Austin and Harry’s conversation with Anuj Vaidya was a highlight for the Draggedy project. They explored the themes of not only gender, but also nationality and species, in drag. Anuj discusses his work from his first experience of dragging Bollywood actress Helen to his most recent work, which finds drag as a tool to discuss the radical possibilities of imagination.
Anuj explains his drag history as starting with performances to the music of Helen, a popular Bollywood actress from the 1950s through the 1970s, for his family in his home nation of India. When he immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of 17, Anuj would retain in his mind the image of Helen as a symbol of his home nation and childhood, and would eventually end up performing drag as Helen yet again during his MFA program at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
Nationality in Drag and in Bollywood
After immigrating to the United States and dealing with maintaining his own Indian identity in a new setting, Anuj looked back to the work of his childhood idols such as Helen in order to deconstruct the ways in which we look at identity and nationality. This became part of his MFA work, in which he used five characters portrayed by Helen in order to create a film which addressed the issue of nationality in an exceedingly globalized world. Anuj also found during this process that not only was he himself dragging Helen in this project, but that Helen herself had been dragging a specific type of Westernized femininity in each of the films she had portrayed. Drag was thus not entirely about gender, but about all different sorts of identity categories.
This conceptualization of drag as playing with different forms of identity would be carried through the rest of Anuj’s drag work, with the focus moving from nationality to issues of ecology and species. This change in theme reflects the evolution of Anuj’s own interests, as he explains that his drag is affected by what is happening for himself in the here and now, as all his art projects are. As his questions of national identity began to be resolved throughout his time in school, more questions surrounding ecology—including an interrogation of what it means to be human and how we all fit into the natural world—began to pop up for Anuj. This would come to influence the next pieces of Anuj’s work, as drag moved beyond gender and nationality but also to species. Anuj’s next project focused on ecological themes as told through the eyes of Miss Piggy, dragged by Anuj himself.
Anuj’s work as Miss Piggy explored themes of ecology and nature, interrogating the relationship between humans and the natural world in which we exist while also exploring the very theme of what it means to be human and what it means to be animal. This project also explored the relationships humans have with their environment in its cinematographic techniques, using only renewable, “green” energy sources to power the recording equipment, including hand cranks and bicycle power.
The Radical Possibilities of Drag
Anuj’s drag work continued to evolve after his work as Miss Piggy, and continued to explore more ecological themes. His most recent work, Larval Rock Stars, is a collaboration with Colombian diasporic artist Praba Pilar, and focuses on the radical possibilities within each of us as the two artists drag themselves as literal larvae. In this way, the form of drag is dissected and presented to the audience as the art of becoming that which we yearn to be—as the artists are literally dragging larvae, a metaphor for the transformative power of our own selves. This is ultimately what drag is to Anuj: the radical possibilities of becoming anything which we aim to be, and the state of being in this transformation for all of our lives.
To keep up to date with everything that Anuj is working on, please be sure to check out his website by clicking here. His films, Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold and Diane Sawyer Live: An Exclusive Interview with Miss Piggy can also be found on Anuj’s website. Be sure to follow Harry and Austin on Twitter at @hhawk and @rainbowsquirtle, respectively. And be sure to follow Talking About Everything and The Draggedy Project on Stitcher Radio and iTunes! Keep checking back to www.draggedy.com for more episodes, pictures of gender performers, and links to more information about the artists we cover.