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I first encountered drag in Bollywood films in the late 90’s (Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, Dulhan Hum Le jayenge etc). At that point I never really thought much about the complexities that exist within female impersonation. Used as a form of entertainment in popular culture, drag artists were usually assayed by male “character actors” of Bollywood (with the exception of some like Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan and a few others). My first encounter with drag was in a racy, appealing way in my fifth or sixth year in school, when I was asked to perform as Rekha, the legendary actress who is also a popular gay icon. For me, that moment where I transgressed my gender boundaries by donning a sari remains a defining moment. One of my distant memories of that performance was this huge laughter from the audience when I walked on to stage. In a flash, the idea that a man impersonating a woman is a social embarrassment was made obvious to my young self. I realised that popular assumption was that drag equated homosexuality. Of course how true that assumption is remains another debate. My own study has led me to believe that items of clothing and accessories have this tremendous erotic charge within them and drag artists use this to entertain audiences. But drag is much more than simply entertainment; there is a whole idea of transgression and identity politics behind it. For some it is a moment of empowerment, while for others it is asserting an identity which they often cannot express, and for yet others it is just a brief interlude from their daily lives.
I first met Asif early last year at Club Kali, a popular Queer venue in London, where he was working for Naz Project London. Months later I was able to witness one of his performances at the same venue. From the moment he transformed himself into Asifa and belted out Nazia Hassan numbers on stage, there seemed to be an electric charge among the few hundred in the club audience. Not only did we revel in this South Asian ‘queer’ moment, we also were aware of the power behind drag. The South Asian Queer scene is rather small in United Kingdom and Asifa’s performance seems to have helped the scattered community come together. Asifa is an entertainer and has been popularly dubbed as Asifa the Fundraising Queen. With the huge financial setbacks to the charity sector by the present UK government and their ‘crackdown’ on multiculturalism, Asifa remains a moment of unity. I caught up with Asifa at Soho last week for this interview.
When was Asifa Born?
Asifa was born essentially during London Pride 2008. I came out as a full fledged Drag Queen in the Float that Naz Project London did that year.
What gave rise to Asifa?
It was interesting because Asifa only ever comes out as a performer. As a man, I always had doors locked on my face. I used to get turned down for roles as a performer, actor, singer and dancer because I was either too effeminate or camp or because of my skin colour and this was in my teenage years. It got to a point when I was auditioning for drama schools in London, and I got given a place but because I had no money I could not go. This forced me to close that part of my life because I thought I could never go back there again. Naz Project London asked me to be their ‘Queen’ on the NPL Float in 2008. I decided if I had to become a Drag Queen, I would use that for performance. By that point I had a lot of pent up frustrations regarding performing and when I took on this new feminine role, I decided I would use this to channel out the performer in me.
How did the name Asifa come about?
When I performed for the first time I did not have a name, it was just Asif doing drag but when I came down from the stage everyone was chanting Asifa so I just took up the name Asifa. It was my audience who gave me my name.
What does drag mean to you? For me drag is an outlet to perform. I can use the fluidity of this space as a singer, dancer, actor and performer to entertain people. As a worker in NPL, I use this to fundraise. I realise that because of my position I have a certain responsibility towards my community. Because Asifa is my sister ego I decided to work together. I like performing and fundraising. For me Asifa is an empowerment to perform, but also because the community loves Asifa so much, I can use this as a fundraising tool for charity and the community.
How has the reception been to Asifa in London?
The reception has been fantastic. The first time I performed as Asifa was for a NPL event where I performed an Andrew Lloyd Weber number. I did not tell anybody about this and it was meant to be a surprise. I was surprised by the positive response I got from the crowd. This was in 2008. After that I decided I would try this again. Initially I had only decided to do this for Pride but when the opportunity to perform for an event came up, I took it up very happily. I think everyone remembers that event only because of this performance. As Asif people already knew what I was doing, but as Asifa I got phenomenal success and it helped bring the community together. Every time Asifa performs, the South Asian community is always there to support me. I am not your typical South Asian drag Queen; I make my own songs, mash up Bollywood with western numbers and do what no other drag queens have done in London.
Has it brought the community together or created greater consciousness to Queer issues in London?
Its funny you say that. Actually after performing in solely South Asian Gay venues, I am now being asked to perform at Camden, Clapham, East London. They are offering me good platforms because even though I am a South Asian Drag Queen, I am not just doing South Asian numbers. I am being creative, creating my own routines and at the same time helping in raising funds for a cause I really believe in which is underrepresented and under-developed in UK. All this has an appeal not just within the South Asian community but the wider community as well.
Who is the real you? Asif or Asifa?
Traditionally drag queens are a bit like an alter ego. You create a whole different persona, build up a whole different voice. Things you wouldn’t do as a man. When I am in drag I am not much different. My name is Asifa, I haven’t gone entirely away from Asif, I use the same voice. Its not at all different. A lot of drag Queens feel pressurised to put on a whole different voice and personality, they have to really glamorise themselves and go over the top and there are politics involved as well. I am political as I am attached to NPL, but I have never really strayed away from Asif.
How do you see your role evolving as an artist?
When I performed for the first time, I only did it as a one off thing, but when it got such good response, I decided to do it more often, use it for fundraising. This allowed me to be more creative with the music and my routine. I stage my own shows, so I choose everything from the songs to the music. I have full creative control of my show. I choreograph my songs keeping in mind my other dancers abilities. In my role as Asifa, I am very lucky because it has allowed me to be a very successful drag queen in the South Asian circles in London, but at the same time I have managed to reach out to the wider gay community and also represent the South Asian gay community to the wider populace. I can be a voice not just for myself but for the whole South Asian gay community, because in London we are very under represented. Its great that I can unify the South Asian gay community and bring it to the wider gay community in such a positive light.
Where do you see yourself going?
At the moment I am venturing out to the wider gay community and performing in mainstream gay clubs. I have just joined the Asifa and Serginessa duo. Serginessa is another ethnic drag queen of Portuguese descent. I am doing more shows which are relevant to the community. I don’t want to forget my ethnicity or my roots so I am still very much a Bollywood Drag Queen. I just like to entertain and continue doing this. I want to grow as an artist and just make people more aware about drag and use it as a form of empowerment. As Asif I don’t think I was confident going out to the wider gay clubs in London but as Asifa I am doing shows and being appreciated for it. I see Asifa very much an empowered avatar of Asif and I think both of them are very much intertwined in my identity.
(Special thanks to Asif and Naz Project London for taking part in this. You can find out more about NPL through their website www.naz.org.uk)