Patruni Chidananda Sastry's queer reimagination of popular Telugu culture
Drag artiste Patruni Chidananda Sastry has released two peppy folk numbers to spread awareness about queer issues
What does it take to reimagine the classic 1957 blockbuster folk song Chiranjeeva Chiranjeeva from the Telugu film industry’s most celebrated classic Mayabazar? Or Chudu Pinnamma from the 1957 hit movie Chillarakottu Chittamma? Audacity, you may think. “Purpose,” says Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a classical dancer and drag artiste from Hyderabad. On December 1, Sastry released two reimagined/rewritten Telugu film numbers inspired by these classics to address queer issues. “We live in a woke world. It’s time we talked/sang about it,” says the singer-dancer.
Considering Sastry has already given over 1,000 performances for major corporates such as Microsoft, Delloite and Uber across India and is a five-time TEDx Speaker, he knows the pulse of the audience. Nicknamed the ‘Torchbearer of Telugu Drag Today’ by the queer community in Hyderabad, Sastry has been a prolific performer online and offline during the lockdown.
In June 2020, Sastry also founded a website, Dragvanti.com, to read and share news, interviews, articles, memes, quotes, and knowledge on the Indian approach to drag. Drag is a gender-bending art form in which a person dresses exaggeratedly to portray a specific gender identity. In the last five years, drag has become the best form of self-expression and a celebration of queer pride, mainly because in the early 1900s, men portrayed female characters, thus bending gender lines.
“Telugu filmmakers are confused with gender and sexuality definitions. I felt there was a huge need to create content in Telugu to explain this,” says Sastry. Popular folk songs from old Telugu classics seemed like a good bet to connect to the crowd, especially the younger generation. This 29-year-old artiste had also released a song titled Pride Masam Anna in June, in honour of the pride month. It emphasised basic terminologies and gender issues. “This song can be a rhyme to educate kids and adults on the gender and sexuality. I had the opportunity to present these pieces in live shows time and again,” says Sastry. In colloquial Telugu, the lyrics of the song break down the queer terminology and convey that if nature intends a person to have certain sexuality, one should embrace it and not feel ashamed.
The number, Chudu Sexy Gurl, is a Telugu-English song written to reclaim the transphobic tunes of Chudu Pinnamma and make it a celebratory tune to embrace gender expressions. The song is also inspired by American Drag Queen RuPaul’s Cover Girl, written in core English. “All these songs were self-recorded with limited equipment and released on music platforms such as Spotify, Amazon Music on December 1.”
This classical dancer with roots in Srikakulam of Andhra Pradesh is a Product Analyst in a financial company and performs drag as a passion. He spends his weekend working on queer lyrics and songs. But can songs break down complex subjects such as queer community and gender rights? “As an educator of an organisation called Sweccha five years ago, I trained kids and teens about gender and sexuality. Kids were drawn more to my performance than to a PowerPoint presentation as the former has its heart at the right place and is fun. Around the same time, an Instagram handle was doing stories of queer content in all languages and when it came to Telugu, they couldn’t find any film, music, poem, or literature with a positive focus. I decided to fix the lack of queer representation in Telugu arts by composing folk songs,” explains Sastry.
Sastry had the opportunity to present this song at various live events recently. “My audience got hooked to it,” he says. Getting swayed by the tune is fine. But can a song like Chudu Sexy Gurl work in a Telugu movie and create social change? “It would be a great opportunity to create and present such songs in movies, especially in Telugu movies as they have a huge audience and a history of queer-phobic content. However, I doubt if any filmmaker would be yet ready to seriously make Telugu movies queer-sensitised,” explains the expressionist artist.
“I want this song to be used more in gender-sensitisation sessions, annual events and as an ice-breaker for everyone who wants to learn about gender and sexuality,” he adds.
From the pages of history
Sastry also busts the myth that drag art is performed by members from the queer community only. “This idea is borrowed from the West. India boasts of ancient dance forms across states in which heterosexual men dress up as women and perform,” he says.