TDR: The Drama Review 45.1 (2001) 107-117
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Performing the Goddess
Photos by Naveen Kishore
[Performing the Goddess]
The photo essay that follows is part of a documentary project that will include five other master artists. These performers, like Chapal Bhaduri and countless other aging artists, have found themselves out of sync with the times. No longer able to earn a living in their lifelong fields and too proud to accept government handouts or other forms of charity, they find themselves marginalized, with no means of support. Yet they all have amazing stories to tell.
Hoping to find some additional income for these artists, we came up with the idea of filming a series of video docu-dramas that would tell their tales. The plan was to sell the documentaries to TV networks and to generate an income for the artists, with 75 percent of all earnings generated by them going to the artists themselves and the balance to the producer. The networks gave the impression that they would love serious programs but that the sponsors wanted something more popular. We believed that we could do the project without depending on commercial sponsorship and sell the films strictly on merit.
The Chapal Bhaduri story, Performing the Goddess (1999), is an intimate video biography that brings you face to face with a unique individual, discussing what it means to become a woman night after night, talking for the first time of the woman inside his male body, of troubled sexuality, of a long domestic partnership with his older lover, of the essential loneliness of living as a human being on the edges of conventional society--and showing how he metamorphoses into the goddess in order to perform her story. In the process we get a fascinating view of the milieu of the professional jatra, an integral part of the people's culture of Bengal.
In-depth interviews, extracts from milestone fragments of jatra plays, the makeup process that metamorphoses a man into a woman into a goddess, and documentation of Chapal Bhaduri's performance of the goddess, provide a rare entry into an unusual world, and a close look at the artist's life and work.
The video was bought by a local network and shown five or six times on TV. The film was picked up by the Mumbai International Film Festival, and subsequently shown in Milan and Bologna at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. In November 2000 it was shown at the Montreal Documentary Festival.
Throughout the filming I shot stills of the performance process, some of which follow in this TDR photo essay. Some of the photographs were picked up by Gayatri Sinha who curated a traveling exhibition called Woman/Goddess. The money from the sale of these photographs went entirely to Chapal Bhaduri.
The project was beginning to take on a life of its own. The attendant publicity led to an invitation for Chapal to come to Delhi and Bombay to perform the Sitala tale in a solo performance! Two mainstream theatre groups in Calcutta are currently performing plays that have been written based on Chapal Bhaduri's story. Suddenly, an out-of-work jatra folk performer is being resurrected on the mainstrean proscenium stage and applauded for his acting skills.
For all of us involved, this is particularly exciting and satisfying because what started as a paper project has actually far surpassed our expectations. Chapal Bhaduri has been invited to perform in Montreal and Vancouver, Canada, in the fall of 2001 and there are plans to film the stories of at least five other artists. The next film will be on the veteran actress Sabitri Heisnam, who has spent a lifetime making magic in Manipuri theatre.
44 mins. Color. English subtitles. VHS price: Rs 275, £15, $25. NTSC price: $35.
Place orders with:
Glenda Manuel, Seagull Foundation for the Arts
26 Circus Avenue, Calcutta 700017
tel: 91 33 2403636/2407942
fax: 91 33 280 5143
Naveen Kishore, Publisher, also designs Seagull Theatre Quarterly and all Seagull books. He is a photographer and theatre...