“Have some class!” a woman in the crowd yelled at Gabrielle, with a mix of faux disgust and concern for the light tear in her dress. Gabrielle was unruffled. In a striped orange and yellow bodycon, she strutted and seated himself in front of her. “Can everyone see me?” she asked, flipping her wig and wiping aside the make-up that was running in the Chennai heat. “Well bitch, here’s class,” she shot back, lifting her dress and spreading her legs apart to reveal stuffing and pantyhose.

For the next two minutes, as the audience member helped adjust Gabrielle’s silicone breasts, she writhed lightly in pleasure. “It was bothering me,” the audience member said, scrunching her nose in disapproval.

The decals on the wall of Backyard, a community centre in Adyar, read like lines from inspirational posters. Under the glow of lanterns, hanging from the thermocol-covered roof, the 20-odd audience members appeared to be enjoying themselves. It was the first time that a drag show, with three performers, had been organised in Chennai, a city known for its conservative values.

Credit: Harish Manian

Contemporary drag shows comprise of dance, insult comedy, singing, roasting and lip-syncing – performers dress up as the opposite gender and take part in a pantomime. With the burgeoning popularity of the American reality television show Ru Paul’s Drag Race, drag is being reclaimed, albeit by a certain class of society.

The Gabrielle Show on Saturday was advertised as the “first exclusive drag performance” in Chennai, though drag itself isn’t new to India – it is an essential part of Theyyam, a centuries-old form of worship in Kerala in which the performer “transmogrifies into a god and invokes magical powers”. It is also intrinsic to the annual Kottankulangara Festival, during which thousands of men dressed as women visit the Kottankulangara Devi Temple in Kollam, Kerala.

In the make-up room

A few hours before The Gabrielle Show, Jabez Kelly, aka Gabrielle Jasmine Marquez, was busy preparing in a musty space in the office of the South India AIDS Action programme in Thiruvanmiyur. His hands moved theatrically, until he saw this reporter in the room. “This is how queens are, this is how I am,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It’s just showing up on stage and people having the balls to deal with it.”

The room was littered with rucksacks. A boisterous gang of “peasants”, as Jabez called them, held make-up kits for him. A DSLR camera was handed to Harish, and he was appointed the official photographer of the day .

Jabez first got the chance to perform in drag in January, at the Chennai Rainbow Film Festival. “I was initially scared of the commons, putting my unshaven, wig-less self out there,” he said, in the midst of crying for lotion. “It went pretty well.”

Jabez is 18, bearded and chary of college. He works as a fashion consultant and has changed jobs three times. He says he has to deal more with misnomers within the LGBTQI community than from those outside it. “There is this bad impression of people who wear other gendered clothes in that side of the community. There’s also an idea that this is a phase, that we might go under the knife anytime soon. I’m as feminine as I can be and as masculine as I can be, unless I tell you so.”

Credit: Harish Manian

The make-up room door creaks open and a well-built man carrying bags walks in, introducing himself self-deprecatingly: “Hi! I’m Fatty Bao, because you know, I’m fat!” He chuckles while others mutter the obligatory “no”. This is Fatty Bao’s first performance, and he hasn’t come out to his parents yet. “I throw shade at least 150 times a minute.” Throwing shade is defined by urban dictionary as talking “trash about a friend or acquaintance, to publicly denounce or disrespect”. It is central to drag performances that involve insult comedy – not just as a comic tool but also as a means of pushing the envelope.

There is a collective gasp at the mention of misconceptions within the community. “There’s what we call a Masc for Masc thing where gay men should only be masculine and not wear women’s clothes,” said Fatty Bao. “It’s not fair to bring somebody down because they choose to express themselves in a certain way. If they say anything along the lines of ‘why do you do this?’ I ask back, ‘why do you think it’s wrong?’ That shuts them up.”

Credit: Harish Manian

In the chaos of the room, Jabez interjects. “I know I can sing and dance and offend every person out there. Drag is all about blurring the gender lines. Drag is exaggerated make-up outside stereotypical gender norms.” While commanding the Gabrielle Show organiser Namithaa Jayashankar to pencil in last-minute supplies, Jabez said, “I think femininity is not based on outward appearances. Fatty Boy is very masculine, but what is masculine or feminine? I have no idea what that is.”

“There’s a shoved up idea of masculine,” added Fatty Bao.

Growing up, Jabez says, he never really had much of an idea of gender identity. “I’ve always seen people as people. I didn’t know why a woman had to have a vagina to be a woman. I was raised in an orthodox Catholic [family], and my mother is pseudo liberal. She’s okay with me being transgender but not gay.” His past as a rape survivor contributes to his misanthropy. “I didn’t care about the binary of men and women because I’ve detached myself from the differences.”

Crouched in a corner is another performer, full-lipped and starry-eyed. In a room effusing flamboyance, he is rarely spoken to directly, and is easily the antithesis to the idea of the drag community’s pomp. “I grew up with a single mother, so coming out as gay was somehow perceived as adding to the struggle,” he said.

What does Jabez do when not performing in drag? “I eat, sleep and pray... My father asked where I’m going. I said performance. ‘Well, as long as you don’t die,’ my father said.”

Credit: Harish Manian

At the Gabrielle Show, Gabrielle pulls up her pantyhose, and pronounces, “You paid three hundred bucks for this to eff you over.” After a rendition of The Cups song, she reads through filled forms to roast audience members: “Who wrote homeopathy in place of homosexual!” Fatty Bao takes over in a black bralette, silver nails and a skirt, performing a routine that critiques masculinity and, morbidly, mentions a dead baby. “If I’m offending you, the door’s right there – you can walk right out,” she said, flipping her hair.