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Simple Pleasures of a Summer Morning

f8I can’t begin to tell you how it feels when I resume my morning walk after a break. The moment I put on my trekking boots (yes, trekking boots, no less. I’m ambitious!), I begin to feel slimmer, fitter and positiver, and by the time I’m half way round the park, I’m light of foot and heart, never mind the fact that I have to take shin-nursing breaks every so often.

Now, you might ask why, if my morning walks elate me to this extent, can’t I just do it regularly. I’ve also asked myself the same question, and arrived at a rather humbling set of reasons for not doing so. 

For one thing, I’m by default a not-very-disciplined person. I have to pep-talk myself up to do anything (beyond brushing my teeth) on a regular basis. Come on girl, you’ve four mouths to feed, so up! There there! You’re a decent cook – you know that. Now cook. The sooner you get over with it, the better it is for you. You can go back to living your life… And so on and so forth.

We are talking about a good day here.

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Now add to that a body (and a mind) that is heading towards that inevitable Pause. You know the one I mean: Me-No-Pause. When your body acquires a mind of its own, one that has nothing to do with your real mind. Your real mind as in the one you suspect you’re quietly losing. Because your mind also has now developed its own separate mind, which looks at reason and logic with total disdain.

It’s chaos, I tell you. Ask anyone who’s going through it. 

To cut the long story short, there are days when I give in to the diktats of my body, and then there are days when I triumph over it. Today was the latter kind of day. 

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When I stepped out of our apartment building at 5:51 AM, it was already light. But the roads were thankfully empty; in another 20 minutes, it would be impossible to cross them without dodging at least a dozen yellow buses, among other things. 

I like to keep my songs on ‘shuffle’ when I walk – the sheer unpredictability of what the next song would be is fun. I could be listening to uff teri ada… one moment, and the next minute it could be suttrum vizhi chudar thaan, Kannamma… or anuraagathin velayil… And that’s cool with me. 

I don’t remember if I had discussed this earlier, but in my world, there are three types of songs. There’s the kind you don’t want anywhere near you. If you happen to come across one, you just pluck it out of your sound space and put it away. Switch channels, turn off, run away – whatever it takes. 

Then there’s the second type that just plays in the background without fuss. You don’t mind having it around because it doesn’t move, touch or demand. Nor does it jar your senses to the extent that the earlier type does. It’s there in the background, just letting you be, allowing you to carry on with whatever you are doing, quietly lending rhythm to your steps… The sweet, nice type. 

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It’s the third type you need to watch out for, however. The kind that grabs your arm, laces its fingers through yours, looks you deeply in the eyes… And you’re lost! Try to walk away from lag jaa gale… and you will understand  what I mean. It’s the kind that possesses you. 

Anyway, coming back to the walk, today I decided to go round the park in the clock-wise direction as against the regular anti-clockwise rotation. Not merely out of a sense of adventure (for want of a better term), but also because I was still vaguely wary. Of being accosted by another couple of friendly-looking ladies who would try to talk me into preparing for the Judgment Day (with capital J and D). It’s rather tiring to make them understand that it’s today I’m worried about, not some vague apocalyptic future.

There were also two Gulmohar trees in full bloom that I wanted to take photos of, both more accessible from this route. So I walked my walk to the the songs that were playing, stopping every so often to take pictures of gulmohar, frangipani and neem, reveling in the utter loveliness of an early summer morning.  

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My usual exercise corner was occupied by a serious yoga enthusiast, mat and all, so I quietly did my juvenile drills trying to keep as low a profile as possible. If he did notice me, he was kind enough not to laugh – and that’s something. I took the more meandering route around the park, and then walked out of the gates.  

Past the sleepy children who were waiting for their buses and their sleepy parents waiting with them. Past the groups of office-goers waiting for their staff vans to pick them up, and past the cars waiting for the school buses to pass. Shedding with each stride the accumulated weight of long, long days. 

 The simple, simple pleasures of life. On a summer morning.  

