RIP Queen Harish- Ghagra Swirls of Redemption and Empowerment
June 7, 2019
After the passing of their parents, the responsibility of taking care of two sisters led then 13 year old Harish Kumar to turn their hobby into a profession, and dance to the rhythm of traditional folk songs of Rajasthan in their dancing queen alter ego.
Some of their friends suggested they should dance as a woman because they had the features to pull it off and earn a few extra bucks. Harish was not extremely happy with the idea and felt embarrassed but agreed so that they could continue their studies. Little did the shy 13 year old know that Queen Harish who was born out of hardship and struggle is what would lead them to earn worldwide recognition and respect.
Queen Harish had a natural charm about them, an ease with which they performed in their avatar that left their audience awestruck. The grace and poise that marked Queen Harish’s dancing had taken immense dedication and time. They had taken many classes to polish their skill, to earn the centre stage and become well versed with most Rajasthani dance forms— Kalbelia, Chang, Ghoomar, Bhawai et al.
However, their favourite remained the Bollywood style that they had been watching ever since they were a child and which had been their main attraction to the art of dance. Featuring in many Bollywood gigs as well as the musical documentary “When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan,” this talent show semi-finalist had become not only an iconic name amongst folk artist but also a renowned artists who was sorted after internationally for cultural showcases which led them to tour New York, Tokyo, Barcelona among other places.
Many of their close colleagues remarked how they would have men swooning after their performance and how most would fail to recognise the simple Harish Kumar after the performance in their usual attire once the bright make up, and the colourful sequinned ghagras that marked Queen Harish’s presence on stage were taken off.
Queen Harish had spoken about having developed an understanding and consciousness about female struggle through their experiences performing as a woman. They once talked about how important it was to draw a line while sharing their memories of being catcalled and receiving unsolicited advances from men. This further reiterates the importance of providing space to female perspectives and lived experiences.
Art forms such as drag not only help break the gender binaries but also help sensitise men to understand the finer lived experiences of women and the subtle harassment and massive fear that women of all classes face every day while stepping out of their houses.
Although, Queen Harish had not even heard of the term drag before performing internationally, they were quick to become a beloved part of the community.
Betta, a fellow drag queen, when asked about her memory of Queen Harish, said, “I had the pleasure to watch Queen Harish perform at Kitty Su’s seventh year anniversary. What made Queen Harish so unique was the fact that at this modern age they were performing a traditional art form, native to India. I remember how graceful they were, they could easily match or beat any woman at tradition style dance.”
She added, “I got the opportunity to meet Harish too and they were such a sweet person. I have such huge respect for artists who have been doing drag before drag was known to Indians the way it is now. We may not know who the first Indian drag queen was but the art has been around for ages.”
Maya The Drag Queen remembers “I wanted to meet them in person before I even began drag and they invited me to Jaisalmer, that’s how warm they were. I once told them about the negativity I was facing from people and they said they don’t bother about people and love to perform the way they want to”.
She goes on to say, “Queen Harish put Indian drag on the map. They made me realise that authenticity and how you represent your art form is very important. Their Rajasthani drag was talked about all over the world and they had visitors from everywhere learning how to dance from them.”
Queen Harish also provided representation for queer folks at a time when there were not a lot of performers that could be found breaking gender roles as television did not provide for anything beyond disrespectful “gay” stereotypes and cheap gimmicks to further it’s resonance with a homophobic audience that largely identified as cis/heterosexual.
Kanaga Varathan, a trans person from Chennai, told The Citizen, “I stumbled upon Queen Harish in the mid 2000s. Their Ghagra swirls provided redemption and revelation to me. Isn’t that what I want? Don’t I look like them? There was a sudden desire to dress up like them along with shame and guilt.”
Varathan continues, “Its been more than a decade now that I identify as a trans person and am privileged to assert my queerness outside of the internet. I had lost this memory of the folk performer somewhere in between only to hear the news about their tragic death. It is like losing your childhood icon. I could never express what they meant to this random school kid who was trying to fit in or how they influenced my first glossy pink and blue saree. I wonder how hard it must have been to break stereotypes back then to validate many more kids like me. I wish they rest in peace and power, and their close ones find strength”
Harish had been very open about the difficulties and the social isolation they faced from some people in Jaisalmer, their home town, because of their choice of career. Their masculinity was questioned and jeers were thrown at them which eventually stopped after the birth of their first child.
After hearing such an account one’s first reaction may be to dismiss Jaisalmer as a place where elements of patriarchal conditioning such as the notions of dominant masculinity exist in abundance. However, it is of vitality to recognise that in a setting such as that of Jaisalmer where the female sex ratio per 1000 male is of 797 (census 2011-2019) and literacy rate has been 78.46% (census 2011-2019), there is, although restricted, a space that may be open to accepting the queer milieu.
There is not complete dismissal of something that does not fit into the conservative fold of thought and there even exists an interaction with the unconventional. This is evident from the huge fan following they has amassed and The Queen Harish Show, a collaboration with the government of Rajasthan, which was an essential part of any tourist itinerary. Harish also mentioned in many interviews their love for the city and the pride they held for their culture.
The sudden passing Queen Harish in an accident, has left many heavy hearted. The accident occurred on a highway in Jodhpur resulting in the death of Queen Harish and three other folk artists who were on their way towards Ajmer from Jaisalmer for a show.
Harish Kumar is survived by their wife, children and thousands of fans.
Queen Harish shall be remembered as the unconscious revolutionary who was one of the first people that helped create a space for queerness in mainstream art forms. Along with their unforgettable, mysterious and dazzling demeanour on stage, their struggles too shall always be remembered. They leave behind a legacy of love, truth and perseverance for all to cherish.
First published in The Citizen.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.