Intersections: 'Now I'm Chapal Rani': Chapal Bhaduri's Hyperformative Female Impersonation
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

'Now I'm Chapal Rani':
Chapal Bhaduri's Hyperformative Female Impersonation

Niladri R. Chatterjee

One is not born a woman, but rather, becomes one.
Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Naveen Kishore's documentary on Chapal Bhaduri opens with a middle shot of the actor saying a silent prayer to the goddess whose role he is about to play. Then through a series of shots, most of them in extremely tight close-up, we are shown the actor applying make-up on his face. Make-up complete, the saree draped around his middle-aged male body, the wig secured, the tiara fixed, he stands in front of the camera and says, 'Now, I'm Chapal Rani. Not Chapal Bhaduri.'[1] This transition from Bhaduri to Rani and vice versa is one that the actor has been making since 1955 when he was a mere teenager. Since his debut role as Marzeenā in Alibaba, Chapal Bhaduri has regularly slipped in and out of sarees and genders, like the Latina drag queen in Mark Doty's poem 'Esta Noche.'[2] Bhaduri is an actor whose performance functions as a heritage site because he is the last torch-bearer of an almost extinct theatrical tradition which unlike in the West, continued in India well into the latter half of the twentieth century: professional female impersonation.[3] Since the complete social acceptance of female actors on the Bengali stage in the 1960s, the female impersonator has often been relegated to the task of providing visual comedy. In contemporary popular culture, in general, and theatre, in particular, female impersonation is predicated on the comic incongruity of the male body patronisingly yielding performative space to the feminine. The comedy arises from the palimpsesting of two genders, one over the other, but both identifiable. This comic palimpsesting is most notable in the performance of drag.
  2. But Bhaduri is no 'drag queen' as Labonita Ghosh lazily referred to him in a newspaper report on Naveen Kishore's documentary.[4] When Bhaduri performs the feminine he does not parody hegemonic gender constructions and thereby denaturalise and destabilise them, as drag queens have been theorised as doing.[5] His performances are not ironic. His lines are written by men; written to perpetuate fixed ideas of womanhood produced by patriarchy. Bhaduri invests those lines with as much conviction as his skills would allow. Bhaduri's art is predicated on the Keatsian negative
    Figure 1. Chapal Bhaduri photographed by Niladri Chatterjee on 30 September 2007 in Kolkata. capability of erasing the 'masculine'[6] as much as possible so that only one gender—the feminine—completely takes over the actor's body. What this paper seeks to show is the extent of this gendered performative erasure. And yet this erasure, the paper argues, reveals that which is being erased. The attribute of the masculine is being apparently erased. But since the lines, written for a female character are written and performed by men, what is being revealed is the essentially masculine/patriarchal construction of a fictive femininity. And yet, Bhaduri, through his sincere attempt at erasing his off-stage gender during his performance and using the lines attributed to his on-stage character to express his inner off-stage femininity is subverting the patriarchal notion that 'drag' is meant to be an ironic performance of gender. Here the revelation is not overt as in the case of drag, but covert. I also explore what psychological function Bhaduri's wig, female undergarments and costume jewellery play in constituting not only his on-stage character but also his off-stage, private identity. How much of his marginality stems from his effeminacy and what does it say about the performative space allowed to prosthetic female subjectivity?