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Ghosts of Good Things

Once there was a river. Cold and gentle and full of dark shadows. She was as blue as the sky above her, and had a heart large enough to drown all of the world’s grief. Which, of course, was why they called her Sokanasini.

We walked, my best friend and I. We walked back thirty odd years retracing the once familiar, well-trodden path. Looking for her – our Sokanasini. The one who had so willingly accepted all our sorrows back then. In exchange of narrow pink bunches of wildflowers, and rounded pebbles that glinted in the sun.

But she was nowhere to be found.

Now there are just ghosts. Of what once was. Memories – brown, brittle. Drawing their last breath.

Yet, what was it that pulled wetly at my feet from under it all?

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My Sokanasini.

She was. Once.

Just a Dance

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Photograph by Muhammed Muhiesen

I remember reading a Dick Francis novel long ago – Longshot, I think – where the protagonist is a freelance writer down to his last penny, and takes up an assignment purely because it would mean a roof over his head and three square meals a day. He talks about how, merely sitting for hours and writing has a way of making you tired, hungry and cold. With not enough money to foot the heating and grocery bills, he would do anything to survive. Even if it means postponing writing his first novel.

I can relate to that. All too well. Except perhaps for the heating bit. I live in the Arabian desert after all. My bills, therefore, are of air-conditioning.

So I’ve put my magnum opus ambitions on hold, and am down to brass tacks, taking on every bit of work that comes my way. The past few weeks has seen me all over Dubai and Sharjah, in cabs, buses and the metro, tapping away at my keyboard whenever I could get a seat. Then I return to my desk at home and type some more.

All that writing makes me tired and hungry of course. At least, that’s my excuse for the amount of baked potato I consumed during my four-day stint at Sharjah Expo Centre. Baked potato and tea with milk and sugar, please! I can already feel it spread evenly under my skin, with a little extra in places…

Sigh. 

All said and done though, I’m grateful. A lot has been happening lately, and after the sultry uneventfulness of summer, I am grateful for the happening bit, even if it means less sleep.

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Crop Circles at edges of The Empty Quarter – photograph by George Steinmitz

I like what I do, you see. Providing content for clients forces me to learn in great detail things I would otherwise have never even thought about. Like book illustrations for the visually challenged. Or strategic interventions made by UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Authority. Or Type 1 Diabetes / shipping containers / Ambrotype photography… You get my drift? They are all fodder for my restless brain with its multiple tabs open at all times. And since they have nothing to do with me personally, my emotions get a break. There’s just this sense of wonderment.

Covering events allows me to sneak out in between to attend seminars and listen to talks by people I only read about otherwise. Names like David Yarrow and George Steinmetz roll out of my tongue with practised ease now, after XPOSURE 2016. And I am waiting for a willing listener to talk about The Empty Quarter, after sitting through some stunning huge-screen visuals.

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The Empty Quarter – photograph by George Steinmetz

Sometimes I get to meet the titans. Like this wonderful photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen, whose work and words have changed my perception of refugees. In the middle of all that death and destruction, there is also life happening. And that’s what I try to focus on, he said. I had been wondering about the light, the hope, in his images of conflict zones.

If it is not documented, it did not happen. My job is to inform the world about their lives. With honesty, with due respect given to the privacy and dignity of my subjects. Sometimes they run away when they see me. I don’t run after them – that would be violating their privacy. I wait for them to learn to trust me, sometimes for years at a time.

I actually requested for a photo with him – some people have a way of moving you enough to do that.

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Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen

And I started teaching again.

Just three kids at my dining table, but it’s an elixir still. My relationship with teaching is something the family can’t quite understand. Don’t you think you’re stretching yourself too far, ‘Mma? my sons demand, looking down at me with all the seriousness of two adults watching over a particularly unreliable child…While I try to explain to them that it might well be, considering, but I need it for sanity.

They are like a couple of bouncers these days, my sons. Standing between me and what they call my self-destructive tendency to work myself to an early grave. Are you still working, ‘Mma? D’you realise how long it’s been since you started? Take a break, please! Watch something or go for a walk! Eavesdroppers outside our door will be confused about the nature of parent-child relationship in our house.

