Discussions around gender and sexuality are increasing among the open-minded factions of Indian society who have slowly but surely begun to question traditional notions that have been so rigidly held for far too long. While talks of sex, sexuality and gender have grown over time, gender-bending in Indian theatre is not a new phenomenon. It has existed prominently in folk theatre in the 18th and 19th century.
All eyes are on Chapal Rani when she walks into the spotlight on stage. At 78, with a 3-decade-long career, her’s is a known face in the folk theatre circle. But all is not what it seems at first. When the lights go off, the makeup comes off and hair is undone, you meet Chapal Bhaduri, who is perhaps India’s last remaining female impersonator.
Bhaduri is a Jatra artist, a theatre-based folk art that celebrates Indian mythology and history. Performances are held on wooden stages without barriers ensuring unhindered communication, as in Brechtian theatre, breaking the imaginary fourth wall between viewers and performers. As India goes digital and all aspects of life go online, Indian folk art has slowly been lost in the race. Jatra doesn’t draw in the crowds and money that it once used to, and Bhaduri, who was once their highest paid ‘theatre actress’, struggled to make ends meet.
Born to Jatra actress Prova Devi, Bhaduri himself joined the circuit at a very young age. This was a time when women were forced to live very restricted and sheltered lives, in the confines of their homes. As such, men had to take on the role of women in plays, and Bhaduri was exceptional at it – many people found it hard to believe when they learnt that the majestic Chapal Rani was, in fact, a man. “I had no earlier experience and lacked the support of my colleagues. I was asked to play Marjina in Alibaba. Marjina made me famous after which I was flooded with female roles,” said Bhaduri in an interview. “I performed every night in villages and small towns in Bengal. Young men fought for a glimpse of their darling Chapal Rani through the green room window. Those were the days.”
Time brings progress and change, and for Bhaduri, it meant losing the limelight as women slowly began entering the theatre role. When women began taking the ‘feminine’ roles, female impersonators became, for lack of a better word, redundant. Moreover, Bhaduri’s problems grew from his professional and personal spaces. It wasn’t just induction of women into Jatra that hindered his career, his company saw no place for Bhaduri once they learnt of his sexual orientation. “My problem was more than the rest because I was a cloistered gay. The Jatra company showed me the door when the ‘master’ learnt I was gay. In the 1960s, preference for the same sex was something no one even knew about. I was not surprised,” he said.
Instead of accepting defeat, Bhaduri transformed into Shitala, a lesser known goddess of pox from Hindu mythology, as per reports, an act he still performs today with the same finesse and skill that Chapal Rani was famous for.
Time may not have been kind to Bhaduri, but with more and more people looking into reviving and preserving dying art forms in India and the people behind them – such brothers Souvid And Soumik Datta’s film ‘Tuning 2 U’ and Soumya Sankar Bose’s visual documentation of struggling Jatra artists – Bhaduri caught media attention following films such Chena Kintu Ajana – Known Strangers, a documentary on 15 female impersonators by Sujoy Prasad Chatterjee, Arekti Premer Golpo by Kaushik Ganguly, in which Bhaduri is a narrator and actor himself, as well as the documentary Performing the Goddess: Chapal Bhaduri’s Story by Naveen Kishore, has brought attention back to beauty of what Bhaduri does and has accomplished through his life.
While gender-bending is prominent in his form, it is not what Bhaduri focuses on – for him, it’s all about his art. He doesn’t claim to voice issues of the LGBTQI through his work, but through his performances and life has, consciously or subconsciously, shed light on questions about gender, sexuality, societal perceptions and what true ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ really means, if anything at all. Bhaduri is a rare gem, perhaps the last of his kind, who stands as a relic of a seemingly bygone era of performance art, one that should be treasured.
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