  3. In Naveen Kishore's oral history documentary, Bhaduri speaks of the way in which he was asked to play the role of Marzeenā in return for a job with the Eastern Railways. He describes the way he was made-up for his role. He was hailed as a female impersonator—just as Leslie Cheung's character is assigned a female role as a young boy in the Chinese opera in Cheng Kaige's film Farewell, My Concubine—and that, in Althusserian terms, is what he became.[7] He speaks of the way young men fell over each other to get him his favourite mouth-freshening stuffed betel leaves and how he enjoyed that attention. As a female impersonator, Bhaduri's life began to acquire all the likely constituents of the melodramatic narrative of a professional single woman as iconicised by patriarchal popular culture. He survived a kidnapping and attempted rape when he was mistaken for a woman, he became a grudging victim of the casting couch, had a sexual relationship with a man (who happened to be married), and was deserted by the man for another woman. Unremarkable if they were to happen to a 'woman.' The reason why these events are remarkable in Bhaduri's case is because they were visited on a body and a being biologically and nominally fixed as male and endowed with the masculine gender.
  4. Once he was hailed as a female impersonator and his body rendered 'useful,'[8] Bhaduri acquired not only physical but also psychic markers of a 'woman.' Since being a female impersonator disenfranchised him from the patriarchal heteronormative binary, he seems to have embarked on a process of contra-patriarchal identity formation by continually foregrounding his mother and neglecting to mention his father Tara Kumar Bhaduri and his illustrious paternal uncle the great thespian Sisir Bhaduri. Not only in Naveen Kishore's documentary but also in his post-performance speeches and interviews,[9] Bhaduri declares himself to be the son of Prova Devi, although he was an illegitimate child, which is another detail he does not mention. It is as if he counters the illegitimacy assigned to him by patriarchy, by legitimising his matriarchal roots. It is as if he performs the 'Rani' in his stage name through the speech act of mentioning his mother and disowning 'Bhaduri,' the name of the father. In the documentary Bhaduri speaks of imitating his mother by memorising her lines as spoken on the gramophone records that were made of her performances. This is yet another example of the way his off-stage and on-stage personae resist compartmentalisation.
  5. In the course of his long career on the Bengali stage he has often played roles of powerful women. His roles have mostly emanated from the peculiarly overlapping worlds of royalty and/or divinity, in the sense that both the worlds denote power. He has played Raziā Sultana, Chānd Bibi, Devi Kaikeyi and the Goddess Sitalā. Occasionally he has played representatives of the common humanity, such as Mahinder Kaur in a play based on the massacre of Jalianwallah Bagh or Jānhabi Devi, the heart-broken mother of Michael Madhusudan Dutt.[10] Even when he once played the role of a brothel madam his character wielded obvious power over the sex workers at her establishment. His roles therefore are predominantly those of women who are allowed some clear agency, in whatever sphere of life it may be. Recently Bhaduri has appeared in his first male role ever, playing Ramanimohan Dutta in Shekhar Samaddar's Ramanimohan.[11] In so far as women are culturally constructed as being disempowered and men as empowered, Bhaduri has played powerful women and even a
    Figure 2. Chapal Bhaduri as the actor Ramanimohan playing the role of Noor Jahan. Photograph by Pranab Basu. man—so, that gendered power binary has to a large extent been challenged by his repertoire. Marathi female impersonator Narayan Shripad Rajhans (better known as Bālgandharva), as a study in contrast, played mythological characters such as Rukmini, Devyāni, a prostitute called Revati and a lawyer's wife called Sindhu but has never played a man's role. And yet, Bālgandharva's image, as depicted on a stamp of the Indian postal service shows the 'intelligible' face of a man. Bhaduri's image is fixed as being in transit from one gender to the other. On the cover of The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India a full-colour picture of the actor shows him applying gender transformative and yet gender constituative red to his lips.[12] A series of photos published of him in The Drama Review show him in mid-gender, as it were.[13]