So now I try to finish the bulk of my work before they wake up. And they worry when they see me fall asleep across the bed at odd times.

Sometimes, when I’m exhausted, I turn on the TV and watch mindless action movies. They demand very little of one’s intelligence or emotions, and as such are relaxing. My boys shake their heads and sigh. So what about your urban poverty novels, ‘Mma? When are going to read them? they ask, their grin wicked.

We have these long conversations about stuff like capitalism, racism, sexism, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton’s dubious intentions, music sampling and cool anime. We share the sadness – and the impotence – about what’s happening in Kashmir and elsewhere. And sometimes we ponder on what a visiting alien would think of a culture that charges AED 300 for a dental consultation. X-rays and tests as required, and will be charged separately, Ma’am! Among other things.

We hug a lot too.

As sons go, they’re ok. And they reassure me that I’m ok too, sometimes. They even like me, they claim, though I’m not particularly interesting or smart.

Amen.

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The other day I danced. A good thirty years after my feet had learned to be strictly functional in their movements. It felt so good to let go and give in to the rhythm.

Juhi had invited us to a Navratri celebration – partly business, mostly pleasure. Manju was there, her Baroda genes swaying to the rhythm of garba. I can still see her…like an apparition, alone under a tree. Lost to the world, and dancing to—

What was she dancing to? The beat of distant music, or the song in her heart?

A beautiful, beautiful sight. I’ll remember it forever. 

It was her abandon that finally infected me – enough to let go of years of inhibitions and just give in. I danced, round and round, with Manju and Juhi on either side – till I was light in the heart and head.

It was also the same morning that I got to see the picture of Seagull Books catalogue where my name and text appears. I had been on cloud nine since. All it needed – I needed – was the dance.

But then, isn’t that what we all need? A dance? On good days, on bad days, on ok-ok days… With occasional missteps, perhaps. Sometimes to cheap remixes of Bollywood numbers, sometimes to the song in our hearts… Just a dance. 

And maybe, just maybe, life is but a dance. If you can find your song.

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 *All images courtesy Google

Urban Doodles

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A jerky hand, a quirk of technology, a happy accident – call it whatever. Or better still, call it the interference of a tech-savvy goddess who watches the world with wry humour from up there. Beyond the grey patches of a pixelated sky. 

This shot was certainly not planned. Just a failed attempt to click – with my phone camera – Dubai’s stunning skyline from Bhawna and Arun’s 28th floor apartment in JLT.  I would have deleted it. 

But viewing it in monochrome on my laptop, something stirred within me. As if this single random shot has somehow managed to capture all that I feel about this city. 

Its towering darkness, for instance. Ghosts – of the present and future. Impressive and intimidating at once. Looming, not quite straight, against an endless expanse of ambiguities. This city, after all, is inundated with greys – all shades of it. Just like its inhabitants. 

And then those clusters of neon doodles. Yes, those! Clouds of thoughts or words, gathering in the head one at a time. Or ‘shapeshifters’ that dance in front of your eyes as you stare into the sunlight for long. Floating just out of reach. Surreal, like the hopes and dreams of the millions of human beings trying to find their footing in this city.  

Tantalus, I am sure, would have empathised with our lot.  

Or maybe, just maybe, it is something else altogether… It could be that the aforementioned tech-savvy goddess has a habit of doodling absentmindedly while talking on the phone? I can almost see her talking quietly to whoever is at the other end, her darkly beautiful face a bit pensive, her liquid eyes far away…Perhaps she is a woman in love. Or almost in love. 

And from the tips of her distracted fingers, these fluid, sensuous lines. Of light. Kindly.  

Five random musings

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1.

the mirror looked back

her smile a glimmer

the stranger blushed

quickly hiding her song

behind lowered lashes

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2.

words like trembling fingers 

hesitant 

lest they startle the song 

gently tracing 

summer shadows on the skin

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3.

drawing the night 

a little closer

the dawn 

snuggled

sighing

reluctant 

to let go 

of the dream

nestled between 

eyelids

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4.

the colour of life

muted

the whisper

of dreams

dying

inside eyes

glazed

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5.

lurking words

dark shadows

of past

conversations

desolate

this landscape

of silence

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Through Mishran’s Lens

I’m yet to meet Mishran in real life, though he has promised to take me around the Nelliampathy Hills on his yellow bike if and when I visit my hometown of Palakkad, Kerala.

