At the climactic moment of both his recent performances, Chapal Bhaduri alias Chapal Rani breaks down with a shrill, strident cry, his voice wavering between melancholia and embarrassment. The high-pitched decibels fill the auditorium, snaking their way through an already enraptured and overwhelmed audience. It is the unbearable anguish of “being alone”, he admits, that looms behind the dazzling adornments on his body and the radiant crimson sari he has been draping since the heady days of his adolescence.
It is a difficult occasion, amidst joy and agony, as wondrous as it is queerly terrific to bear witness to the phenomenal enactments of arguably the last forerunner of a theatrical tradition, which under the fangs of a capitalist modernity has almost extinguished. At about 79, Chapal Rani wobbly ascends the small dais in the middle of the room at the India Habitat Centre and Ashoka University on the next day; teetering slightly but commanding the ferocity and fierceness of a yesteryear queen, whose regal bearings could not be hijacked by the unskilled ploys of gnawing age. His grief is born out of multiple registers: of being betrayed in love, displaced from gender, unable to sustain the theatrical tradition of jatra and the artist’s anxiety of not being able to perform as magnificently as before, the erstwhile divaness being impacted by sore knees and limping legs.
On April 17, Bhaduri chooses to enact snippets from three different roles that he has played in the past – Kaikeyi, Draupadi and Jahnavi, mother of Michael Madhusudan Dutta. Within the machinations of a heterosexual matrix, these three married women, uncoupled from their son or the object of love, display a seething rage, passion, pain and unbridled emotional feat which Bhaduri shares and approximates with his piquant charm. Kaikeyi’s heartfelt plea to the sun god to not rise, for at the crack of dawn Rama will have to leave the kingdom for 14 years; or the pangs of Jahnavi’s schizophrenic delirium of sighting her son, who has been disowned and banished by his father for religious conversion – assume a disquieting spectacle under the performative excess of Chapal-Rani-Bhaduri that the idiom of jatra demands.
He not only traverses through multiple gendered realities but seamlessly moves in and out of characters on stage, alters and adjusts the loose end of his sari, so as to wear it differently for each role; exhibits an aesthetic transness that cannot be contained within the limits of stable identities.
The narrative of maternal isolation, severed from the object of their primal desire, works both ways as a trope for Chapal’s articulations – first, like these women, the notion of ‘abandonment’ lurks behind the glitz of his phenomenal performance: in Naveen Kishore’s documentary, he recollects how after 32 years his lover left him for another woman and the various ways in which he abandoned the idea of occupying a rigid gender identity. Secondly, he remembers the early demise of his mother, her indelible impression on his mind and acting career, and how his fortune took a different turn after her death. The characters that he performs almost seems like a narrative recreation of events from his life, one of the many instances where the line between life on and off stage gets blurred.
Unlike other drag queens, Chapal does not mimic or parody the notion of a true/original gender identity. In fact, his contradictory responses to questions on gender render it impossible to read his gendered subjectivity; in the same breath Chapal admits that he would choose to write ‘male’ on his Aadhaar card but is embarrassed with his frail, ageing body “that almost resembles an old woman”. Similarly, towards the beginning of Kishore’s Performing the Goddess, Chapal expresses inhibitions to wear female clothes (being male himself), but later approximates the feminine attributes to the extent that he confesses getting pre-menstrual symptoms towards the end of every month.
These contradictions enable Chapal to resist representation and escape articulation, like the Lacanian ‘real’ – unmarked and impossible to envisage, disrupting the foundationalist fable of a true gender identity. Although enacting hyper-feminine roles on stage, he seems to simultaneously occupy both ‘male’ and ‘female’, and neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’. However, he would also not be the darling poster-boy of Anglophonic, anti-identitarian, post-structural queer theorists, for his articulations often verge on occupying absolutes, of being “a woman in a man’s body”. With regard to the female roles that he plays, therefore, Chapal-Rani-Bhaduri is both a palimpsest and a contradiction.
“I will come and visit you in Kolkata,” I told him at an informal moment, right after he had conducted a make-up workshop at Ashoka University. “Everybody says that. But the moment they learn that I stay in an old-age home, they don’t come. They think it is a shelter for HIV AIDS infected people!” Bhaduri admits poignantly.
There is a loneliness that is peculiar to him – the lines that he speaks while performing are not scripted anywhere. These are lines that are produced by and circulated within a patriarchal economy, conjuring the figure of an idealised femininity that draws its authority from repeated citations and performances. But these are lines that Chapal recreates and recollects from his memory, the absence of scripts also hints at the possible mutilation of patriarchy.
With a heart betrayed and broken by love, age, gender, art, capitalism and modernity, Chapal-Rani-Bhaduri displays an exemplary affirmation for life, a stupendous resilience through his songs, dance moves and poetry that he performs. His big, broken heart could accommodate so many of us, haunted and hunted by our gendered presences, and yet on these two evenings there was very little of us and much more of him.
But on these two days and others, Chapal Rani will not let capitalism or gender win by refusing to enter language, by declining to read heartbreak as loss, by dismissing loss as failure, or translating art as success. Perhaps what survives at the end of the two days is gritty labour – unintelligible, unreadable, unrecognised and hence, mal-compensated. It is like the labour of love – rough, resistant and recalcitrant – but whose warmth nourishes and sustains all the world.
All images by Rahul Sen.
Rahul Sen is a critical writing preceptor at Ashoka University.