  6. Bhaduri's on-stage lines are spoken by a male body, under a woman's garb. This aural and visual fact is the clearest possible exemplification of the constructedness of gender in general and of the feminine gender in particular. Bhaduri's male body can be seen to stand for patriarchy itself and the saree, jewellery and make-up that embellishes and hides that male body may be seen to reveal the production of femininity by that patriarchy. And yet Bhaduri's sincerity endangers the medicojuridical sex-gender correlation. Had his impersonation been ironic, the performance could have been ultimately misogynist, as if to say, 'Women! What do you expect from these creatures anyway?' But his sincerity attempts to erase any suspicion of a mere mimesis, mere imitating, mere play-acting. 'This is really what I am,' his performance seems to announce, using the grease-paint and the lipstick not so much to hide behind or to render ironic but to use as aids of self-expression. In sending out such a message he is destabilising his off-stage sex-gender correlation and is revealing himself that instant to be a woman inhabiting a male body. This vexed performative on-stage erasure can also be psychic, physiological, emotional and sexual. Fredric Jameson thinks of pastiche as 'imitation of a peculiar style…but…without the satirical impulse, without laughter.'[14] Bhaduri's performance, albeit humourless, is not pastiche either. I would not classify his performance as pastiche because even in pastiche there is also maintained a differentiating line between the performer of the pastiche and the pastiche itself. Bhaduri's feminine performance continually seeks to rub off that line.
  7. Embracing the feminine gender as he did as an integral part of his professional life, that gender also formed itself into a psychic entity which seemed to manifest itself psychosomatically as well as physiologically in him. At puberty his voice refused to break. Visits to ENT (ear nose and throat) specialists yielded no results. From the age of eighteen his body has been apparently mimicking the symptoms that he interprets as resembling the menstrual cycle. Once assigned an on-stage gender, Bhaduri's off-stage gender fell into alignment. His psycho-sexuality followed obedient suit in shoring up his professional persona and configuring his personal sexuality. Esther Newton's comment, made in connection with American male drag artistes, seems to acquire a certain relevance in this context. In Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America she says that it was very difficult for her to identify real and fictive genders while she watched a drag performance. She remarks that a two-fold gender transformation seemed to be at work. The psychic feminine gender was put into the 'necessary drag' of the male body and gender, which in turn performed the drag of hyper-femininity.[15] In the case of Bhaduri such gender-crossings are continual.
  8. Commenting on Simone de Beauvoir's statement that one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one,[16] Judith Butler says, 'There is nothing in her account that guarantees that the 'one' who becomes a woman is necessarily female.'[17] Bhaduri therefore becomes a woman just as any female becomes a woman: by taking on the cultural markers of womanhood. So why should his performance not be regarded as being equivalent to that of any female? His performance is different because he disrupts the sex-gender teleology, according to which only female sex is entitled to the feminine gender. In his case the male sex is being constructed into the feminine gender. And yet this should not be so remarkable if we take sex to be culturally produced as well, as is argued by Butler.[18] If neither sex nor gender is prediscursive and transcendentally stable, then the relationship between gender and sex is not that of the copy and the original, but the copy of a copy. If sex is seen as a construct of the medicojuridical or medicolegal hegemony, then its perceived stability comes into question. Even if the category of a natural-born eunuch or hermaphrodite seems to challenge the psycho-anatomic dimorphism stipulated by patriarchy, the hermaphroditic body is assigned a fixed position in the map of gender. What we see is that Bhaduri's life and work resists any such fixity. For him it is always a becoming. Gender is for him a nomadic activity marked by fixity-resistant flux, ever flitting amongst the marked and labelled patriarchal sites of gender on the regulatory and fictive map.
  9. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he is constantly at some distance from 'intelligible' masculinity. This performative distance is manifested in his off-stage effeminacy. It is this effeminacy that seems to have exacerbated his unsuitability for a transition to male roles on stage when female impersonators became redundant. Effeminacy was feared by the female impersonator Julian Eltinge (1881–1941). As has been shown in a recent article on him, Eltinge went to great lengths to demarcate his on-stage femininity and his off-stage masculinity.[19] He understood that rumours of homosexuality would invariably accrue around him if he did not take care to separate his on-stage and off-stage personae. For him, as for Bhaduri, effeminacy would be socially, and therefore economically, expensive—a cost Eltinge took care not to incur, a cost Bhaduri did not have the economic means not to incur. Eltinge regularly leaked stories about his macho exploits to an obliging press and even ran a magazine dedicated to himself. Bhaduri's economic situation would have rendered similar image-constitutive exercises exorbitant. I would submit that Bālgandharva's stolid off-stage masculinity rendered him worthy of being honoured not only with a postage stamp with his likeness on it but also to have a theatre in Pune, (Maharashtra) named after him.[20] It was Eltinge's strenuously publicised off-stage virility that also led to a theatre being named after him on New York's 42nd Street. No such luck for the effeminate Bhaduri. The fact that Eltinge and Bālgandharva were accorded the honour of having a theatre named after them may be due to neither female impersonator being associated in the public mind with effeminacy and its invariable corollary of homosexuality. They were accorded positions of cultural centrality because they both upheld the patriarchal heteronormative binary in their off-stage lives.
  10. Bhaduri's off-stage effeminacy and homosexuality may explain his fall into professional and social obscurity. It is only due to postmodernist queer valorisation of effeminacy and gender non-fixity that Bhaduri has been rendered 'useful': a suitable image in colour for the cover of an expensive, academic volume.[21] Bhaduri therefore becomes 'useful' in two different ways in the course of his career. In the pre-queer-theory era his body is only 'useful' and 'intelligible' when fully transformed into that of a woman. With the advent of queer theory he acquires a new usability. Now it is his permanent gender non-fixity which acquires a valorisation and is celebrated precisely because of his body's ability to hover, as it were, in mid-gender while resisting the label of 'transgender' or 'transexual.'[22] The two uses of Bhaduri, are therefore not synchronic but diachronic. The two uses are rooted in postcolonial Bengal's changing attitude to the performance of gender.
  11. The bright colours of the photograph used on the cover of The Phobic and the Erotic underline a crucial aspect of Bhaduri's on-stage femininity in particular and cross-dressing in general. Bhaduri's on-stage femininity is hyper-femininity. What he presents on stage is femininity exaggerated to the point of camp. Its exaggerated nature renders its constructivity strikingly visible. It seems to me that an appropriate term is needed to mark this heightened, exaggerated aspect of cross-gender
    Figure 3. The cover of The Phobic and the Erotic performativity. 'Hyperformativity' may be that term. Due to its overt, what I would call hyperformativity—which is a portmanteau term that may be made by adding the qualifier 'hyper' and the word 'hyperbole' to 'performative' and to 'formative'—of gender and gender nomadism, cross-gender impersonation in general and female impersonation in particular has always been gorgeously compliant to any discussion of the performative nature of gender. However much Butler may object to seeing drag as a site where her theory of the performative finds best expression, as she does in Bodies That Matter(1993), it is a so-called reductive misreading which is always already organic to her theory because her theory was inspired by the drag queen Divine's voluntary and deliberate performance of gender in the film Female Trouble.[23] However much she may iterate that her understanding of the performativity of gender is anti-voluntarist, that doing gender is an involuntary performance, the notion of gender being a willful, voluntary performance is far too tenacious to be excluded from any discussion of performativity. Since she cites drag as an example of performativity, the idea of performance being a deliberate act of temporary subjectivisation cannot be dismissed.

