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Roots Episode 03: Being a South Asian Drag Queen

Listen: In conversation with Drag Artist Kamani Sutra


In the third episode of Roots with South Asian Today, we speak with Kamani Sutra, a bearded genderqueer drag artist.

With roots in Hyderabad, India, Kamani is currently living and studying the States. The episode explores how drag has a personal family history for them, gender queer dance forms in India and the western gaze.

Transcript:

Dilpreet Kaur:

You're listening to roots with South Asian today. This podcast is being recorded in Australia on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to the Elders, past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded. 

*Intro Music*

Welcome to roots. My name is Dilpreet and today I am super keen to be chatting with Kamani - a bearded, gender queer drug artist, a proud Telugay, and an activist against gender norms. Thank you so much for joining me, Kamani. 

Kamani Sutra:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I've been looking forward for this for a very long time, right? Like it's finally happening. 

Dilpreet Kaur:

Oh my god, I know, right? I've been meaning to chat with you for such a long time as well. Ever since I found you on Instagram, I've been sharing your handles with all my friends, my family. And I was like, we desperately need more Indian South Asian Drag Queens. So, tell me how your journey started. 

Kamani Sutra:

I think back in India, like you know, I was a classically trained Kuchipudi dancer when I was 12 and 13 years old. And I also have seen my grandfather doing we now call it as Drag or because of the Western terms, but they used to call it as like Bhama Kalapam. Bama is like a woman and Kalapa is an art …so a woman art. So he used to do it in a different cities, an acting Mahabharata, Ramayana whatnot. He's always inclined toward feminine characters. And I've seen him growing up doing that. And he has a huge, special suitcase for his wig, saree and everything. My mom is also like Durga devotee, and she has a guru who is also devoted himself to Durga Mata, and that is called Jogini. And he's always dressed up in sari. And then with beard and full on jewellery. And this is not something new for me. It says always queer representation has been there, but we don't know the terms. So it was back rooted from my ancestors, I guess

Dilpreet Kaur:

That is so beautiful. You know, now that you say it, I remember growing up in India, even in areas like Punjab and Himachal, we would see a lot of men cross dressing, a lot of men dressing up in sarees and wearing wigs and performing. And it's really strange to think how despite that, Indians in general, or the culture is still conservative, and we still don't really want to accept gender neutrality, or homosexuality or queerness. Why do you think that is, we have seen this sort of cultural traditional norm? And yet we don't want this to be a part of our life. Why is that?

Kamani Sutra:

It's again, you know, we never, we never know the answers about this, because everything comes, the change comes within the individuals. Even my mom right now, when you're saying the exact terms like what why is it? Why is she not thinking about that, like, why there is no change? She's like, Oh, you can get married at a woman and do whatever you want after that. So, all these people who have been doing in our culture, are married to a woman, like example, my grandfather got married, and he has kids, and my mom guru, he's married, and he has kids. Like, this man has so much of privilege in their society that they could do anything they want. But when it comes to LGBTQ people, they have to fight for their art and also fight for their gender identity in the society. And how “log kya kahenge” (what will people say) like my mom always had this conversation with me. I know you enjoy it, what would other people think?

Dilpreet Kaur:

Haha, this “log kya kahenge?” business has ruined so many of our lives. Somewhere, even if individuals are quote, unquote, progressive, it's the society in general that holds us back. Hmm.

Kamani Sutra:

And also like when I talked to my mom, like when I say like, oh, what do you want? Tell me like, oh, why are you thinking about other people? She doesn't know any answers because she was never told to think about herself. Mm hmm. Very true. 

Dilpreet Kaur:

So going back to your grandfather, it was okay for him to wear saris and perform as long as he was married to a woman.

Kamani Sutra:

Yes, yes. And he has a grandchild and whatnot. He is always hanging out with his cast members. And my grandpa grandmother used to complain, saying like, oh, he always hang out with guys. And I'm like, that resonates me like right now. I'm like, okay, maybe there's something wrong. I mean, not wrong, but there's something queer there. 

Dilpreet Kaur

Your grandfather was the first person that you saw performing. And Is that how you gained interest? Is that how you knew? Oh my god, this is something that I want to do.

Kamani Sutra:

Yeah, um, I would not say not at the right way because it's also I was trying to figure out my own sexuality and like, you know, gender identity, whatnot. Like I said, I have been dancing like, dance is my passion and I love dancing. So when I came to United States, and I had to go back to closet because of, you know, I'm a student here, I had to figure out my status that I have to go to school and like, make my assignments done. And I'm staying with like all the straight men, like 12 straight men in and big in a big house, and I had to go back to closet.

