Kolkata has been warming up to gender-neutral plays and gender-fluid performances of late. The city that has been instrumental in accepting many transitions over the years has also seen dramatic changes in theatre. Though gender-fluid performances can be traced back to jatra in Bengal, they were more out of compulsion. Women were not allowed to take part in them.
Now, Kolkata has more gender-neutral plays and gender-fluid performances. “I was the first one to do a festival like this in Kolkata about two years ago, where we spoke about gender roles in the performing arts. We addressed the issue and spoke about gender fluidity through dramatic performances. We had also felicitated Chapal Bhaduri and Sanatan Pal, the two leading female impersonators of their time,” said interdisciplinary artiste Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, adding, “There, we had a scene from Macbeth, where I played Lady Macbeth and Biplab Dasgupta played the titular character. There’s also a scene from Merchant of Venice, where Sohini Sengupta played Shylock. At the festival, there were three male actors from Nandikar who essayed three heroines of Tagore.”
Sujoy Prosad played the character Rony Das, who dresse s up like his mother in her absence, in a play titled Happy Birthday. “My solo play, Happy Birthday, which was termed a queer play, was semi-autobiographical. Sheema Mukhopadhyay’s Maayer Moto also made a mark in the proscenium Bengali theatre space. Recently, Sohagdi (Sen) directed Sonata with three women, written by Mahesh Elkunchwar. Bratya Basu did Krishna Gahobar, which was about a homosexual professor addressing bigger issues rather than fighting only his own sexual priority,” Sujoy shared.
Sujoy thinks it’s fantastic to even make a transman play a man/woman or vice-versa. “I don’t think there is any reason for gender-boxing in theatre. I always maintain that Bangla theatre is gradually transgressing to newer forms and ideas. Bangla theatre was essentially a homophobic community. It has now moved on,” he added.
Is it a challenge?
While members of the LGBTQIA+ community are starting to find acceptance in society as well as in the performing arts, women playing men as part of an all-women theatre has also gained popularity. “The first time I was a part of a gender-fluid performance was when I played Shylock in college. I asked Prof Ananda Lal whether I can play the character because that’s the only one I found interesting enough to portray. It never crossed my mind that I was playing Shylock with a woman’s body or mind,” said theatre personality Sohini Sengupta, adding, “I did Bappaditya’s solo performance from Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini. In our new play, Manush, I play a character which I essay alternately with a man. Nobody from our group ever questioned me about portraying the role.”
Sohini’s play director in college, Prof Ananda Lal, was prompt in casting women because he felt there was a need to alter the practice of stringent gender roles in the performing arts. “As a director of university theatre, I felt the injustice deeply, because I had a majority of actresses auditioning for most of my productions. Naturally, I gravitated towards the best of these all-women plays — Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Maria Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends. All were extremely sensitive and moving texts,” he said, adding, “I tried other directorial concepts too, the most radical of which was Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (a dark comedy about sexuality), in which I made my actresses perform the male roles and actors do the female roles.”
With changing times, acceptance has also been greater for such shows. Reputed theatre and film actor-director Ramanjit Kaur had a tough time when she tried to introduce her audience to gender-fluid performances back in 2011 in Kolkata with her group, The Creative Arts. “I started an all-women group with people from non-theatrical background and coined a new expression — ‘theatre for life’. It is theatre about empowerment and life beyond borders, caste, colour, religion, gender, mind and body. The project was a natural outcome of my thoughts about these issues. It was challenging because there is no parallel course like this. Homemakers and students are very keen on joining this group. I have also played a man in plays by other productions,” said Ramanjit, who is popular for her play, Beyond Borders.
Some put forward the question of what really defines gender neutrality in the performing arts. According to Debleena Tripathi, former theatre worker at Nandikar and PhD student and teaching assistant at Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at University of Toronto, “Gender-neutral plays and dramas that involve cross-dressing are two very different categories for me. Speaking in the context of modern Kolkata theatre, plays often have a chorus section whose gender identity is not defined. In one sense, that is gender neutral. On the other hand, purposeful cross-dressing may be more political in agenda too, as was the case with my play, Ichchhaamoti.”