  12. According to Butler one of the various ways in which a troublesome gender performance, such as drag, can repeat and displace the very constructs by which they are mobilised is through the use of hyperbole.[24] A word is required to signal the presence of the hyperbolic especially in the case of female impersonation. The use of exaggeration is essential in the case of female impersonation because it safely, heteronormatively, denaturalises the performance, rendering it spectacular and thereby constituting as natural the socially sanctioned performance of femininity by the biologically designated female. But at the same time, hyperbole can and does function as a strategy to point out the artificiality of gender construction. Depending upon the actor who is performing female, the hyperbolic aspect of his female impersonation can either be a heteronormative gender-binary affirming tool or one that destabilises that binary. It also requires the consumer of this performance to be sufficiently alive to the performance's subversive quality for the subversion to be effective.
  13. I believe 'hyperformativity' can successfully alert one to the presence of the hyperbolic in female impersonation. It renders literally visible the consciousness of a hyperbolic, exaggerated constituent of female impersonation. As I have said before, the word operates as an obvious palimpsest of 'hyperbole,' 'hyper,' 'performativity' and 'formativity'. By functioning as a lexical palimpsest it prevents total literary absence of any of the four aspects that primarily inform female impersonation. Female impersonation thus becomes a dramatisation and visualisation of the way in which gender is not only performative and thus formative but also in the case of female impersonation, hyperbolic. (I would also argue that, in certain cases, the word can be applied to male impersonation but only when that impersonation is marked by an exaggeration of the intelligibly masculine.) I realise that my case for 'hyperformativity' is being exemplified through a genre of theatre —jātrā—which is marked by visual, aural, gestural and even, on occasion, anatomic exaggeration. I would argue that 'hyperformativity' can be applied whenever a gender-crossing performance is on, especially when this crossing is from the masculine to the feminine, perhaps because of the stereotypical notions of the female being the more demonstrative sex.[25]
  14. Female impersonation underlines the performativity of gender by raising the pitch of the performance, rendering it hyper. By this same process it underlines the formative and therefore fictive nature of gender per se. It is as if it takes a man to show what 'woman' is. And what could be more deliciously ironic than that? A sex and a gender privileged by patriarchy to continue and reinforce its deleterious project crosses over to the other side and in that crossing reveals its own covert naturalising socio-cultural historicity.


    [1] Performing the Goddess: The Chapal Bhaduri Story, dir. Naveen Kishore, Video CD, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, 1999.

