Chapal Bhaduri – Bengali folk theatre’s last living female impersonator

Chapal (Rani) Bhaduri’s performance begins on a note of confusion. Bhaduri enters from the far end of the auditorium, wends his way forward through the discomposed audience – reeling slightly, as if in a half-trance – and ascends the stage with the cry “Who am I?” uttered with the usual performative excess that jatra demands. “Won’t anyone of you tell me who I am?” he implores, turning to address the audience through which he has just walked. The audience is perplexed, not quite understanding if this is part of the performance or an interrogation that is outside of it. Bhaduri’s performance, then, marks a rupture – between the stage and the fourth wall; between an inchoate gender reality and a gendered heterogeneity. Not an unfitting note on which to bring a somewhat unusual conference to (non)closure.
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At 77, Chapal Bhaduri is arguably Bengali folk theatre’s last living female impersonator, traversing and transgressing genders effortlessly and almost unthinkingly from his teenage. The youngest child of theatre artists, he was put on stage around the age of 8, but began his distinctive career in female impersonation in 1955 when he played Marjina in a production of Alibaba, and slowly attained fame as the highest paid ‘theatre actress’ by the 1960s. A decade or so later, however, Bhaduri’s preeminence as a female impersonator began to fade as women started entering the acting profession even in jatra, traditionally a male-dominated community. Much later in 1995, during a small-pox epidemic in rural West Bengal, Bhaduri created for himself the role of goddess Sitala, a folk deity known as the ‘pox-goddess’, which he continues to perform as a solo-act, drawing awe and applause from audiences in auditoriums and at street corners. Reclaiming a feminine performative space that he had occupied with consummate ease in the world of Bengali jatra since his youth, Bhaduri’s ability to sustain this foothold in an age of reverberating questions about gender-bending and –transgressing is instructive.

These questions have serious academic ramifications too, of course, in terms of representation and reality. While the conference revolved around the questions of representation, authenticity, and who can speak for whom, Bhaduri’s art seemed not only to problematize each of them but to demolish the very claims on which these concerns are predicated. There is no self-referentiality; he demands definition (who am I?) and insists that the audience should narrativize his identity (won’t anyone of you tell me who I am?), only to defy, and disclose the falsity of such a narrative. Chapal Rani is not who she is; she is Chapal Bhaduri – the shifting in and out of gender and the navigating through registers of gendered markers not only confound the ontological positioning of the para-subject, but upset the mode of epistemological inquiry embedded in the audience. While many would still squabble over a more ‘authentic’ representation, Bhaduri’s art perhaps says that all representations are (mis)representations.chapal4

Chapal Bhaduri’s act – moving through, in and out of the audience, of the assigned roles of performer and conference speaker-participant, and of gender identities marked by costume, voice, word – provides a (melo)dramatic finale to two days of unstable academic exchanges on ‘Transgender Embodiments and Experiences’ at Presidency University in a whimsical springtime. (We say ‘unstable’ in appreciation, as academic conferences are marked usually by polite and stable presentations and discussions even when there are strong disagreements on the subject at hand.) It was vital that a conference on transgender not be stable if we see trans* as a marker of instability – and of all that such instability promises and threatens. It may be difficult to perceive the full import of Bhaduri’s seemingly-insouciant performance at the end of a conference that always already was spluttering around boiling-point without a real sense of what made it so. In brief, perhaps without doing complete justice to its complexities, it may be said that the presence of trans*persons, the subject as well as object of the conference, provided an edge and a rallying point to the space of academic discussion: by undermining its academic framework and reinforcing difference by their visible, insistent otherness and equally obvious othering, as well as by making a valuable contribution to the conference not in terms of ‘grassroots’ knowledge-generation (which would be predictable at best and tokenistic at worst) but in providing a necessary, combative ‘counter-public’. What the role of non-academic trans*persons should be in a conference on transgender lives at an university is perhaps a larger question for other discussions, since the complex understanding one wants to have of representation is not an essentialist one. But suffice it to say here in the context of Bhaduri’s performance that he was able to address, and mediate in, some basic queries on occupying, impersonating and translating gender in and through the performative even while leaving anxieties about authentic representation unresolved.

Bhaduri’s performance had a narrative or text that was personal. It was an account of the self – professional and private – from the 1960s to the present. He begins by asserting – “I have lived and struggled in this world when most of you were not even born”. His narrative complicates existing discourses on the ‘queer subject’. At a time when the Supreme Court has granted rights to individuals who identify as transgenders and the battle around 377 has galvanized so much support, Bhaduri emphatically says “that world (1950s, 60s…) was much better for me”. That was a world which, despite the existence of more stringent, non-negotiable homophobic legalities, offered pockets of relief for Bhaduri that were outside the purview of state surveillance for being culturally sanctioned, like jatra. He could earn his livelihood by impersonating, or if we dare say it, trading, genders – in a more innocent world, that neither allowed E for eunuch on the passport nor suspended individuals from jobs for being a practicing homosexual, or for inhabiting any space between these two. Modernity, we understand today, has been detrimental for Chapal-da, as he is universally known by kin and strangers. His performance/narrative/text enables us to imagine what lives under 377 might look like – that rights-based women’s or queer empowerment has further disenfranchised groups which fall under its sign, as traffic-flows between and within genders get increasingly circumscribed for being so marked.chapal3_

The debate on who can speak for whom collapses precisely at that point in the performance where Chapal-da reminds the audience that neither the Transgender Development Board nor the queer rights groups have been of any significance to him. He does not have the currency or vocabulary of the global LGBTIQ+ movement and, therefore, confounds and resists positioning within such a sequentiality. Can we call Chapal-da an anachronistic queer subject? Or can we at all use the term ‘queer’ for him? Does he fall outside its purview as some within the community claim, a no-man’s land which he must either leave to reclaim a cis-gender, or remain unmarked and unclaimed?

