In the 18th century, Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi was looking desperately for a second wife from a Brahmin family. But several tales about his unconventional behaviour made parents of marriageable girls apprehensive. It was rumoured that, sometimes, Gangadhar would start behaving like a woman. He would suddenly disappear and return dressed as a woman in a choli and sari, with a colorful silken braid attached to his topknot, bangles on his wrists, pearls around his neck, a nose ring and jingling anklets. He would then avoid the company of men and sit and chat only with women. He would also observe four days of untouchability each month, as menstruating women do, and attend court only after he had performed the ritual cleansing bath on the fourth day. When he got married, it was to a woman who dressed up as a man and died fighting the British. She was Manu, also known as Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi.
According to scriptures, cross-dressing as a woman is one of the eight evils a man must shun. Still, there’s no novelty in the crossdressing culture of India, to say the least. The Mahabharata, where Arjun disguised himself as Brihannala during their period of exile, is one of the earliest mentions of crossdressing by a popular culture hero. Now, Brihannala had to take up a profession to sustain themselves during the period of exile. So they took up teaching dance to small children. Dance being the last resort a crossdresser could live with, by societal norms and severe conditioning that has been continued from that era. Brihannala was essentially a transvestite, who made the choice of playing their part for a year to fulfill the ‘curse’ of Urvashi, but became a famous dancer of the Virata Kingdom during this period thereby becoming a figure of reverence for the forthcoming population and the new era, for those who performed crossdressing as women.
During the Colonial period, emerged the beginning of an era of unnerving portrayal of art on stage which marked almost a revolutionary growth of theatre companies all around the country. While predominantly, theatre became the mode of entertainment for the upper elite crust of the population, ‘jatras’ or ‘nautankis’ swept over the masses. The emergence saw a different type of expression, the insanity of art and performance, the grandeur of mounting, the open air conversation between an artist and an admirer. It also reminded, that display of art is gender biased. Women were never allowed to act in theatre/jatras for a very very long time. So, there might not be actresses but there are female characters? Who do they be enacted by? The fiercely conservative social system of India did not encourage co-ed theater and it became common to have all male actors during a play.
The emergence of ‘Brihannalas’, hence. In early Bengal, where Jatras were more popular than any other part of the country, these people were called ‘Beneputul’ (pronounced bey-ney-poo-tool; lexical meaning being puppets). They were highly popular, immensely idolized and lusted after. There are incidences of them getting kidnapped on stage. Like Rakhalrani, an ex-theatre actor, who got himself free only after showing his penis to ‘prove’ that he is a man. Often the term ‘Beneputul’ was considered to be humiliating to many as comparing artists to puppet didn’t seem to please any of them. However, the name existed and later people got the jest and the dark humor hidden as an undertone.
Coming from a hardcore politics of patriarchy and then taking it’s place in unprecedented art and then making a cult of themselves is no meager feat. What these actors achieved are more than what performance was meant to be. They not only defied sex and gender based values, they also questioned masculinity like never before. They brought out the other elements in a male and the alternate emotions of their being. The way they played with their appearance, their voice and their craft that it broke all myths and preconceived notions of performance and persona. They were aspiring liberal individuals, who fought their inner conditioning and upbringing. All this, while they were very much a part of the society with full-fledged responsibilities .
While a large number of the actors’ key to a great performance were their inner battle with art and politics, another huge contribution to it was their appearance and get-up. While the crossdressed actors started off with more-than-usual heavily put together ensembles and make-up, it gradually became more day-to-day with each day growth of theatre. Saree, which was once a unisex piece of clothing when nobles and commoners were wearing sarees in order to look as attractive as the fair sex, again came into prominence in mens’ wear. This time, in a more regular way catering to all the patriarchal needs. Sarees became a staple costume for them to be more feminine and graceful. While performing as Bhoota ( Ghost ) or Rani ( Queen ), the key to look the part was to wear a saree. There were ornaments, make-up and wigs. Most of these actors did their own makeup and represented them in their own unique ways but what made them shine through the plays was the inherent flamboyance and flair they carried. These actors had a loyal set of followers, that could be identified as fans . They faced stardom more than the non-crossdressed counterparts. Today, theatre and societal analysts have their own ways of explaining the reasons for this.
“A female should look a certain way, they should speak a certain way, they should behave in a certain way, they should walk and step ahead in a certain way, they should laugh in a certain way, and so much more. All these are bindings created by the men of the society. The measurement and significance of female beauty is always judged by males. And acting is not a real life work, it’s imitating real life, it’s loud, melodramatic, unabashedly larger than life. In a situation like this, a male actor is obviously going to shine more than a female. Because, it’s a pattern they create and they desire from their female counterparts.”
The men in the theatre obviously had a different thing to say and different way of interpreting their good work. “We all have a male part and a female part in our mind. The roles of males and females and the behavioral pattern are also societal conditioning and myths of popular culture. Hence, we are unaffected by that. All we know is that when we act, we feel like a woman. We feel like a woman while dressing up, while donning the makeup and jewelry. While heavily mouthing the dialogues written for our respective characters. We crave for a better understanding of our roles and performances. When girls started taking over theatres in female roles, we made them ‘girly’. We had more grace and youthfulness that a woman in a play is supposed to have than any of the actresses who emerged later. It’s a pity that a lot of us were jobless and thrown out by the theatre companies by then,” said Kanak, a beneputul of the early 30s.
While most of these actors had to fade away and look for alternate career options and life of poverty, some of them rebelled against being a washout and continued to act as female performers. Like Gautam Mukhopadhyay’s troupe called ‘Shouvick’. Eminent theatre personalities, while speaking about troupes like these and gender related issues had pointed out profound ideologies. While groups like ‘Shouvick” empowers sexuality and gender to be fluid and natural seamlessly, they also question a female actress’ desire to be cast as only female characters. “Why can’t a woman who loves the role of King Lear, perform as the king himself?”, is a question they often ask their troupe members.
On a closing note and moving back to the west, there is a very relevant piece of information to be shared. San Francisco’s Mark Chambers, who was a brilliant actor by all standards, had repeatedly auditioned for the role of Travey in ‘Steel Magnolias’ (the movie version had Dolly Parton playing the role). Writer- director Robert Herling , while fully satisfied and overwhelmed by his auditions and his capability to emote and identify the daily nature of a beauty parlour owner in a metropolis while interacting with each female customer, declined him the role on his sole principle of letting a woman play female characters. He justified his actions, saying, “If you want to take liberty and act in a female role, write something for yourself.”
Thereafter, artistic liberty, with respect to gender, almost always found its place in the milieu of realism. On the brighter side, it empowered women to play diverse and liberating characters. But it also meant that the image of a beneputul at their candid best, on stage, will remain unknown to the generations that follow.