes it’s a fusion of things. So my drag style is very free but it mostly definitely is a narrative performance style.
6. Criticisms can either make you or break you. What were some critics you got when you started?
Growing up my family and schoolmates used say “he’s a girl” and it didn’t really affect me. Anyways these people used to call me names and it used to make me depressed. With this artform I was able to find myself and express myself. I finally felt like I have a partner because my art is my partner. When there was no one for me, I had my artform with me. So I will never ever leave doing this! My art of drag is my companion.
7. "Relevance of drag in India." What do you think?
Drag has always been an important part of our country as well as our culture. If you go to temple, you will read about yaksh and yakshini, gandharava and kinnar in our mythological scripts. All these people were queer and drag back in the time. If you go to see the folk dances, a lot of men dress up as women. In Harayana, a group of men perform as women on stage and that is called Saang. So while these people are performing in drag it raises the issue of gender sensitization, gender equality and freedom for all. And I believe Drag will help in making this world a better place.
8. What was the initial reaction of your family and friends when you told them about you as a drag performer?
When I was a kid and I used to perform in Drag my parents used to think that my child is so happy. They used to support me until I was a teenager. While I was growing up as my gender fluid and drag identity my parents started getting worried for me. They used to make me delete my pictures and videos on my social media and used to keep asking me about my marriage and how I would not be married because of the make up I put on. They used to have a lot of issues with me and I understand their concern regarding my life and happiness but they think I can only achieve happiness by marrying a woman. Tjis makes sense because they’ve lived that way in the society where an man only marries a woman. However I don’t think everyone is the same, everyone have their choices and orientation. So currently I invest my time in creating awareness about the same and I feel that this is my purpose. No matter what my parents think or say, I am always here as a message to the society and people. I’m not saying I’m doing it for other people but I’m doing it for those who lived the same devastating and depressing life I’ve had in the past. And I genuinely feel if I am doing something good with the art then why should I stop it?
9. "Drag is political." Do you agree? Present your thoughts on the same.
Drag is political because we break a lot of rules and stereotypes. We’re breaking through all the stereotypes and rules created by government and also raising our voice for gender roles. In our societies we assign roles to men and women but as a drag artist a man has the power to fulfill all the roles of a woman. So, yes, Drag is political.
10. Do you feel drag needs to be inclusive? Why or why not?
Yes, Drag needs to be inclusive because Drag talks about freedom and equality. So if we don’t include all kind of people and performers then how will we promote equality? And also a drag performer can do whatever they want, for example if they want or wear a bra or don’t wear it. It needs to be inclusive in terms of drag and free expressions of the art. Drag in it’s nature has to be very free and if it’s not free and we’ve to restrict it then how can we call it drag?
11. Do you believe drag culture is compromised?
Maybe for few artists, it is compromised but for me it is a choice.
12. What are your thoughts on "Drag patronizing"?
Drag is a part of self expression so we don’t need any support as this is the path we have chose for ourselves. So I don’t think Drag is “less than” or anything of that sort. Because we’re doing what we want to do and we’re capable of what we are doing.
13. Were you ill treated/abused because you perform in drag? Please share your experience if comfortable.
Yes, I was trolled so badly on a national television show on colors TV. I participated in the reality show India’s got talent where I got ready with full make up on and performed on Shakira’s number. The judges said on my face, “If I see you in my dream I will scream” and I was extremely shocked. They even changed my song to Laila mein Laila and this happened to me on national television. Everyone was asking me why did I perform on that song? Why did I behave like that? And the sad reality is that they just didn’t do this with us but they did this with all the queer people and they humiliate us.
14. What is your vision through the art of drag?
Whenever I have to be in drag whether it’s photoshoot or performance I always decide and design my own looks, I plan my performances. My performances have storyline of freedom, equality, peace and gender sensitization. So my vision is to make everyone understand acceptance. I use my body as awork of art to express my emotions which is understandable to other humans. This helps in sensitizing the people, my art has now reached to school and college kids. I believe that if I can sensnitize these kids at young age then we would be having a better world sooner.
15. A message you'd like to give to young aspiring drag artists.
Hello to all my little drag artists, all I’d like to say is do a little research about all the on goings happening in the world. Know whatever is happening is your country and city. For example, if you stay in India do a thorough research on all the drag artists, what are they doing? How do they think? What are they wearing? What are their make up styles? Look at their strength and weaknesses and then it will help you with coming up with your own drag identity. Decide your look and style and always remember to have a signature style. If you have a dancing, singing or acting training it will always come in handy. Your command on language (especially English language), money, expensive cloth and jewellery won’t matter unless you’re humble and respectful to other drag artists. There would be times when you’ll feel that the artists around you hate you and anything you do but that should never stop you from doing your own craft.
Follow Hiten Noonwal on Instagram to support her and see her upcoming work at https://www.instagram.com/hiten.noonwal/
About author : Miss Bhenji is an Indian aesthetic drag queen. She's a dancer, actor and a comedian. She's based out of Nagpur and her interview talk show is called Baatein with Bhenji. Baatein with Bhenji was an initiative taken by Miss Bhenji to interview the queer artists of India to give them exposure for people to learn more about them.