Among other things, I collect stories too. I pick them up from wherever I can. From friends, friends of friends, and strangers on the metro. From the wayside, park bench, and passing conversations. In fact, my box of collectibles – the wooden one with brass inlay – is full to brimming with stories.
I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the flat brown ones with lichen growing on their sides, to those that gleam with opalesque iridescence. There are fairy tales, and fables with and without morals. There are stories of men and women and displaced children; of gods, demigods and goddesses… And among them is the story of a man who is also a woman, and transforms into a goddess by night.
The story of Chapal Bhaduri, once the ‘leading lady’ of the Jatra (literally, ‘travel’), West Bengal’s larger-than-life, theatre-in-the-round form.
That one came to me through a friend – by far the most avid collector of stories I have come across. He doesn’t put them in a box, though – he gives them wings and sets them free. In the hands of Naveen Kishore, Founder and Director of Seagull Books, those stories take the form of beautiful books. Or films. Or photographs. Or —
Well, with him, the possibilities are endless.
And so the story found its way to him, as they tend to. That’s the thing about stories – they’re like the Prince of Persia. They would do anything to get to their listener: cross the seven seas, slay dragons… Whatever it takes.
Naveen had first met Chapal Bhaduri while he was interviewing the latter’s older sister, late Ketaki Dutta, who was a commercial stage actresses. Chapal-da, as he is popularly known, was ‘a fleeting presence serving tea and biscuits’. As Jatra was a popular art form while he was growing up, Naveen recognised him and got talking.
“The only work he currently had was to transform into Sitala Devi, the goddess of small pox, for 40-odd nights a year. Roadside performances at the equivalent of a pound a night!”
Moved by his story, Naveen Kishore shot some black-and-white photographs of the performance, and of him transforming into a woman and a goddess night after night. Those pictures later became part of a Sotheby’s auction, and among other things, a travelling exhibition called ‘Woman/Goddess’.
One day, Chapal-da felt comfortable enough to ask Naveen for a cooking job so he could earn ‘a thousand rupees a month to stay alive’.
“Here was this ‘star’ with so much to share, and no government or private structure in place to look after him and others like him. I was surrounded, it seemed, by such people. An amazing cameraman who was currently out of work, a puppet-maker in Kerala… All out of sync, all with so much to pass on…”
So instead of giving a cooking job to an artist, Naveen decided to make a ‘talking head’ documentary on him. That was how Performing the Goddess began, as a photo essay about a once-popular female impersonator rendered redundant by the passage of time.
To call Performing the Goddess a documentary would be misleading. It’s a heart-to-heart between a master performer and his invisible audience of one, punctuated with shots of the make-up process that transforms a man into a woman into a goddess. There is no voiceover adding innuendos to the viewer’s experience, and there is a touching lack of hyperbole to the narration – the drama is strictly reserved for the re-performances of milestone extracts from Chapal-da’s Jatra plays. There is just this intimate conversation that we are privy to.
Chapal Bhaduri had entered the Jatra scene when it was hugely popular across West Bengal. As women were not allowed to be part of the Jatra, female roles were played by male actors. Chapal-da debuted as Marjina, the female protagonist of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and he fondly recalls the attention he received from male fans, who often courted him as they would a girl. As he animatedly talks, sometimes about his childhood, sometimes about the various roles he had played, we get glimpses of an era gone by, when his art meant everything to him.
Weariness sets in only when he talks about the present. Weariness is perhaps the wrong word here – what one sees is acceptance. Of the inevitable passage of time. Chapal Rani was eased out of the Jatra scene by age, and women taking over the female roles.
I’m no longer in the Jatra because the Jatra no longer has any use for me.
Yes, there is loneliness, the emptiness of being left behind by a world that has decided to move on. But there is no bitterness, no despair.
The condition I was in could’ve driven me to the streets, but here I am in front of the camera, speaking to you…
And he goes on to talk about his role as Sitala Devi, the goddess of diseases, and how it has altered his perceptions, his life.
The documentary should have ended there, in the normal course of things. But some stories have a mind of their own – they wander off on roads untravelled, and there’s nothing the teller can do but follow their course.
“The film had started life as any other exercise in interview-based cultural anthropology. Except that Chapal-da had other ideas. He came to my office 10 days before I was to edit and said he wanted to talk to me. Alone.”
And that was how the rest of the story unfolded.
There are so many things… I sometimes wonder… Are they natural, normal? You know what I’m talking about.
As he talks about his troubled sexuality, the feminine emotions and biological responses he has experienced all his life, the Chapal Bhaduri we meet is a different man. Hesitant, anxious, and still vaguely haunted by the rights and wrongs of the society.
I really want to talk about this, but…
It is a vulnerable human being who speaks about a ‘certain someone’ with whom he had shared a deep physical and emotional bond for three decades, until he left him for a younger woman. The wounds have healed as well as they could, but traces of that great love still lingers in Chapal-da’s voice, his face, in the smile that is not quite one.
This raw papaya dish that I am making, this is a dish he was fond of, extremely fond of…
And yet there is a quiet dignity to him that transcends his words.
“He wanted his sexuality to be shared like his art—simply, and with amazing dignity. And the fact that the film premiered on a mainstream Bengali channel and got wonderful feedback from everyone proved that his instinct for dignity had worked.”
With the film receiving much attention, Chapal Bhaduri was once again in demand. The media took an interest in him, as did film-makers like Rituparno Ghosh, who made a feature film based on his life. Performing the Goddess proved to be a new beginning for the old artist.
Chapal Bhaduri’s performance was recently staged as a fitting finale to the two-day conference on “Transgender Embodiments and Experiences: Problems and Possibilities” organised by Department of Sociology – Presidency College, Kolkata, as part of ‘Celebrating 200 Years of Presidency’.
Despite dramatically ascending the stage with cries of ‘Who am I?’, ‘Won’t anyone tell me who I am?’, Chapal Bhaduri did not attempt to address the topic of transgenderism as the representative of a community – neither the Transgender Development Board nor the LGBTIQ+ rights groups are of any significance to him. He spoke for himself, insisting that the world of 1950s and 60s with its homophobic legalities was a much better one for him. He has no slogans to raise, no rights to claim.
After a lifetime spent transcending and transposing genders with ease, Chapal Bhaduri, at 77, is still an artist first. And his sexuality, like his art, remains simple and dignified.
*All photographs courtesy Naveen Kishore, Founder & Director, Seagull Books, Calcutta – India. (I had to take screenshots of some as WordPress did not accept the high res images. You should have seen the originals!)
Please send your queries on Performing the Goddess to feedbackatseagullindia.com.