The Innerkern Dialogue with Patruni Sastry
At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyze their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue.
Here are the highlights from the Innerkern Dialogue with Patruni Sastry, an expressionist dancer, model, and drag queen. In 2018, Patruni came out as a gender-fluid person. In 2020, they published 'My Experiments with Drag,' a collection of photographic performance essays about their drag expression. We spoke to Patruni to understand what they think schools must do to be gender-sensitive and sexuality-sensitive and help children develop an inclusive mindset. You can connect with Patruni here.
Question: How did you come to figure out that you can express complex emotions through dance?
Answer: I started dancing at the age of five, basically inspired by the movie star, Rajinikanth, in a movie where Ramya Krishna was the female lead, And she was rejected by the hero. She dances to vent her anger. So the very first thing I made sense of was that when you are angry, you have to dance and that became the pattern in my life. So it all started there, from childhood, I was having this entire, you know, situation of my dance that became an expression for me. I stopped it when I hit puberty and felt it was not appropriate and the bullying was getting to my head. Things definitely changed after my 11th and 12th grade because I was basically focused on studying in my 11th and 12th. I was studying in a boarding school, and the school was all about Maths, Physics and Chemistry, without any kind of extracurricular activities. I realized that the endless classes of Maths, Physics and Chemistry and the mad rush to crack IIT and triple JEE was so daunting. That kind of shut all the art in me. This was a dark phase for me because I couldn't emote in a proper way. Thankfully I didn't crack any of these competitive exams. Yet I ended up with engineering in a college which was located in West Bengal. So there was not much emphasis on the subjects. The major focus was on how actively you are involved in either college administration, politics or the cultural activities. So, that helped me and it gave me a lot of political understanding. I still remember the first year when I was new at the college. On my very first day, there was ragging. So late in the night at around two o'clock, seniors would drag us out and ask us to perform. Whenever it was my turn, I felt like I had an audience, which was not the case earlier. I enjoyed the process, but at some point, I felt it was going too far.
Soon, I was invited to perform at a fest for the seniors and I decided to tell them the same story about how I feel and entertain them. I decided to present a performance which was about ragging and how it affects a person's mental health. It had an impact and I still remember, from the very next day, there were people who were putting posters of anti ragging all across the college, and then the conversation started. However nothing much changed in the system. From thereon, I used dance to talk about subjects which were interesting, about the future and how exactly you can change the idea of future with the art of dance. So I think my college was a little bit of a turning point for me at that point in time, to rethink about what I needed to do as a part of my art, like what direction I need to take from there on.
Question: You mentioned that, you know, when you were in school, and you were in 11th, and 12th, you realized you couldn't emote properly. So, what is your idea about the whole education system in our country (India) that kind of shuts down all art forms? What do you think happens to children, their distancing from their emotion, inability to express and think and feel?
Answer: I think it is really important because while growing up free thinking is essential to develop as a person . When it comes to our current age, I still remember there were some instances where school was kind of dysphoric for me. I still remember, I think in seventh or eighth grade, they asked us to wear short pants, which was not comfortable, because it was exposing half of my legs. My music teacher deliberately kept me out of dance class, even though I was interested and had the talent at that point in time. It was decided back then that only girls should be in dance performances, and boys should go to sports. So, I was put away from dance class for at least two to three years which only changed when one of the principals who saw me perform at a different event. My principal had just joined the school and he brought me back and introduced me to the dance class. He introduced me to the cultural space. If that person was not there, I would have left dance in the school itself. A lot of schools that don't pay attention to individual children's interests and have blanket rules for student participation, go on to damage children as they grow up. There are schools where sports classes are divided between boys and girls, there are classes on menstruation, which are only being given to girls and not given to boys as well. So I think these are the things which create gender bias from schooling itself. I think that is what creates the entire, gender bias problem of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny as an individual grows. I was lucky enough to have some of the anchor teachers, who were able to pull me out from a certain space and give me the platform to be myself. I think that is what I think has worked out for me.
Question: Today, you have reached that political maturity, of course, to talk about your experiences at a certain level to help other people come into terms with how they are. But as a teenager, I'm sure you were still exploring, you were also confused and wondering whether this is the right thing to do. How did the system contribute to this entire process through bullying? How did you manage to survive it?
Answer: I think, the system contributed definitely because, at times I was a visible body, who was not doing a certain thing, which is ascribed to a gender role assigned only with a certain kind of agenda. Some of the teachers saw me as a boy, So I was supposed to go for the sports class, not the dance class. And the other aspect to this rule is, if I am allowed then other boys would be coming into the dance class, and that would not be a safe space for the girls. There was a time when I understood I had no interest in sports. I can't play football even now. I was not interested in sports so what I ended up doing was, to go on the rooftop of the school, and dance by myself.
