Mumbai-based LGBTQIA+ activist and drag artist, Sushant Divgikar, opens up about how their family reacted when they came out.
‘Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,’ wrote Elizabeth Stone.
As a parent to two boys, there are several instances in which I feel like this quote comes rushing to me. During a freewheeling conversation with celebrated LGBTQIA+ activist, Sushant Divgikar (they/them), I could not set aside my ‘parent’ hat.
They speak of coming out, the support of their family and their drag queen persona Rani-Ko-HE-Nur.
“I am blessed and highly favoured to be born into a family like mine,” begins Sushant. They tell me that they have only good memories with their parents. Sushant’s father was “unlike any other”, who would never see a reason why they could not get themselves a Barbie doll. “I found them to be so beautifully dressed and I was automatically drawn to the grace. Never once did I hear my father question my choice,” they add.
While friends would make fun of why a ‘boy’ would want to play with a Barbie doll, their family was rather supportive and that gave Sushant strength.
“I was never judged at home. I was always allowed to express myself differently from other boys. They believed that kids should never be subjected to any kind of conditioning whatsoever,” says the 30-year-old.
This was in the early ’90s when conversations and dialogues were not as open as they are today.
“Today, my story is out there. However, when I was growing up, I had no access to such interviews or people even. My sense of strength came from my parents, who never had any rules based on gender,” Sushant says.
Coming Out: Not An Earth-Shattering Revelation
Pradeep Divgikar (65), Sushant’s father, was rather clear in his thought process. He viewed both his children with the same lens. There was never a question about how one of his children was straight and the other gay. A lot of the confidence that Sushant exudes comes from their parents, who have stood by them like a rock.
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Speaking about their father, Sushant says, “Coming from a conservative family and to say that I will be the best father I can and let my children be, was perhaps the best gift he could have given us. I continue to live with my parents and while that comes as a shock to many, it’s a choice I have made – to live with them until they are around and I love it.”
In their signature animated style, Sushant adds, “I remember a conversation with my mother where she told me that she wished I would become an architect and here I was telling her that I wanted to pursue psychology. My father stepped in and said I should study whatever I felt like and not bother about anything else.”
Sushant has a very interesting story of coming out to their family.
The first person in the family that Sushant came out to was their older brother, Karan, who according to Sushant, “couldn’t keep anything in his stomach”. “He promptly went to my father and told him that I was gay. My father, in his indomitable style, asked my brother what it was to him if I were gay. All this was happening when I was just about 18,” they say. Subsequent conversations with their father were all about reiterating that they wasn’t ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, they was just his child.
“I knew they loved me and would do anything for me but I must admit even I was in awe of this reaction,” they say. Coming out to their mother was a rather subdued event. “I remember it was one afternoon when she was immersed in watching her daily serial, when I interrupted and told her I had something important to share. She actually shushed me and asked me to wait until the commercial break to speak.”
Sushant sat there quietly waiting for the commercial break.
“Here I was, wanting to tell her something so monumental about myself and she was worried about what the actor on screen would do. Imagine,” they laugh. Sushant pestered her some more until she muted the television and asked them what all the fuss was about. “She looked at me and said if this was about me being gay, she knew already. I had expected drama, even thought she might faint when I came out to her. She surprised me and how. What a rock star she has been.”
They also recount how after this brief conversation she went back to watching her serial, like nothing had happened.
“That day over lunch, my mother told me the one thing I always remember — Never make anyone feel lesser than me for any reason or harm anyone else for any reason. In the same breath, she also made it a point to add that just like my brother wasn’t allowed to bring girls into his room, I wouldn’t be allowed to bring any boys home,” Sushant says, again with peals of laughter.
If there was ever a movie to be made on Sushant’s life, they add, it would be a riot of emotions and laughter all the way. “It really is all about accepting people and your children just as they are.”
The Making of Rani-Ko-HE-Nur
“To be honest, I would say that I have been a drag performer since my school days. I would sing in two voices and was always good on stage, so was the natural choice for competitions representing the school,” they say. Since Sushant studied in an all-boys school, at every competition or performance, the female role would automatically be given to Sushant. “People were always impressed with me. I subsequently even trained in dancing,” adds the activist.
They also learnt music by watching stalwarts like Whitney Houston, Anita Franklin, Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury and Mariah Carey. And closer home, they were inspired by Usha Uthup, Falguni Pathak, Asha Bhonsle, Alka Yagnik and so many more. “This meant that my repertoire and genre in singing was just so wide. I have amalgamated all these voices and worked on creating something very unique. I learnt vicariously,” Sushant says.
In 2015, Sushant performed officially as a drag artist for the first time. This was for Merchant of Venice, a stage production directed by Vikram Kapadia. “The response to that was phenomenal and thereafter I hosted the Kashish Queer Film Festival in Mumbai and performed before the legendary Sir Ian McKellen. Through my initial performances however, I had not taken on the name of Rani-Ko-HE-Nur yet,” they say. This led to Sushant getting various offers to perform and it started from there.
In 2017, Sushant found themselves in Delhi, where they were invited to perform at a private event. “It was after this party when Keshav Suri, the Executive Director of Lalit Hospitality, christened me as ‘Rani’. To this I added, Ko-HE-Nur (Kohinoor) and this became Rani-Ko-HE-Nur. The rest as they say is history,” says the drag artist.
It has been 15 glorious years of Sushant being in the entertainment industry and they continue to enthral people, whether in their drag persona or otherwise.
Under all the glitz and glamour, Sushant holds a Masters degree in Psychology and has been a topper not just in academics but also in sports.
A true inspiration for the many who are silently suffering and contemplating the unfair social consequences of coming out, Sushant signs off saying, “If you have the joy of raising a child, cherish that. Having a different gender or orientation is absolutely no reason for you to abandon your child. Your job as parents is to accept and love your child unconditionally. What they do in their life’s journey is up to them. Do not live your dreams through them.”
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(Edited by Yoshita Rao)