    [2] Mark Doty, 'Esta noche,' in My Alexandria, London: Jonathan Cape, 1995. pp. 16–17.

    [3] While on the modern Western stage the presence of the professional female impersonator is rare, such as that of the early-twentieth-century actor Julian Eltinge, and Western popular culture is studded with 'drag queens' such as Divine, Ru Paul, Dame Edna Everage, and Lily Savage, in Bengal female impersonators were more the rule than the exception. Only recently has India produced two drag queens who are public personalities. They are the actor Bobby Darling and the hairdresser Sylvie.

    [4] Labonita Ghosh, 'Mask of a man,' in India Today, 11 October 1999, online:, site accessed 6 June 2007.

    [5] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), London: Routledge, 1999, p. 176.

    [6] I put 'masculine' in scare quotes in order to suggest that even before he embarked on his professional career of a female impersonator, Bhaduri had to perform the socially-stipulated role of being 'masculine.' However his performative resistance to the heteronormative stipulation is also narrated by him in the documentary when he speaks of making a prosthetic bun for his head with a thin towel and draping another cloth as a wrap across his chest in order to impersonate a woman —much to the scandalised horror of his relatives —even when he was a young boy, well before he was spotted for the role of Marzeena in Alibaba.

    [7] Louis Althusser, 'Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,' in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, trans. Ben Brewster, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001, pp. 1483–1509.

    [8] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, New York: Vintage, 1979, p. 136.

    [9] Even in an interview conducted by the author on 30 September 2007 in Calcutta at the author's residence, he repeatedly spoke of his debt of gratitude to his mother while never mentioning his father.

    [10] Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey, 'Poverty and age dog jatra artiste,' in The Times of India, 30 November 2001, online:, site accessed 6 June 2007.

    [11] Ramanimohan, by Shekhar Samaddar, dir. Prokash Bhattacharya, Girish Mancha, Kolkata, 3 February 2007.

    [12] According to Bhaduri his physical and psychic transformation into a woman is complete only after he has finished painting his lips. Once the lips are painted, he has finished the journey from one gender to another.

    [13] Naveen Kishore, 'Performing the Goddess,' in TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 45, no. 1 (T 169) (Spring 2001): 107–17, online:, site accessed 16 October 2008. This is one example of ten such images available online.

    [14] Fredric Jameson, 'Postmodernism and consumer society,' in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Forster, Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983, p. 114.

    [15] Esther Newton, Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 103.

    [16] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. E.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1973, p. 301.

    [17] Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 12.

    [18] 'Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scientific discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct of 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequences that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all.' Butler, Gender Trouble, pp. 10–11.

    [19] Kevin Landis, 'Julian Eltinge's manly transformation,' in The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, vol. xiv, no. 5 (Sept–Oct 2007):16–18.

    [20] I was informed about the existence of the theatre and indeed a 'chowk' named after him in Pune by my senior colleague Sharmila Majumdar.

    [21] A study in contrast may be the Indian public's reception of the obviously butch Gujarati female singer Phalguni Pathak. Rumours of lesbianism that have swirled around her have not caused any dent in her popularity or sale of her CDs. Her overt masculinity, only minimally undercut by her quiet feminine voice, has not stood in the way of the public's adulation of her. She has never inspired derisive laughter the way Bobby Darling and Sylvie continue to. The expensive volume referred to is Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya (eds), The Phobic and the Erotic: The Politics of Sexualities in Contemporary India, Calcutta: Seagull, 2007.

    [22] In an interview with the author Bhaduri spoke of his bemusement when, on a tour of Canada, a well-meaning lady had asked him if he would dress like a woman all the time if he were living in Canada. 'Absolutely not,' he had replied, 'I am only a female impersonator. Not a woman' (unpublished interview, 30 September 2007).

    [23] Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex'. New York: Routledge, 1993. p. 230-1. Butler, Gender Trouble. p. xxviii.

    [24] Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction, (1996) New York: New York University Press, 2004. p. 86.

    [25] The notion of the female being the more demonstrative sex contrasts neatly with the valorised masculinist cliché of 'the strong and silent type'. The fact that this cliché sits uncomfortably against the equally valorised notion of violence, which is configured as another masculine attribute, proves the profound contradictions which constantly deconstruct masculinity from within.

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