Having said that, you know, for me, what exactly changed the perspective was that there were a couple of teachers who helped me in being who I am as a person. Like, I said, the first person was definitely my school principal, who kind of joined at the right time in my life, and he was the one who used to sneak me away from these English classes, and put me into competitions, without even asking my parents, just to ensure they don't come and stop me. During my 11th and 12th grade, where I didn't have any practice as a dancer, there was one particular chemistry teacher, who never used a chalk or a duster, or anything to kind of explain the concepts. He used to do all the explanations with bodily movements, like how the atoms would move etc., using his body, which for me was dance. You know, if one teacher helped me in being myself, the other gave me that kind of a source of what I can do, because whatever this teacher was doing with his body, I felt that I can do with my body as well, but for a different context. That is how the system contributed for me, without knowing that they were contributing to sustain my passion, But not everybody is lucky like me.
Question: We understand, as educators who worked in the field for quite a long time, that most of our schools are, like you said, transphobic, homophobic. If you don't function within these gender stereotypes, you will be treated as an outcast in many schools. So what do you think, from your experience in the school, are some of the things that should change? There is a lot of debate about what is the right age to talk about gender and sexuality. What is the right age to talk about gender? What do you think is the right age?
Answer: I think I started understanding aspects of sexuality when I was in grade three. During secondary education, I realized we just use the words about gender and sexuality very casually and even the textbooks had stereotyped gender roles. Like women should be working in the kitchen and men should be driving outside. Those things need to be changed and why can't we introduce images of trans people as part of the society? We can introduce the terms asexual and bisexual, when they are coming around fifth or sixth standard. Just the words! You don't have to explain anything. So I think those are some of the things which can be done in an organic way.
Secondly, when it comes to sex education for kids, they need to kind of explain it. And the funny thing is they take the girls, separate from boys, in a separate room, and they don't talk about the situation, or they don't talk about the actual facts. They discuss random things like what will you do when a girl writes a love letter to you? So those are some things which need to be changed. And the funny part was it was just two days of class.
I learned about my sexuality through my dance, so it was literally my dance teacher who explained the expressions etc., when somebody's touching you. Good touch, bad touch and emotions were involved. So I feel even art induced education is something which can be a brilliant way to approach the topic. I think that, you don't have to make the effort of using language, you can directly go and show them using actions, emotions etc. So, I think that is something which needs to be done in schools specifically.
Even before sensitizing the children, I think the first thing is to sensitize the teachers, because, you know, teachers are the ones who kind of affect you know, who can leave a mark on 100 students at once. Teachers can help students not become dysphoric their entire life. Some of the worst experiences I have had, which I still carry with me in my life, is because some teacher might have told me something not appropriate. I think this is something that needs to happen visibly, something that you don't have to explain, when the kid is growing up. They can watch and learn. So the important fact is, to make things visible around them, so that they can understand that they can figure it out for themselves. Inviting a drag queen to generate curiosity towards a particular image of a transgender person, will generally develop the curiosity and learning for themselves.
Question: Why do you think a visual way of normalizing expression would work better than directly teaching children about sexuality and gender?
Answer: I think expression is something which helps us in building our society and our expressions of anger, happiness and sexuality are what form our culture. Imagine if all the teachers teaching in a particular school dress the way they like, express themselves how they choose and if the school also had trans people among their staff. This is so important because, unless children are acquainted with transgenders and people whose sense of personal identity and gender don’t match their birth sex, how can they learn to respect people with different identities at all? It is essential that children see and learn from different kinds of personalities and develop their own style of expression. How children see people behave in schools is how they behave later in the larger society and when children see society as tolerant and accepting and not discriminating at a young age they learn to respect people as they are, later in life too. We tend to promote one behaviour while in public and another in private. That creates a kind of dissonance in individuals. People become fake and lose authenticity. What appearances project is belonging, confidence and a cool appeal, all of which young adults need in abundance. This also goes on to form the basis of social cohesion.
Question: We would like to hear about your journey, about how you unraveled this experience of yourself, and how you express and how that makes you feel as an adult today?
Answer: As I was growing up and as I met people, the very first time I got introduced to the gender spectrum, or people from the queer community, was through an event. I was asked to come and perform at one of the events and I danced and then a lot of people kind of came in and shared their coming out stories. So when I was listening to it, I heard a lot of new words like pansexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender man, transgender woman, non binary etc. So these were new words for me. So I think that was a time when I thought of making it easier for people by creating dance pieces on them, which helped me learn about sexuality myself. And now I use drag to tell stories in depth, about gender and sexuality or to give a living canvas of how gender can be erased, or how gender can be made fluid. I also write some of the songs in Telugu to educate people about sexuality and gender, because there is a huge amount of dirt when it comes to Telugu literature, or human sexuality, and understanding of sexuality and gender in the Telugu landscape. I also started working with NGOs that are into sensitization work for schools, colleges, and people. Telangana state’s control department was conducting a campaign for its awareness. And they asked a couple of us to do flash mobs in some public spaces, like bus stops, railway stations, and I was dressed up in drag walking into these public spaces, and performing. These multidisciplinary approaches help me put my thoughts in a far more visual way. So yeah, these are some of the things which I have been doing so far.
