Chapal Bhaduri, the last female impersonator was the highest paid ‘actress’ of Jatra theatre in 1960s. He was reduced to playing Shitala Devi for Rs. 80 per night. Thanks to a documentary on him, he’s famous again
By Ritika Kochhar
Chapal Bhaduri is more famous as Chapal Rani – one of the last performers of women’s roles in Jatras, better known as travelling theatres in Bengal, and Naveen Kishore’s photographs and documentary Performing the Goddess are a must see for anyone trying to understand this tradition.
Performing the Goddess (1999) has been included in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, Washington; picked up by Mumbai International Film Festival; the Montreal Documentary Festival and subsequently shown in Milan and Bologna at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals.
It also made a living legend of Chapal Bhaduri – a female impersonator who performed under the name Chapal Rani and was the highest paid ‘actress’ of the Jatra theatre in the 1960s. As women re-started performing in Jatras, Bhaduri went into oblivion by the late 60s till the only role he could find was playing Shitala Mata – the incarnation of Goddess Parvati who cures pox and disease, at four hour long performances for 40-50 nights in a year which he would do for Rs. 70-80 per night.
Kishore met Bhaduri in the 90s when he accompanied one of his editors to interview Ketaki Datta -a well known actor/singer of Bengali theatre and films (and Bhaduri’s sister). When a familiar looking face placed tea in front of him, Kishore asked around and was told that it was Bhaduri, who was now in this odd place of being a famous actor with almost no work.
Kishore, who had grown up watching Bhaduri’s performances, decided to go back and take photos of Bhaduri getting ready to play Ma Shitala as well as photograph men performing female-identified roles from Manipuri, Bengali, and Punjabi theatrical practices. Later, Bhaduri approached him at the Kolkata Book Fair for a job.
Instead, Kishore decided to make a documentary film that would tell Bhaduri’s story. The plan was to sell the documentary to a television network and generate income for the artist who had fallen on hard times.
During the editing of the documentary, Bhaduri decided to talk about his personal life, his first kiss at 14, his homosexuality and a relationship. He even set up the sequence of him cooking his ex-lover’s favourite dish. This coming out story transformed the documentary from an examination of the environment of the Jatra and the loneliness of a performer living on the edges of conventional society into a study of a unique individual and his life as a woman inside his male body, his troubled sexuality and his long domestic partnership with his older lover.
When it was screened on Tara Bangla, it instantly became a hit with entire families watching it together. Gayatri Sinha, the art critic and curator took Kishore’s photographs to her show in Canada and very soon the out-of-work folk performer was invited to Delhi, Bombay, Montreal and Vancouver to perform the story of Goddess Shitala in solo performances.
In 2010, he narrated his life on camera when he starred in a Bengali film called Arekti Premer Golpo which was made by Kaushik Ganguly and Rituparno Ghosh who acted as the younger Chapal Bhaduri. Two mainstream theatre groups in Calcutta are currently performing plays that have been written based on Chapal Bhaduri’s story.
The money that came from all this was enough for Bhaduri to live comfortably in an old folks home in Kolkata while working on a book. The goddess truly provided for him for his devotion to her.
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Ritika Kochha writes on art and culture and is the author of Weapons of Kalki - a fantasy series based on mythology.