And then I start, I got to know about Trikone Chicago, or from one of the member from queer campus Hyderabad used to organize. It's a South Asian LGBTQ organization in Chicago. And from there, I got to know about LaWhore Vagistan, who's also known as Kareema Khubchandani, and at the same time, in 2016, a friend of mine from Hyderabad moved to Boston. And I got to know that LaWhore is also in Boston. And she was performing and I went there. I saw her performing for the first time. And, wait, I have seen this something like this my grandfather used to do. And I see like LaWhore is doing the same way. And I was like, wait, she is doing Desi Girl song. And I'm like, wait, I can resonate to this. And LaWhore is also like a hairy auntie. And I resonate with her also in a more different level. So that's when I got to know about the term called drag.

Dilpreet Kaur:

Did that encourage you to, you know, start doing what you wanted to do was that a changing point?

Kamani Sutra:

Definitely hundred percent. Finding my own community and feeling or myself comfortable around the people I wanted to be is a huge part of me into getting into this. So I got to know about a local, LGBTQ South Asian LGBTQ organization in DC, Washington, DC area, it's called Khush, DC. And then I started attending to it to the events. And they asked me if I wanted to be on the board, I was a “Oh, I don't know. But maybe I can apply.” And then I applied, they interviewed, and they wanted me to be on the board. That's where I got to know about different people, and different gender identity people and meeting fellow South Asians in United States. And everybody was welcoming. I got to attend some conferences, and I have went to different cities to attend the leadership conferences and did workshops. I felt very comfortable around the community and that made me get into the track.

Dilpreet Kaur:

Oh, that's so beautiful. Can I ask you if the feeling hits differently when you meet another South Asian Drag Queen?

Kamani Sutra:

Definitely like how it hits you when you think about Biryani. And especially saying because of Hyderabadi dum biryani is definitely hit so different. And also, there's a lot of richness that look very different. It's like, even though if you see three South Asian drag queens together, you see like different richness, you don't see any similarity but you you find the different richness in each queen or interacting also.

Dilpreet Kaur:

Yeah, absolutely. Because everyone thinks that all South Asians look the same. But we actually are so diverse and have our million set of different cultures and traditions. So has social media helped you in celebrating your identity or meeting other South Asian drag queens and kings?

Kamani Sutra:

Definitely, I feel like social media has made me like grow a lot. Because while growing up, I didn't have any social media and I cannot see any person. I mean, I had in social media, but didn't have the exact presentation that I'm going right now. Like a bearded genderqueer person who could do drag and also be as a genderqueer person off track. And there's also a backlash with it. There's so many of homophobic and transphobic people who would just randomly message. 

Dilpreet Kaur:

When you get these messages. What's your first reaction? How do you deal with them? Or if you do at all, do you ignore? Do you try to chat with them? Or are you just like “No, fuck it block, delete”? 

Kamani Sutra:

I kind of feel sad about them. And also on the other hand, or do I have energy to educate these people who has like very two or three followers, whose main agenda is to have an fake account and be behind these people who are being fierce. And the other part people who comment on my Facebook on our on my post, like hate messages. Still trying to navigate…do I delete the message? Or do I keep the mental comment? Because when I keep the hate messages, all these youth upcoming generation would see it and feel bad about it. And also, they might be like, Oh my god, what are we getting into? Maybe I should not do it. Mm hmm. 

Dilpreet Kaur:

I understand mental health piece over hate, right? Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us? 

Kamani Sutra:

I'm doing a photo project about my Drag for different segments, talking how it is rooted into my South Asian mythology. And it's not very Western. So it's a huge project that I am trying to put it out and make a video about it. And like three minutes or four minutes of a video that way, it's also like, trying to make people understand where my whole aesthetic is coming from.

Dilpreet Kaur:

Oh my god. Are you serious? When is this coming out? 

Kamani Sutra:

I think it probably would be in 2021. Because of the COVID, I wanted to do it in like a photo Art Gallery projection with my pictures and have a video and facilitate the conversations. Rather than just releasing the photos on social media. I wanted to reach it like in a bigger spectrum.

 Dilpreet Kaur:

That sounds incredible. I absolutely cannot wait and good luck with it, Kamani. Lastly, before you go, one question I ask all my guests is if you had to define representation in one single sentence, what would you say? 

Kamani Sutra:

Taking up the spaces. Occupy all of them. f it is very heteronormative - please do. If it it is very white cis gay men space, please take over.

Dilpreet Kaur:

Taking up the spaces

Kamani Sutra:

Taking up the spaces.

Dilpreet Kaur

On that note, thank you so much for joining me on Roots with South Asian today. I wish you all the very best. And please keep lighting my Instagram feed. Thank you so much!

Kamani Sutra:

And thank you so much for creating this space for all these folks.

*Outro music*

Dilpreet Kaur:

To stay tuned with all our upcoming episodes, subscribe to our Spotify, Apple podcasts, or give us a visit on www.southasiantoday.com.au

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.

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