Question: What is it about makeup and dressing that excites you other than the dance itself in the way you express your sexuality and to express yourself?
Answer: So I think, you know, gender is not a binary thing, it is a continuum. Gender can be anything. It is just a made up thing. Our bodies are our biggest political tools. Today women's bodies have been sexualized by the idea of what we call male gaze, and now the reverse is happening because of the female gaze, which leads to the problem of creating more toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. This rips the identity of a natural woman or man. When I do Drag it is an exaggeration, when you exaggerate and tell, it helps people to see if this is extra, how far do I want to go with my gender identity. I don't fall into a pure category of men or women, and give you an illusionary figure of how gender can look, sexuality and the idea of sensuality.
Question: Drag is more like an exaggerated expression of gender, I mean, it sort of exaggerates how a woman dresses or the man dresses or a combination of all that together. What I want to understand is, is it also a way to make fun of these binary gender constructs in society?
Answer: Definitely drag as a mockery of the binaries, especially for me. I can talk about my style, whereas, in some of the drag performances, they do the exact impression. For me, I think the drag which I practise is definitely a mockery of the standards, where the boy should look in a certain way, and girls should look a certain way. Secondly, coming to the idea of anything, which is outside, definitely the society or even people who are aware or educated sometimes don't want to suppress it to change it or alter it. However, the beautiful part of art is that art can never be defined. I still remember, initially when people used to wear ripped jeans, they would be looked down upon. Yet now, once a movie actor is wearing it, it sells like hotcakes. I still remember, I was reading one of the articles about Kanjeevaram Sarees, which half of the Tamil households usually wear. The blue colour sarees would not sell. So the manufacturers asked Ms. Subbulakshmi, the Carnatic singer, to wear these blue sarees, and then it turned into a hot selling item. So I think that is what helps Drag as well. Because drag is an art form, it is not a lifestyle, you know, that gives the power to alter a certain kind of perception in the society.
Question: I want us to take a look at the home, the parents. From what we hear, what we notice, homophobia or transphobia, even though we have a law, right now, protecting people, sort of supporting people legally, to have their choices, especially when it comes to sexuality. Very often, Indian families treat this as a sickness or something that needs to be treated. There are instances when they figure out their kids are gay or lesbians and they ask relatives to rape these children. That is the extent to which we have homophobia in our country. So, what do you think, how do we deal with this, when the family is not supporting you? I mean, how do people deal with this? What do you think of this?
Answer: I can, again, give you the experience of a second hand person, because, when it comes to my family's awareness about my sexuality, and gender, I have been fortunate. Having said that, I will give you an understanding why exactly this happens. You know, when I had a conversation with my father, when I said, this is how I am feeling, I used the word pansexual. And I kind of broke it about 100 times for them to kind of understand. My father was still not ready to understand. And then when he kind of got back to me and told me that, It's okay, if I am not understanding. But if I have questions, I will ask you at any point in time, and you have to give me the answers, or you have to give me an explanation, so that I can learn from that. So when kids are growing up and seeing gays, we don't want to kind of bog them down with details. They will slowly gain understanding if there is an inherent need for them to explore.
My family was willing to listen, but it's not always the case. When families are closed and don't want to understand, that is a huge problem. And that's the time we need to find a bigger solution. Now, imagine schools are talking about sexuality, and gender from grade three and four, and they send this part of the lesson home for parents to be explaining this. It can go wrong at so many levels. But if parents can be educated and made partners in the way a child learns or understands sexuality then that can be a huge social change. Secondly, if information about sexuality can be brought out in all vernacular languages, it can replace the existing toxic information about masculinity and femininity. I think the only way we can bring about change is by engaging in active conversations. I definitely used my advantage of dance with my parents to express myself on a far more different level.
Parents are the ones who gave birth. That does not mean they can control everything that is happening in your life. So the glorification of parenthood has to stop. And seeing everybody as a human being is something that can change the perspective . So I think those are the things which need to change.
We know the boxes from which people operate. We're trying to break these boxes and see how things can be more fluid and things can be more authentic, and more humane, so that people can live happily. And one of the things you mentioned, and it really stayed with me, is that art form helps us express better. In a major way schools have done away with art forms on a regular basis at schools. All the sports, classes, art classes, and all are now converted into extra hours for learning. And that's such a big damage we are doing to our children, and our future generation, I feel we should work towards bringing back a way of expression. Expression is, knowing what you're feeling, and having words to talk about it in words or some form of expression. For me one big learning today is this whole idea of keeping it visible, I think that's a huge learning in terms of, you know, to normalize, the whole idea of gender fluidity. Also forced conformation to a certain style of dressing is a way of bullying too.