Sushant Divgikar aka Rani Ko-HE-Nur on finding their voice and exploration of drag as an art form

'I have been fortunate to be born into a household that was progressive without even realising,' says Sushant Divgikar on tackling prejudice and preconceived notions.

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri February 22, 2021 08:08:06 IST
Sushant Divgikar aka Rani Ko-HE-Nur on finding their voice and exploration of drag as an art form

Sushant is holding a telephone conversation and simultaneously giving instructions to the house help for their “bacha” Durga Gawde’s dinner. They check in on Durga’s food preferences, make note and swiftly get back to their call. 

Sushant Divgikar holds the title of Mr Gay Man India 2014, having wowed the judges at the Mr Gay World 2014 as well. That doesn’t stop them from naturally “mothering” people around. “Motherhood”, says Sushant, is a behaviour. It has nothing to do with gender, but everything to do with love.” Turns out, Sushant is lovingly called “mother” in the Indian LGBTQIA community; someone who nurtures, looks out for and encourages those from the community who often find themselves disowned by their families. Sushant is the unwavering mother in their lives, the tireless activist for the community who in the recent years has come into their own by coming out as gender fluid.

Although Sushant’s presence on Big Boss 8 gave them wide recognition in India, seven years on, Sushant has finally given voice—quite literally—to their innermost feelings with their debut single 'Diamond'. While their drag avatar Rani Ko-He-Nur has been gaining much popularity for their extravagant performances, Sushant’s voice is the diamond in the rough that the Indian music industry ought to be tapping into. A singer with a four-octave range, whose falsetto is just as rich as their baritone, is not easy to come by. But prejudice and preconceived notions are among the toughest barriers to overcome.

Sushant Divgikar aka Rani KoHENur on finding their voice and exploration of drag as an art form

Sushant Divgikar aka Rani Ko-HE-Nur on cover of their debut single 'Diamond'

This journey is not easy without having people rooting for you at various stages of one’s life. “I have been fortunate to be born into a household that was progressive without even realising. I come from a simple, hardworking Konkani family that was uncompromising about its middle-class values. And it is this value system that has held me in good stead even today. My brother and I grew up thinking we were poor, when in reality, this was nothing more than just our parents teaching us the value of money, the lack of entitlement and the joy of working towards a goal instead of having it being served to us. And within this framework, they also inculcated empathy and inclusiveness. They have always been very embracing of who I am and gave me the space to become who I was meant to be,” says Sushant.

Sushant has never found the need to move out of his parent’s quaint family home in Bandra that still holds within its walls and typically high Goan ceilings, their Konkani heritage. “My parents have never given me a reason to feel like I need more space or freedom. They’ve let me be. Ours is a household where they subscribe to LGBT magazines and have open conversations about how the world is changing the way it is owning its various gender-related identities,” Sushant adds.

Their interviews are replete with reference to their parents because without their acceptance, Sushant’s trajectory would’ve been admittedly much harder. Sushant has found support outside the family too quite early on. They recall having friends back in school who simply took him for who he was, giving him space to figure out orientation and identity issues. Sushant’s Arya Vidya Mandir, Bandra, principal is still among the first to read an interview or article about them.

“Once I was being bullied by some kid in school and a teacher almost risked her job by holding that kid by the collar and reprimanding him for being nasty. I will never forget how she stepped in for one of us although her means of doing so could have gotten her into trouble.”

This hasn’t been the first instance of Sushant finding that expressing themselves truly might be met with derision or scorn, but there are always takers for honesty. Aside from their penchant for music and dance, Sushant has done their Master’s in Industrial Psychology, an education that has helped them put in perspective others’ positive and negative behaviour (particularly online trolling) towards them. During a final dissertation presentation, they decided to use dance as a representation of human behaviour and possible therapeutic expression. “The professors who were adjudicating my assignment just looked at me in disbelief. One of them was so annoyed, saying this cannot be a presentation. One professor—bless her—Priscilla Paul, understood the essence of my presentation. She stood up for me, against the collective opinion of her own panellists and colleagues and lauded me for my effort. I can never forget how she, a renowned professor of psychology, decided to back a kid who was different and who chose to express himself differently. I feel fortunate for finding such people at every turn in my life. It is not easy being an LGBT person in this country but knowing that such people are looking out for me, teaches me to also pay it forward to those who need a voice.”

Finding their voice has been among Sushant’s greatest personal journeys. When Sushant was just 17-18 years old, he was spotted by powerhouse vocalist Usha Uthup, who invited him to join her on stage. Aware of Sushant’s overwhelming shyness and diffidence, Usha encouraged him to forget about the world outside because she was more keen on hearing what is within him. What followed was his astounding renditions of songs including Whitney Houston’s version of 'I Will Always Love You' and Adele’s 'Rolling in the Deep'. “She didn’t need to reach out to me, but she did. It made me think why someone with such a phenomenal voice would want me to sing. I always loved to sing but what is it that she saw in me? She saw me for who I am and she let me express myself. And I cannot thank her enough for that.” 

One of Sushant’s best forms of expression, apart from music, has been dance; specifically drag performances. There is so much more to drag as an art form than the outfits. Sushant clarifies that if one is just to show up in a costume, then it’s nothing more than a “fancy dress” occasion. But were one to internalise the essence of the costume and put thought into their recital, it undoubtedly becomes a form of art. Says Sushant, “India has a rich history of drag performances. In fact, recently, the great Lata Mangeshkar tweeted an old picture of her father dressed as a woman for a performance. The reasons to don outfits of men and women may differ based on societal obligations and performance compulsions. But our tradition is vibrant. Drags give people the opportunity to be whoever they want to be without judgment.”

We can all do with more of that in our lives.

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