He is a man by birth but a woman at heart. It can be one of the possible anticipations made in favour of Chapal Bhaduri if one intends to judge his craftsmanship of impersonating the female in the jatra tradition of Bengal. The tradition of Bengali folk theatre has various forms among which jatra is a very dynamic one. Chapal Bhaduri used to be the last of the female impersonators of Bengal and he is still remembered by the theatre as well as the jatra lovers across the globe.
Chapal Bhaduri’s contribution to Bengali jatra has created a niche, although his erstwhile glory is no more intact today. He is remembered for his extraordinary talent of impersonating the female and his effeminacy cannot be misrepresented as a mimicry to ridicule the ‘feminine’. Chapal Bhaduri has done what was necessary for his profession; his intention was not to destabilise the myth of femininity.
Female impersonators, in the words of theatre researchers like Kathryn Hansen “were embodiments of feminine sensibility and decorum, creating prototypes for the ideal woman”. The latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century was a period of transition when the public image of Indian womanhood was being crafted not only through literature and social experiments but also through the commercial media of Parsi theatre and silent cinema.
Bal Gandharva of Maharashtra, Jayashankar Sundari of Gujarati theatre, Fida Hussain of Parsi theatre, Chapal Bhaduri, Janardan Rani and many others of Bengali jatra has successfully played the role of female impersonators for quite a long time. In Bengal, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the mystic of the Vaishnava sect played the character of Rukmini at a play in 1506. It was a major inspirational account for the female impersonators of Bengal. Chapal Bhaduri’s performance was so unique that he reached the zenith in his heyday. His performance made him famous, he played the female so accurately that it was difficult for anyone to identify him as a male while he was in his female attire. Chapal Bhaduri was proposed to by several male suitors who thought him to be a woman.
Introducing Chapal Bhaduri
Apart from his own established identity as a famous female impersonator of Bengali jatra, Chapal Bhaduri is the son of Prabha Devi, the famous iconic actress of Bengal and the nephew of the theatre icon, the honourable Natyacharja Shishir Kumar Bhaduri who was one of the pioneers of modern Bengali theatre. Bengali theatre has got the realistic and naturalistic touch in Shishir Bhaduri’s hands after Girish Chandra Ghosh (known as the craftsman of Bengali theatre).
Chapal Bhaduri was born in 1938. Prabha Devi was quite a talented actress and from early childhood her son observed her acting very minutely and that may be one of the reasons why Chapal Bhaduri has mastered the art of acting. At the age of seven he acted in Bengali jatra for the first time and when he was a teenager, he first got the opportunity to play a woman’s role which was quite a wonder for him at that time. He played the role of Marjina in the play Alibaba and this begins his journey to the world of jatra as well as his art of female impersonation. His success in playing Margina made him flooded with female roles. His popularity as Chapal Rani (Chapal his name and Rani denoting Queen occupying the hearts of the spectators) made him the highest paid female impersonator of Bengal during those days.
Chapal Bhaduri’s Androgyny and its Effect in Jatra
Chapal Bhaduri has an effeminate voice from his early days and the way he played the female roles wearing female attire and make up focuses the true worth of his talent. Throughout his career he has played roles such as Kaikeyi and Draupadi, Chand Bibi, Sultana Razia. Chapal Bhaduri also acted as Janhavi Devi, the mother of the famous poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta. He was performing female roles at a time when many professional women actors have not entered the field of jatra because of the social stigma. Only women of ‘lower class’ were part of the profession and for this reason, were often deemed women of ‘loose morals’ in the society. One among them was Nati Binodini or Binodini Dasi.
In many interviews, Chapal Bhaduri has been asked questions related to his orientation and he unhesitatingly replies with the assertion that the nari-bhav has always been there within his soul. He even acknowledges the fact that his adherence to feminine roles gave him the feel of what the women feel during their menstruating days. He considers himself a male but also admits the fact that he feels very much like an Ardhanarishwara– the union of the purusha and the prakriti- a harmonious balance between emotion and action. Chapal Bhaduri has admitted that he has always been comfortable playing female roles.
The moment he started wearing female attire he exfoliates his male self in a conscious manner because he had to enter into the character of a woman and that is only possible if one feels for the character. The erasure of ‘andro’ and the stabilisation of the ‘gyny’ was something that he considered as an ethics of his identity. Probably this is the reason why his performance is so natural, so transparent. He admits that he is a cloistered gay and was asked to leave when the ‘Master’ came to know about it in the 1960s.
He reigned in the field of jatra so long but the slow emergence of women performers made him gradually disappear from the scenario. He left jatra in 1974 and made a comeback with a female role of Devi Shitala (the folk goddess Shitala) after twenty years. So much was Chapal Bhaduri’s prowess that he was kidnapped by men who misunderstood him to be a woman and wanted to propose to him. Such incidents were a part of his life for quite long a period.
Chapal Bhaduri’s Present-Day Reception
Chapal Bhaduri made a comeback with a male role in the drama Ramanimohan in 2006 in which he played the role of an effeminate man. Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books has made a documentary on Bhaduri’s life entitled Performing the Goddess in 2018. In this documentary, Bhaduri shares his experiences with minute details. Film director Kaushik Ganguly made both a telefilm Ushnotar Jonyo in 2003 and a film Ar Ekti Premer Golpo in 2010 based on Chapal Bhaduri’s life. His story is very aesthetically represented by Ganguly in Arekti Premer Golpo.
In this movie, Chapal Bhaduri is both the actor and the narrator. He narrates his life on camera while Rituparno Ghosh, who acts as a filmmaker in the movie, plays the role of younger Chapal Bhaduri in the film-within-the-film.
Chapal Bhaduri is quite happy with some of the changes in the society. His near and dear ones left him mainly because of his queer identity. It is true that his enforced isolation at an old age home at present is quite unfortunate but Chapal Bhaduri has learnt to live alone with his scripts, books and his androgynous self much before he was officially deserted by his ‘loved ones’.