Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Queen Harish is Coming!
Queen Harish dances in drag
Sandip Roy, Special to The Chronicle
"I like to copy the Bollywood actresses," Queen Harish says with a chuckle. "But not the new kinds with the very short, short clothes." She prefers the colorful, traditional full skirts of her native Rajasthan. After being featured in the musical documentary "When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan," Indian drag sensation Queen Harish has become quite the jet-setter. New York, London, Barcelona, Tokyo - "the dancing, whirling, desert drag queen," as she calls herself, is everywhere, flying in for celebrity weddings, giant outdoor concerts and gay parties. "They were hot," she says after performing at the packed Desilicious pride party in sweltering New York this year. "I have to make them more hot."
Harish is also married and a dad. He goes to his local Hindu temple twice a day. And he says he'd never even heard the term "drag queen" until he came to the West.
In his hometown of Jaisalmer, a desert city in Rajasthan, men are known for their machismo and fierce, curling mustaches; the women veil their heads and wear armloads of bangles. As a boy, Harish loved to watch Bollywood films on TV, copy the actresses, choreograph their songs. "But I did it in my head," he says with a giggle on the phone from San Diego. "The whole family was watching together. I wasn't alone."
Then his teacher chose him to play Lord Krishna for the school concert. "My teacher noticed I loved to dance, but knew I can't perform as Harish. I was too shy," he remembers. Playing the blue-skinned god, bedecked in jewelry, Harish realized that no one could recognize him. It freed him. "Even now if you know me as Queen Harish and Harish passes by, you won't recognize me," he says.
Friends suggested he should try women's clothes because his features were "nice." When he looked at himself in the mirror in full makeup, he was amazed. "Before that I didn't know I am beautiful," he says. "After I took off my makeup, I could still smell it all night. It was beautiful."
But Harish was embarrassed about his dancing queen alter ego. He held down a daytime job with the telegraph office and only did private shows. His parents had died while he was still in his teens, leaving him with his two sisters. "I had to take care of many heavy things," he says. He realized that dance could help support the family. "My hobby became my profession. God was behind me."
The star attraction
Arnaud Azzouz was definitely behind him. The manager and director of the Musafir and Maharaja Gypsy dancer collective included Harish in the troupe and took him on shows abroad. He gave him the name Queen Harish. Soon Queen Harish's acrobatic, fast-paced folk dances became the star attraction.
"It's not just a change of clothing," Jasmine Dellal, director of "When the Road Bends" which comes out on DVD next month, said by e-mail. "When Harish is on stage s/he totally becomes the dancer in the sequin dress. I remember one day our cameraman was flirting with Harish playfully, not realizing that 'she' had been a man just an hour earlier." (Indian film director Basu Chatterjee once offered Harish the part of a Rajasthani woman in his film, not realizing he was a man.)
Dellal accompanied Harish to his hometown of Jaisalmer. She was surprised to find that in that conservative traditional corner of India, "they respected the fact that he is making his living this way. And he has a nice house to show for it." When Harish was about to get married, he says his would-be in-laws "watched" him for six months. "They listened to my whole community," he says. "It's not like we just chat online and get married."
But he still tries to keep his professional and private lives separate. His wife and he don't go shopping for dresses together. "I have my own designer," he chuckles.
"He is always flirting but very sweet," says San Francisco composer and world musician Cheb i Sabbah, who just did a gig at the Getty Center in Los Angeles with Queen Harish. Sabbah says he knew of him but they had never met until Harish e-mailed him through MySpace. Queen Harish was coming to New Jersey to dance at a wedding and wanted to perform with Sabbah somewhere. "We spoke on the phone, but we had no time to rehearse until we went in for sound check," Sabbah says. "But he just danced from the heart. And when he whirled on his knees, it was like 'Wow.' "
Dellal isn't surprised that Queen Harish turned a wedding invitation into a full-fledged U.S. tour. Harish, says Dellal, is the kind of enterprising person who can find Indian food within a short distance of any theater while on tour.
Can't stay mad
"Not only that, he would steal my interns when I wasn't looking, to help him collect the food," she recalls. But she says it was impossible to be angry with him. He'd just run around backstage saying "No tension, no tension."
Nowadays, Harish is busy launching his solo career. But he says he won't forget his awkaat, where he came from. He makes sure the tailor who made him his first costumes still gets his business. Twice a year he walks to a temple 500 miles away to dance for free all night. "And when I dance, I am clean of heart and clean of body," he says seriously.
But do men fall in love with his onstage courtesan persona?
"Come and watch the performance," he says, instantly flirtatious. "That answer I will have to give face to face."
Queen Harish: 9:30 p.m. Wed. Bollywood Cafe, 3372 19th St. (415) 259-8629, www.electricvardo.com. Workshops: 1-2 p.m. Sat. at Clandestine, 3435 Cesar Chavez St. $45; 4-6 p.m. Sun. at Fat Chance Belly Dance studio, 670 South Van Ness Ave. $45. queenharish.eventbrite.com/n.
To view Queen Harish at the Desilicious pride party, go to sfgate.com/ZEGA.
E-mail Sandip Roy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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