There is no attempt on Chapal Bhaduri’s part to speak for anyone, to claim behalfism. While there were some in the audience who claimed that only they could truly understand and represent the transgender community as they owned all the markers of belonging to it, Bhaduri only speaks for himself. To him, the most important thing is his art; and it is precisely through his art/performance that he negotiates his gender identity and sexuality. He does not simply perform gender but also love, creating a set of possibilities for a world that is yet to come – where love and desire flow seamlessly; where gender as a category becomes redundant; where shifting in and out of sarees and pyjamas implies a change of garments and not a navigation of gender, but it also navigates gender in ways that the saree-pyjamas interchange eventually becomes inconsequential. It is the role of Bhaduri as a lover that we need to stress too – of his art, of his performance, of his man(hood) and his femininity, of the stage, and of the days that offered him livelihood. Does love have a gender? Or is it the ultimate ‘trans’ category, transgressing gender?chapal5

Bhaduri finds himself a liminal space between clear-wittedness and stupor when he emerges as a transvestite among the audience at the start of his performance as Sitala Devi. This is singularly significant for our understanding of Chapal-Rani-Bhaduri as someone who remains linked to a trans* identity by not laying any formal claim to it. Bhaduri transgresses gender by slipping contentiously, fractiously into a trance-like mode, talking, laughing, crying, whispering in a high-pitched female tone, resplendent in a gorgeous saree and glittering gold jewellery. His, however, is not a drag performance; Bhaduri is no la fabulosa Lola as featured in Mark Doty’s Esta Noche, offering “a lesson, a criticism and colossus of gender, all fire and irony.” His performance does not parody a constructed masculinity or femininity, it rather produces a radical alterity where one gendered self metamorphoses into another. Chapal Bhaduri and Chapal Rani are at once a palimpsest and a contradiction. The third eye of Ma Sitala glitters on her forehead, the signifier of her elevation to another self under the sign of goddess. As Bhaduri says in Performing the Goddess, a documentary on this the most pivotal jatra role of his career by Naveen Kishore, the moment he dons that mystical third eye he is no longer Chapal Rani, female impersonator, but deified, Ma Sitala in the flesh, unable any longer to partake of any mundane chatter or everyday activity around her.

In the conference auditorium, when Chapal-Rani-Bhaduri ascends the stage as goddess Sitala – one of the lesser goddesses in the Hindu pantheon – this state of trance allows her to negotiate the hostility of sceptics in the audience with an equanimity not merely born of a lifetime of thespianism but with a rapturous detachment that comes solely from a transfixion. To those who question her about the elitism of an academic conference on transgenders while s/he, and they, know what it is like to struggle at the grassroots, Sitala/Chapal is loftily dismissive of such pitched battles, gesturing at her vestals and saying grandly, “I am transgender, this is transgender!” Bhaduri’s stage performance, right until his disrobing from Chapal Rani to Chapal Bhaduri, is not an identifying or cathartic moment for the audience. His art embodies what Brecht calls the ‘alienation effect’ or what José Esteban Muñoz would read as performing ‘disidentification.’ Butler questions the possibilities of such a performance of politics; “what are the possibilities of politicizing disidentification, this experience of misrecognition, this uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong?” she asks. Sitala only allows us a glimpse into the possibilities of such disidentificatory practices and leaves us bemused, dazzled.chapal1

Electric is the effect and the affect of the moment – the moment at the end of an academic conference – in which we the audience are swallowed up by the kitschy grandeur of a female-impersonator jatra goddess airily brushing away intricacies of theory with a monstrous praxis. Bhaduri here is perhaps transgressing the trans* as a person who does not have access to these identificatory categories at all and, therefore, has a radical edge to the performance or art that he enacts in a trance. His performative text is one that lures attention away from the ‘politics of identity’ to the fecund ground that makes ‘identification’ possible. Bhaduri has talked in Kishore’s documentary of how, inhabiting fully the consciousness of a woman, he felt certain bodily sensations such as feverishness, weakness and desire at a ‘particular time of the month’, appropriating the menstruation affect for his male body. It is this conviction that is embodied in the full weight of Chapal Rani at that point, simple – even simplistic – and powerful. And it is this simplistic counter-cultural text that makes makes his art (counter)political within the larger politically-charged atmosphere of an otherwise-ordinary university conference room. It needed a faux goddess-in-a-trance to break that spell and create one afresh.

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Brinda Bose teaches at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Rahul Sen is pursuing his MPhil at the Department of English, Delhi University.

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