In a decaying four-storey building off Beadon Street deep in the bowels of north Kolkata’s Hatibagan lives a star. After a lifetime of performing as mythical warrior queens and angry goddesses, he has withdrawn into a cramped, airless room in a dusty old-age home where few know of his fame. Two steel almirahs and a small wooden table overflowing with citations and awards struggle to hold on to the glory of a bygone era. These are his only worldly possessions apart from framed photographs of his mother and his guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, the 19th-century Bengali mystic. There are also the opulent sarees that helped shape the aura of Chapal Bhaduri, Chapal Rani, Bengal’s last blockbuster female impersonator on stage.
“Since I moved here, few people come to meet me. It’s as if they think I am an HIV patient. I never thought I would need to stay in a home. I played the part of an old lady once, but didn’t think it could happen to me,” says Bhaduri, sitting cross-legged on his bed, tuning his old radio and counting down the days for his 80th birthday.
The Ramkrishna Old Age Home has been Bhaduri’s home for the last nine months, after he walked out of his niece’s home following a bitter altercation. His physiotherapy sessions, the Akashvani channel and intermittent rehearsals keep him busy during the day, but the nights – holed up in a room where both windows open into a shaft – are difficult, even with two sleeping pills.
“I brought my niece up like my own child, with my money. But no one has understood me, and no one will. I have to accept it, even if it’s painful,” he sighs.
The damp confines of Bhaduri’s current address belie his sweeping fame that catapulted him to the centre of Bengal’s Jatra scene and made him a household name for two decades. It also does scant justice to his emergence as a queer icon in the 2000s, and the surge in popularity as the last relic a fast-disappearing art form that defined folk theatre. But his story is not merely one of gender transgression, or infirmity in old age – it is also one of resilience, betrayal and above all, giving a lifetime to art.
HONING THE CRAFT
Bhaduri was born in one of Kolkata’s most prominent theatre families – he speaks at length about his mother, actor Prabha Devi, and uncle, actor-director Shishir Bhaduri but is reluctant to even name his father – in 1938. His theatre debut was at the age of seven in legendary writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Bindur Chele (Bindu’s Son), after his mother cajoled him awake one sleepy Sunday afternoon. He had seen the play countless times, and recited his only line from memory in a lilting voice that won the approval of his five uncles, all of whom were in theatre. His prize: A green five-rupee note.
The death of Prabha Devi in 1952 ended Bhaduri’s childhood. The next year, he got the first break on stage in the then hit play Alibaba and Forty Thieves. But there was a surprise for Bhaduri.
“My brother-in-law walked up to me one day, and said, ‘can you play a woman?’ I mumbled, ‘how can a man play a woman?’ But he assured me, and said it would guarantee me a job.” Within two weeks of debuting as Marzina (Alibaba’s trouble-shooting assistant), he was confirmed for an entry-level clerical position with the Eastern Railway. The family’s financial woes were over.
But theatre wasn’t easy. The first time on stage, Bhaduri trembled in the wings, dressed in flared trousers, a bright red shirt and a waistcoat over a stuffed brassiere, oiled hair tied into pleats with a red rose and peacock feathers on either wrist. “The auditorium felt like a surging ocean about to engulf me. I took one step forward, one back. Just then, a group of young men gathered around me, they had mistaken me for a woman – one of them pushed me onto the stage, and that’s how my career began.”
Over the next 20 years, Bhaduri, known better as Chapal Rani, ruled the Jatra stage, playing everything from Kaikeyi in the Ramayana to Razia Sultan – his fame was such that people sent private cars to pick him up at a time Jatra artists were not even allowed to stay in people’s homes. Once travelling during a show to north Bengal, the troupe had to cross a river in spate, so the organisers sent men to carry Chapal Rani on their shoulders across the turbulent waters. He pioneered Jatra make-up and the outfits he wore quickly became the rage across rural Bengal. His fans were young men who wanted to be with him, and young women who wanted to be like him. And it was his craft that fulfilled his dream of meeting Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, at a performance in Kolkata in 1967.
