Traditional readings of mythology show that Kaikeyi of the Ramayana was an evil mother who sent Rama to 14 years of exile in order to secure the throne for her own son, Bharata. Chapal Bhaduri, the legendary actor of the jatra folk theatre of Bengal, disagrees. He has been Kaikeyi — it was one of his life’s greatest roles — and knows another version.
Bhaduri, 78, lifts his head of silver hair in regal grandeur, his thin voice stretches to a melodramatic peak and he begins to speak like the distressed queen of Ayodhya — “Rama’s vanavas? No, no, no, this cannot happen. I cannot accept this. How can I ask the king to grant me such a boon? He will break down. He will never see my face again. I, I, I cannot do this” — alternated with sage Vishwamitra’s firm command —“You have to do what I ask. You talk too much. Do you not know the power of Maharshi Vishwamitra?” Bhaduri first performed this role in a jatra, titled Mohioshi Kaikeyi, in 1963-64 for the Natta company.
He returns to his regular, soft tone and says, “Notice how Vishwamitra, a man, asserts himself over a woman, Kaikeyi, and makes her do what he wants, which is to ask for a boon that will send Rama into exile. This shouldn’t happen. I have played women since I was 16 and I understand their pain.” He arrived in Delhi for a session dedicated to his art at India Habitat Centre’s ILF Samanvay Translation Series 2018 a day after the Capital witnessed massive protests surrounding the Unnao and Kathua rape cases. The session included his performance of Kaikeyi, this time in costume — blood red blouse, red-bordered white sari, queenly ornaments and a wig of black hair falling to his waist. Since 1958, Bhaduri’s repertoire were heroines caught in the junction of power and vulnerability, emotion and statecraft. He has been Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi, Draupadi, Marjina, Jahanvi, the mother of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and the goddess Sithala, among others.
In his room at IHC, sitting in bed under a white sheet, Bhaduri says, “I am a man. My voice is like a woman’s and I have the mannerisms of a woman. These are gifts from god. When I have makeup on, wear my bra and blouse, from then, that I am Chapal Rani, a woman, from eye to foot. After wearing my hair, I don’t even feel like a man, which is why, during performances outdoors, I used to have a problem going to the toilet.”
Jatra, which means travel or journey in Bengali, is a form of theatre that originated in the dramatisations of the life of Krishna and Rama during religious processions. Bhaduri was on stage at a time when jatra had expanded to secular subjects that attracted audiences in thousands, who sat tightly packed on the grounds of villages, small towns and tea estates of West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam and Tripura. Bhaduri’s mother was a famous actor of the theatre, cinema and radio, Prova Devi, and his uncle was Sisir Kumar Bhaduri, who is considered to be the first major director of modern Bengal theatre.
In the film, Performing the Goddess: The Chapal Bhaduri Story, the actor says, “At that time, men playing women was very common. There was a huge market for it. I was asked, ‘Will you play the role of a woman?’ I laughed. What? I am a man, how can I play a woman? I was told, ‘We’ll dress you up. Look, if you are willing, you will have a job in Eastern Railway within 15 days.’” At 15, a school dropout, Bhaduri took up the role of Marjina in Alibaba in 1958. Dressed in a bright red shirt and waistcoat, harem pants, a red rose in his hair, a pair of peacock feathers tied to his wrist, low-heeled shoes and bells in his toes, Bhaduri stood paralysed outside the stage. “The music kept playing but I couldn’t move. I took one step forward and another back. Seeing me, some young boys thought I was really a girl. Now, generally, when there is a beautiful girl present, boys will crowd around. They all surrounded me and one of them said, ‘Go on, enter,’” he recalls.
Bhaduri claims to have acting “in every pore and drop of blood”. “We all grew up thinking he was a leading lady. He brings his best to his role, given the kind of research he used to do. He went to the red light area for a character study, and there’s a story he tells in the film about watching a mad woman in order to prepare for a part (of Purnima, the wife of Jaichand, in a Natta Company jatra, Sonar Bharat),” says Naveen Kishore, publisher of Seagull and the maker of the film, Performing the Goddess. At ILF Samanvay, Bhaduri spoke about studying Hindi film star Helen to essay the scene in which Razia Sultana, a lifelong man hater, begins to feel a rising attraction for a man.
Bhaduri left the jatra in 1974, to return after 20 years with Sithala, which he still performs. The passage of time, he adds, has brought more women into the public space, but not ended their oppression. He has not heard of #MeToo but is happy that “women are speaking up”. Some organisations, such as a spiritual institution he frequents in Bengal, still don’t let women play women on stage. “Back in the day, it was a sin for women to step outdoor. Why? Wasn’t Durga a woman? I am not educated but I had to read a lot of history, books on theatre and literature to essay my roles. I know that the Maurya dynasty was named after Chandragupta’s mother, Mura. I know that the oppression of women in our country happened after the demise of matriarchal society,” he says.
The diction of the stage is impressed on his regular speech and he infuses poetry and poignancy to his conversations. He lives in a old age home in Bengal after the “life of a happy bachelor”. “Many days have I spent in this world, the second world war I have seen, seen danga, hangama, have witnessed the country becoming free, so many pradhan mantris, mukhya mantris, rashtrapati have I seen. Today, I am ready to leave,” he says.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines