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Class act: Indian drag artists spread ‘strong and clear’ messages of gender equality across schools

When drag artist Patruni Chidanand Sastry, 31, stepped on to the open-air stage at an elite school in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad – dressed in an embroidered blouse and skirt, a multicoloured wig and a mask made of sawdust and tamarind seed paste – children sitting in the front row looked at him in awe.

When he visits schools wearing his colourful outfits, children “start listening to me and my messages, out of sheer curiosity”, Sastry said.

“So I take that opportunity to incorporate fun and humour in my shows, to talk about gender equality, inclusion and diversity.”

This growing open-mindedness in a traditionally conservative country has created a climate in which some schools are happy to have drag artists visit.

When they sing, dance and tell stories about gender-neutral fictional characters to children, drag artists say it creates awareness about equality that encourages kids to be curious about the lives of transgender people and to ask about pride marches, same-sex marriages and LGBTQ rights.

Delhi-based drag artist Lush Monsoon, 30, whose legal name is Aishwarya Ayushman, said children may not understand the “politics” of gender discrimination and societal attitudes towards homosexuality, but they understand when she urges them to “be themselves”.

“Through my performance, I want children to feel that it’s OK for a boy to like pink and play with dolls, while it is OK for a girl not to like that colour or be more loud and expressive than boys,” Monsoon said.

Explaining that her performances are meant to give children a sense of empathy so they need not “fear the unknown”, Monsoon said when she was growing up, no one told her it was OK to veer from norms, meaning it took her much longer to break down societal