In India, female impersonation is found in several folk and classical art forms – from Ramleela in northern India, Yakshagana in Karnataka, Kathakali in Kerala, Bhawai in Rajasthan and Gujarat, Swang in Uttar Pradesh, Naach in Bihar and Jatra in eastern India.
(Photo courtesy: Naveen Kishore )
“I had no make-up and was wearing a plain white saree. Uttam-da thought I was a real woman, and was moved by my acting. When he came to meet me, I was wearing a shirt and trousers. He said: ‘Not him, I want to meet the woman,’ and everyone said, ‘no no, she is he’. He looked at me in amazement and pulled me into a hug. I rested my head on the same chest as (legendary Bengali actors) Suchitra Sen or Supriya Devi had in films.
“There was no selfie at that time, but the moment is etched in my heart. It is the biggest moment of my life.” Little did he know that it was all to go downhill soon.
THE ART OF IMPERSONATION
What does the woman look like in public and who should play her are questions that are as old as stagecraft. The roots of female impersonation by men can be traced to Greek and Roman times; modern English theatre’s origin is at least the 13th century. In India, female impersonation is found in several folk and classical art forms – from Ramleela in northern India to Yakshagana in Karnataka, Kathakali in Kerala, Bhawai in Rajasthan and Gujarat, Swang in Uttar Pradesh, Naach in Bihar and Jatra in eastern India. In most cases, it is an exaggerated, almost camp; the depiction of femininity is underscored by striking make-up and high-pitched dialogues.
“Notions of domesticity, morality and respectability were always part of the arts. The public space, as well as the art-form itself, were seen as male spheres. To add to it, the emergence of Victorian morality, dictated separate spaces for public women and private women,” explains Benil Biswas, an assistant professor of theatre and performance studies at Delhi’s Ambedkar University.
Bhaduri was the last in a long line of exalted Bengali queens in Jatra, a folk art form that traces its origins to the 16th century Bhakti movement but branched out into mythical as well as secular-political forms in the latter half of the 19th century. Jatra troupes travelled throughout rural Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Odisha and present-day Bangladesh for months (especially after the monsoons, and during Durga Puja), performing for weeks on end in far-flung districts.
Bhaduri’s reign was long. He was on stage till 1974, while in most other parts of India – including in Parsi, Gujarati theatre and cinema – female impersonators had all but disappeared by the 1920s and early 1930s as women joined the stage in large numbers.
The 70s were a tumultuous time for Bengal as people from erstwhile East Pakistan flooded the state and settled down in border districts, and on either side of the iconic Jessore Road in Kolkata. Abject poverty and a drought of jobs forced many to build shanties alongside railway tracks – present even today in Kolkata – and work as manual labourers. But the influx also broke the back of bhadralok morality, by making available many women ready to work on stage for a fee without caring for caste-familial morality, says Gourab Ghosh, an academic from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and a Jatra performer himself. This, coupled with an expanding workforce and a growing Left movement, ended the era of female impersonators. In his last days as a Jatra artist, Bhaduri recalls earthen cups were thrown at him from the audience, who came to see women on stage. He retired in 1974.
The next 20 years were spent in the wilderness as Bhaduri travelled through Bengal, stayed for long stretches in the holy city of Tarapith, and suffered some devastating personal blows, but penury finally forced him back to Kolkata and to performance. In 1994, he made a comeback playing Shitala, the patron goddess of smallpox in small-time street plays. “I could never imagine performing next to drains, in slums, on street-corners, and among those people. But I had to let go of my pride.”
Bhaduri was wildly successful as Shitala, and hordes flocked to him, for worship and to seek boons. It was not uncommon for people to fall at his feet in the middle of a performance – and Bhaduri himself says his mortal soul was replaced by the divine the moment the kohl touched his eyes. “That Bhaduri performed a goddess, not a mortal woman, bestowed a sense of respectability,” explains Biswas.
