As jatra's 'purush ranis' fade away, Ranjan Bose is keeping the art of female impersonation alive
The era of the great purush ranis (male actors who play female roles on stage) in jatra theatre is believed to have ended. But Ranjan Bose Roy's artistry provides hope | #FirstCulture
As a child of about five or six, Ranjan Bose recalls being taken to the theatre by his father: The play, a mythological drama, comprised a moving depiction of a story about Lord Shiva and Parvati. Ranjan was enthralled by the performances; the actress who played Parvati, especially, he noticed for her beauty. She seemed truly a goddess. After the play, Ranjan’s father took him backstage, so the boy could see how the make-up and costumes were done.
“And guess what I saw there?” Ranjan asks, before supplying the answer himself: “Shiva and Parvati sitting there, taking drags of a beedi! Parvati had taken off ‘her’ make-up, and was a man!”
That was Ranjan’s first encounter with the art of female impersonation in theatre, but it wouldn’t be his last. While he now looks back on that incident as one that left a “strong impression on his) mind”, he admits to not knowing that it would end up becoming his life in later years.
Ranjan Bose is a ‘purush nari’ – the name given to male theatre artistes who play female roles on stage. The tradition goes back to the earliest days of the jatra (the folk theatre of Bengali-speaking regions), when it wasn’t deemed seemly for women to perform on stage; female characters were therefore played by men. Purush ranis (or ardhanarishwaras, as they are also called) enjoyed a glorious reign at one time, counting many illustrious actors in their midst. But as theatre became egalitarian and women artistes entered the field in growing numbers, the practice has slowly dwindled. It is widely believed that the era of the great purush ranis – the last of whom include Chapal Bhaduri and Janardan Rani – is facing its imminent end. Ranjan, 33, is considered a lone flag-bearer from the contemporary generation for the community.
“I did not belong to the world of acting,” Ranjan tells us. “I had basic training from the Ananda Shankar Dance Academy and was working backstage for a local theatre group, which I’m still part of. I made my debut in 2014, and soon after, received an offer to act in a play called Rituparno Ghosh (based on the filmmaker), directed by Rakesh Ghosh.”
A promotional poster depicted a cutout of Ranjan, dressed as a woman, placed outside the Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata. It caught the eye of director Raja Sen, who got in touch with Ranjan for his film Maya Mridanga. It was the proverbial golden opportunity in more ways than one: “It nurtured a different side of me (as an artiste),” says Ranjan. More importantly, it gave him an opportunity to work with the legendary Chapal Bhaduri himself.
Ranjan says that after his parents and the convenor of his theatre group, it is Chapal da’s guidance that has been an invaluable source of support on his chosen path. “He presented me his most favourite and expensive wig. It means so much to me,” says Ranjan, tearing up.
Playing a woman on stage is not easy. You can’t switch the persona on and off, and there are no retakes. Ranjan, a convent-educated graphic designer, says it’s about living like a woman for a considerable period of time in order to portray one on stage. Every movement and gesture – walking, talking, the movement of the hands – needs to be imbued with feminity. The voice must be appropriately modulate at all times. When taking on a female role, Ranjan says he chooses to keep on the costumes and accessories so he can ‘feel’ the part.
His go-to guide? YouTube videos of Suchitra Sen, Nargis, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman. “I still watch them now, to see how they react in emotional moments,” Ranjan tells us. “What does it take to move a woman to tears? I follow all this very minutely.”
His reward is the fans who come up to him after a performance, disbelieving that he is in fact a man.
Being stereotyped is an issue for any actor; for Ranjan, it’s more about not making the wrong impression. Small jatra groups in the rural areas do still have male actors playing female roles, but their repertoire seems to consist of dancing for an (often rowdy) crowd. This, Ranjan feels, s detrimental to the handful of true purush ranis who still remain.
“Often, I find female impersonators from Murshidabad, Birbhum or other areas from the interior, dressed too loudly. Not only the rural jatra groups, many prominent theatre artistes in the city too forget… the art is not about (essentially) waxing your hands and shaping your brows, but about assuming the softness and sensitivity of the female body. Overdoing things makes the whole act look vulgar,” he says.
After four years in theatre and having earned considerable recognition, Ranjan believes there are several other male artistes too who would like to attempt enacting female roles on stage. He cites lack of opportunities and few courageous directors as the major reasons why others are dissuaded.
“It saddens me that directors are not open to experimentation,” he rues. “They’re the ones who create content, who write for us actors. Once a director backed out of giving me a female role and said, ‘You know what, Ranjan? We love roses, but not the thorns.’ His words haunt me. The art form could be saved only if more people were willing to brave the thorns.”
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