Inspired to highlight the cause of the transgender community, LGBTQ activist and photographer Monisha Ajgaonkar partnered with Sushant Divgikr, artist and well-known drag queen in Mumbai, to shoot a special photo series called ‘Blossom’ this summer.
The series shows Sushant transitioning from a young boy – who is afraid to ‘come out’ due to societal pressure – into the diva he truly is. And through the shoot, Monisha manages to make a statement to all men and women: “Be the queen you are.”
Born and raised in Mumbai, 29-year-old Sushant holds a Master’s degree in industrial psychology from University of Mumbai. He was Mr Gay World India 2014, and continues to be on their board of directors. He is also a singer, performer, TV host, actor, columnist and motivational speaker.
He started performance drag in September 2017 as RANI Ko-HE-Nur, though he had performed in drag earlier as well, such as in Vickram Kapadia’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
“Drag is not just about ‘dressing up’,” explains Sushant. “It’s a performance art that deals intricately with the entire performance value, the alter ego, its name and personality, along with of course the hair, the makeup and the elaborate costumes. If you’re just ‘dressing up’ then you’re a cross-dresser. One must distinguish the two.”
Besides the artistic element and its social message, this shoot was significant for Sushant in another way: it was his first nude shoot. “Many internationally renowned photographers have asked me to pose nude for them and I have declined all these years but with Monisha, I felt very comfortable. This shoot taught me to shed my inhibitions and be more comfortable in my skin,” he says.
“Whenever I am on stage, I have to give it my all,” adds Sushant. “I think you automatically do better when you respect your work and your audience. I love my audience and my supporters. I am not ashamed to say that I perform for applause. Any live-gig performer who says they don’t do it for applause is lying.”
Founder of photography firm The Photo Diary, Monisha was keen to execute an avant garde shoot, one that shows a man uncovering his truth and identity. “Transgenders are mistreated worldwide. I wanted to raise a voice for them and show support. With this photo series, I want to portray that people can be themselves and be comfortable in their own skin,” she says.
She hasn’t faced any challenges in shooting LGBTQ people yet. “Difficulties are subjective and for me, there is none,” she says.
It wasn’t always easy for Monisha. In the early days of her career, a lot of clients backed out when they found out about her alternative sexuality. “They were not comfortable with that,” she narrates.
Now, however, many clients and their families are very supportive. “Most of them give me so much love. They want to know about my life and my story. I’m grateful to have such love from my clients,” says Monisha.
She chose Sushant as her muse as, she says, he is one of the best drag queens in India and an influential personality in the community. Sushant too found that her concept struck a chord with him.
“When I started off in the entertainment industry 13 years ago as a 16-year-old, I was very scared and worried about what people would think of me and how they would react to me. But a lot has changed for me since then. Now, people’s opinions don’t matter! I am who I am and I am not hiding from anything or anyone,” he affirms. “It’s pointless to let other people’s opinions affect you. They aren’t paying your bills!”
Monisha herself is of the view that Indian society is changing, and people are beginning to accept the LGBTQ community as normal humans.
“We’ve come a long way since the amendment of Section 377. People understand and appreciate this form of art. I love the fact that my work of art has been accepted by people and that I have been able to help my community through it,” she says.
Monisha believes more photographers and artists have been taking up subjects related to alternative sexuality after Section 377 was amended. “I still feel that there is scope for many more artists to highlight this aspect of the community. Alternative sexuality is still looked upon as a taboo. There needs to be more representation of transgenders in art and photography,” she says.
Model: Sushant Divgikr
Photography: Monisha Ajgaonkar
Makeup: Ankit Anil Trivedi
Stylist: Mayuri Nivekar
Assisted by: Noyonika Nalavade
Outfit: Swapnil Shinde
Production: Akash Shah, Aryan Gupta, Netram Shah
First published in eShe’s September 2019 issue.