This questions of respectability lies at the heart of female impersonation on stage, which as Hansen notes in a 1998 paper, often cleared the ground for acceptable femininity in public at a time when women were barred from even appearing in public. Popular impersonators such as Jayashankar Sundari in Gujarat or Bal Gandharva or Narayan Shripad Rajhans in Marathi set the trend for millions of women, be it their length of the sari or their acting that shaped the behaviour of the “high-class” woman.
At times, the joy of seeing one of these men perform surpassed that of performances by “real” women, because that experience was bound in another ‘problem’ – that of revulsion because the earliest actresses were drawn from lower castes and were sex workers, a predicament embodied by Binodini Dashi, the contemporary of Bhaduri’s mother and Bengal’s tallest actor at the time on stage.
Unlike Sundari or Gandharva – who projected masculinity off stage – Bhaduri embraced his effeminacy and attraction towards men in his life, a decision that may have cost him dearly. Academic Niladri Chatterjee argues that Gandharva was honoured with a postage stamp and a theatre was named after him because he wasn’t publicly associated with effeminacy, or homosexuality, and was seen as a “normal man” – unlike Bhaduri.
“The underlining homophobic anxiety of the society and the theatre was also palpable. They wanted to stop this homo-erotic bonding of men on stage, and brought in women to restore “order”,” added Biswas.
The other fulcrum of this public performance of gender is caste, one that Bhaduri’s contemporary Ramachandra Manjhi knows well. An exponent of Launda Naach, a folk art form in Bihar, the 92-year-old has spent a lifetime struggling against ignominy because the dance is seen as disreputable because it is performed by Dalit artists. Manjhi, who recently received a Sangeet Natak Akademi award, is married with four children, all of whom work in construction in Delhi, and leads his off-stage life as a simple heterosexual man, though as someone who is constantly battling taunts. “To understand why Naach is not respectable, and why Manjhi and his contemporaries don’t get the respect they deserve, we have to see who controls art, and defines what is respectable,” says Jainendra Dost, a Naach performer and researcher. “This art belongs to the Bahujans, but they are seen in a poor light. The upper-castes try to sanitise it.”
Before every show, Bhaduri has an elaborate ritual for transforming into a woman, and the crucial moment is when he puts on his bra –from that moment on, his voice changes, his eyes droop, and his manner becomes bashful. “I am a man dressing as a woman, you can ask, why is he covering his breast, what is his embarrassment? But I think if a woman were watching, she would do the same.”
Bhaduri is clear that playing a woman is lots of work, and one that requires elaborate make-up, intricate hair-doS and dazzling outfits. In his heyday in an era when false eyelashes weren’t available, he would make a paste out of hot wax, and soot, and use a pointed brush to apply it on his eyelashes to look striking on stage. He looks at women on stage today with contempt, and says many tell him that “real women” don’t match him in performance.
“Look at them, they don’t know how to throw their voice or to work on the intonation. During an intimate scene, in a whisper we could communicate to the entire theatre… Now it’s like a soap opera, the women are hideous, many are out of shape – we would take care of our bodies, but we were still phased out.”
He studiously observed women to pick up their quirks and behaviour – once he stayed in Sonagachi to etch the role of a sex worker, and another time, took inspiration from Bollywood legend Helen’s outfit – but he is clear that this is just work, a performance.
“I perform as a woman but I am a man. Maybe I could have been a woman, but I chose not to. There can be many ways of transformation, and this is the way I choose. In my acting, I would often keep my femininity aside to perform, that is where I won, in surrendering my effeminacy to act. Womanhood and femininity are different. That is the truth of my life.”
His effeminacy was also the cause of lingering humiliation. Once during a love scene, a male actor insulted him for stuffing his brassiere. “Did you put bricks or wood inside your bra’ he abused me.” He was also forced by a producer to have sex with him, and abducted and abused once during a show. “I was pulled by groups of men from either side, screaming, it’s a she, no, it’s a he’. This is the kind of humiliation I have faced.”
