(Photographed by Sumalika VJ)
By Zaiceka Ahmed
I intended to start off this piece with an intense discourse on the definition of art. I wanted to say things like ‘its interpretation depends on the culture in which it arises from and is presented to’, or simply paraphrase Plato’s “art is an imitation of nature”. It is a question that has challenged generations of philosophers, and is best left to the experts.
For now, let’s just say it is that small window which temporarily lets one put across one’s experience of life to another person in the hope that they momentarily feel the same. And as diverse the experience of life is, so are the forms that one can implement to express it.
A brilliant example of this diversity is seen in the form of art – a rare subset of stage performance – chosen by Alex Mathew. A Bangalore based man brimming with creative energy and talent, Alex takes on the persona of a woman – complete with the attire, attitude and even makeup typical to the fairer sex – when he goes on stage. A skilled singer, dancer and theatre actor, Mayamma, the female character adopted by Alex, is India’s most eminent Drag Queen, and this artist is locked and loaded to reach out to a nationwide audience!
His insights tell a lot about what it’s like to take up an offbeat career –
“Your art is pretty much unheard of being performed in India. When and why did you choose it?”
I started to perform as a drag queen/drag performer in September 2014 at ‘The Humming Tree’, Bangalore. I chose it because I felt stagnated as a performer and I wanted to do something different. I was done playing safe and was ready for something out of the box!
(Former photographed by Manasi Marathe, latter by Abhijna RN)
“You have said that celebrity drag queen RuPaul from the United States is your idol. What was it about her persona that inspired you? Is there any similarity between RuPaul and Maya?”
Oh yes. A lot of similarities. Her elegance, classy and quirky side inspired me to make Mayamma/Maya the Drag Queen. Also, her goal to inspire many drag queens influenced me a lot. Now I have a similar goal to have more drag queens from India.
(Rupaul is an Emmy Award winning television personality, record artist, author, model, actor, and has his own cosmetic and perfume line. Images taken from Google)
“Honest question – how many times have you had to explain to people that you are not a trans-gender woman?”
I have run out of count! It’s an ongoing discussion that I keep having with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a transgender, a cross dresser and a drag queen. I felt hurt recently when a leading newspaper misrepresented me as a cross dresser. They don’t realize that they are confusing identities, and that it leaves an indelible negative impact on a person. At times, I feel I have to keep making educational videos for people to understand the difference.
“Speaking of educating people, you are an active proponent of gender equality/fluidity – what steps have you taken to spread the acceptance of this ideology?”
Since I started to perform in drag, I wanted to focus on issues related to individualism, gender equality and feminism. The whole societal norm that a man should be like this and a woman should be like that is utter bullshit. Let people be who they want to be. Why put them in boxes? Performing on stage as a woman is in itself is a form of activism. I call it performance activism. Lately I have been working toward educating my audience by incorporating stories related to gender equality into my performances. That apart, I work as a communications officer in a NGO called Solidarity Foundation which deals with better livelihood for sex workers and LGBT community.
(Photographed by Rahul Gudipudi)
“Considering that your career choice is not a conventional one, how well did your decision to pursue it go down with your family and friends?”
Well, my mother gave me her saree to perform after a lot of coaxing and pleading. Once she heard that, I was doing for second time is when she put her foot down. But, i carried on with my performances. We were angry with each other. However, we realized that hurting each other isn’t the way and forgave about what we have done. Friends come and go. Only true friends stick by you and know what you have been through.
“Has there been a performance/event that is particularly special to you?”
Recently, I performed at a school by the name ‘Poorna’. That was very special to me. The kids there had some amusing reactions, including questions like, “What’s that on your head? If that’s a wig, please remove it” and “Is it important for men to learn how to tie sarees?” which I found hilarious!
“Do you see a shift in mentality towards gender fluidity in kids from that of the older generations?”
Kids are smart these days and I loved answering their questions. They are well informed. It’s a struggle to educate people from older generations.
“Maya is so stylish! Who is her fashion icon?”
Rupaul of course. Coming to Bollywood, it has to Madhuri Dixit and Rekha.
“Do you have a favourite song which you like to perform most?”
I sing a song known as “Love’s never easy” from musical Bombay dreams. It’s an AR Rahman track set to the same tune as ‘Ishq Bina’ (Taal). I love to dance to Madhuri Dixit medleys because I am expressive like her!
“There has been a merry change in Maya’s personal life – she got married! I so want to know her love story!”
Haha, Yes! Maya got married because her long time boyfriend was whining! Jokes apart, you must be referring to a photoshoot I did because I wanted people to realize the beauty of love and that they can be with anyone. Also, it adds to the back-story of Maya’s character.
(Photographed by Pritham Denzil D’souza)
“What about Alex’s love life?”
I prefer to keep it in wraps! Once it’s official, I will let people know.
“What are your plans for Maya for 2017?”
I want Mayamma to be known nation-wide…I want India know about her.
“What message would you give to potential artists who repress their talent due to societal pressure?”
I want them to learn how to love themselves and prepare to be who they are. That’s what’s important. Don’t go by what society thinks.
“Lastly, why did you choose the name ‘Maya’? Any special significance?”
‘Mayamma’ in Malayalam means ‘mother of illusion’ or ‘mother of magic’. The name is a representation of the sheer illusion formed when I perform as a woman on stage.