Performing the Goddess

Photo: of an art installation called Performing the Goddess
Vancouver City Centre

Performing the Goddess

By Naveen Kishore

Photographer and filmmaker Naveen Kishore has extensively documented men performing female-identified roles in Manipuri, Bengali, and Punjabi theatrical practices. The set photo was taken during the filming of Performing the Goddess: Chapal Bhaduri’s Story (1999), one of Kishore’s most renowned projects to date, in which he revisits the life of iconic Indian stage actor Chapal Bhaduri. Bhaduri is one of few actors who follow a tradition of playing female characters, which flourished in jatra (Bengali folk theatre) until the early 1960s.

At one time the star of Bengal’s stage, Bhaduri spent his life playing women in the village theatre. More recently, he has been performing the goddess of disease, Sitala Mata, who cures souls from both spiritual hauntings and ailments such as poxes and pustules. Recounting Bhaduri’s metamorphosis from man to goddess, Performing the Goddess explores what it meant for him to become a woman on a nightly basis, at the height of his career. Kishore’s film generated a new interest in men playing female roles at a time when global discourse regarding queer and gendered identities was growing. For Bhaduri, performing gender was his life’s work, when being with his male lover was never a feasible reality. Under the Buggery Act, established during British rule on the Indian subcontinent (1858 to 1947) and in force until September 2018, homosexuality was a criminal act punishable by ten years of imprisonment.

Comprising a video documentary and selection of photos shot on set, Naveen Kishore’s Performing the Goddess: Chapal Bhaduri’s Story is featured in Moving Still: Performative Photography in India, a group exhibition that traces the trajectory of performative lens-based practices in India on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery from April 20 to September 2, 2019. Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, an initiative of the Institute of Asian Art, and curated by Diana Freundl, Associate Curator, Asian Art, Vancouver Art Gallery and Gayatri Sinha, independent curator and founder of Critical Collective.