 

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Yesterday he sent me these photos he had taken just because. And graciously allowed me to use them in my blog. I did ask him to write captions, but he begged off. Just some random shots, he said, you can use them anyway you want.

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He did say though, that this dragonfly reminded him of me.

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Rusty, tired and a bit frayed around the edges – yet wouldn’t give up. I do see the resemblance.

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Thank you, Mishran.  Couldn’t have asked for a lovelier gift!

 

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

My acquaintance with Bong Connection Dubai (BCD) came about as a happy accident when Sourendra Kumar Das, a friend who eventually left the UAE, introduced me to Sudip Kumar Saha. Sudip and his wife Rupa are among the driving forces of BCD, and along with a group of other expatriates from West Bengal, strive to keep alive the culture and traditions of their homeland here in the UAE. 

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The greenroom

This was the second time I had been invited to Hoi Choi, BCD’s annual cultural event. And even with marginal knowledge of the Bengali culture, I was more than happy to attend it. 

For one, the language fascinates me. It had, since my hostel days in Bombay when Deepa, my partner in many a crime (she is a very private person who would be mortified if I used her full name here), introduced me to Satyajit Ray movies in a week-long session that started with Charulata. 

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Selfie time!

To me, there is something sensuous, earthy, about the way the Bengali language rolls off the tongue, the manner in which the vowel and consonant sounds behave – with utter disregard for the accepted phonic norms that other Sanskrit-derived languages diligently follow. 

Bengali is also about Rabindranath Tagore, and all that the name implies. With Mini as my given name, need I say more? 

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Getting into the skin of the character

So when Sudip informed us that this year’s event was to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, I needed no more urging. Freshly back from Calcutta and Santiniketan with as many memories as could be collected in five days, I’m still under the spell of all things Bengali, you see. 

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Backstage….

There is also one other reason I diligently attend Hoi Choi.

The event, unlike the usual ones in the UAE, does not count on star power to gather its audience. There are no celebrities, if you discount the cast of sixty-odd dedicated actors and presenters. All the performances are put together by working people, housewives and students (as young as four) who took out the time to plan, prepare, practice and present. And how!  The aura of celebration, passion and enthusiasm at Hoi Choi was infectious.

Titled Tumi Robe Nirobe, (based on Tagore’s composition) Hoi Choi’s third edition, ‘an ensemble of songs, dance, poetry and short skits from the treasure trove of Tagore’s immortal creations’ was truly the fruit of love’s labour.  

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…and on-stage

Ideally, I would have liked to mention the names of all those amazing people whose efforts have gone into the programme. The presenters, for instance. Moving between Bengali and English with ease and grace, they made sure that we, the non-Bengalis, were kept in the loop at all times.

Young Joy Dasgupta was introduced to me by Sudip sometime during the evening, with assurance that there’s no other photographer quite like him, you’ll see! before hurrying away to play the tabla for the next programme. When, later, Joy sent me the photographs of the event, I knew what Sudip meant. My blog is richer for the beautiful moments Joy has captured, on and off stage! 

Once again, my kudos to the BCD team for putting together something as lovely as Hoi Choi. And hoping to be a part of more such events in the future.

Now the problem is, how do I get the song out of my head, the one that has been haunting me for the past ten days? Tumi robe nirobe… (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5OFA6QKLio)

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Scenes from various performances: 

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All photographs courtesy Joy Dasgupta [joydasgupta@hotmail.com ]

Performing the Goddess

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Navin Kishore - Installation

*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.

Also read:

http://raiot.in/chapal-bhaduri-bengali-folk-theatres-last-living-female-impersonator/

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/performing-the-goddess-chapal-bhaduris-story-documentary-screened-in-calcutta/1/256317.html 

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/33053