But love bruised him like nothing else. Bhaduri fell in love at 18 to a man four years his senior and their relationship blossomed over the next 32 years, in an era where same-sex love was forbidden in public but often bloomed in the shadows, ephemerally and erratically.
“Sometimes I thought it was abnormal but after my mother and father, he was the one I loved the most. We completed each other, couldn’t live without each other.”
In the 1999 film, Performing the Goddess, directed by publisher and artist Naveen Kishore, Bhaduri talks of his romance as if in trance, calls his lover his “friend”, and is reluctant to categorise it as a sexual relationship alone. “After a few years, we discovered something – what happens between a man and woman happened between us. I later read about in magazines, and realised I got the same satisfaction as women.”
“After that, I would often feel uneasy during the end of the month, like women do.”
“We would go away for two weeks, and do things heard only in western countries. We had taken it as art. He would say there was nothing bad.”
But the bliss wasn’t to last. The man fell in love with another woman in the late 80s, and abandoned Bhaduri, at a time when his savings were already dwindling. “His wife had long accepted me as a part of his life, but couldn’t accept this new woman.”
Chapal Bhaduri at Ramkrishna Old-age Home at Hari Ghosh Street in North Kolkata.
(Samir Jana/HT PHOTO)
After a particularly ugly altercation, Bhaduri walked out and came back to his sister, artist Ketaki Dutta. “She told me, stage is your oxygen, go back to it. But I thought he would come for me.”
He did come back, but only to get cheques signed, and the money from joint accounts transferred out. “I asked him, but what about me? He said he didn’t care. That day, I knew everything was over. I signed over the money. I have no regrets. What I got, no one can take away from me.”
The last decade has resuscitated Bhaduri’s popularity after Kishore’s film, a loosely based biopic (where he was played by Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh), and a wildly successful play, Ramanimohan, based on his life . Bhaduri is now rehearsing for a second play, helmed by director Shekhar Samadder, who lauds the veteran actor’s energy and stage presence. “It is an honour to work with him ,” Samadder says. In this new play, which opens on August 5, Bhaduri plays a performer caught between his character, a woman, and himself. The play ends with the cry “Am I Sundar Bibi or Sundar Haldar?”
Bhaduri has little contact with the outside world, save the radio, but has heard of the recent challenge to Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality, in the Supreme Court. But he is not moved much by it – and says it makes little difference to him.
“Love between two men is natural. It has happened all over the world. People didn’t talk about it then, they would avoid it. But now it is in the open. If the law goes, in a corner of my heart I will feel happy; many ridicule me about this, but I know I did the right thing. I have no regrets.”
He misses his fellow actors, and friends most of whom are dead. “I don’t talk to anyone, and don’t make new friends – what if they don’t recognise me, or refuse to acknowledge me? I have even asked some transgender friends to not come here, I know they will not get the respect they deserve from the old age home staff.”
In his new play, which opens on August 5, Bhaduri plays a performer caught between his character, a woman, and himself. – the play ends with the cry “Am I Sundar Bibi or Sundar Haldar”. In many ways, this is the central contradiction of Bhaduri’s life as well.
In the words of Kishore, Bhaduri has both immense skill and presence, and the oeuvre of a consummate gender transgressor on stage. “In a world that still dines out on titillation to anything that appears slightly at tangent to the ‘ordinary’. it is always going to be a problem recognising an artist for what he or she does…but those of us from theatre respect him for what he does.”
In his life, and work, gender has meant little more than heartbreak for Bhaduri – one that continues to haunt him. “I fear no one will remember Chapal Bhaduri, nephew of Shishir Bhaduri. I am not just Chapal Rani,” he says as he calls for his evening beverage. Tea or coffee, I ask. “I am both man and woman, I can drink both,” he laughs.