Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Bhadu calling

Clickhappy! May '15
Pawan Dhall files a photo-report on a visit to Birbhum district in West Bengal to record a film-making initiative on Bhadu Devi. The film, much like the goddess herself, has intrinsic links to many aspirations for personal fulfillment and a better life

Uchpur village is about an hour’s drive from Sainthia town,
nearest railhead after a four-hour journey from Kolkata.
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
The Bhadu festival and folk art form of Birbhum and neighbouring districts in West Bengal has its origins in the story of Bhadravati, a princess who lived sometime in mid 19th century Bengal. According to one version of folklore around her, she gets separated from her lover because of the evil designs of a jealous king. Her search for her lover proves fruitless and she commits suicide. Bhadravati or Bhadu Devi is worshipped through songs, dance, fairs and cultural programmes in the month of Bhadra (mid August to mid September). On the last day, her idol is immersed in a river. Songs, mainly on fulfillment of wishes for a happy marriage or birth of children, form the main attraction of the festival in which both professional artist groups and amateurs take part.

Debgopal Mondal in his kitchen
garden in Uchpur.
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
While the festival is largely observed by women, including unmarried ones (Bhadravati too was unmarried), it has been adopted over the years also by trans women, some of whom join small Bhadu artist groups as performers (particularly in Birbhum district). This process has its share of hurdles posed by social stigma and marginalization around gender non-conformity. But today the bigger concern is the survival of both Bhadu as an art form in its original essence and that of its performers (whether trans women or others). The onslaught of modern-day entertainment seems all encompassing and apart from some efforts by the artistic community and the government, Bhadu seems to be losing out to cinema, TV, internet and mobile phones.

One contribution towards sustaining Bhadu as an art form is that of Debgopal Mondal, 26, a filmmaker still learning the ropes in Kolkata. His roots are in Uchpur village, near Sainthia town in Birbhum district. Not only is he a ‘son of the soil’ but also identifies and bonds closely with the transgender Bhadu artists in terms of gender non-conformity. Debgopal Mondal is making a feature film that apart from focussing on Bhadu, also tells the story of a few trans women who face countless trials and tribulations both as trans women and as transgender Bhadu artists. The story (as it stands now) has a sad ending, but not without a strong glimmer of hope that social attitudes towards gender diversity will change.

Debgopal Mondal with his extended family in Uchpur.
Photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

Debgopal Mondal is supported by the Change Looms youth social change initiative of Kolkata-based NGO Prantakatha, though he started work on the film even before Change Looms started. As his Mentor for the film project, I had an opportunity to visit Sainthia, Uchpur and neighbouring village Nandulia on May 9-10, 2015 and keep a promise made to him a long time back. An earlier interview conducted with him can be accessed in the November 2013 issue of Varta. Debgopal Mondal and fellow traveller Prosenjit Pal have also contributed photographs to this photo-report.

Bhadu idols in the making for Debgopal Mondal’s film – the popular
form of the deity is like that of Goddess Lakshmi, but the Bhadu
artists prefer to portray her as a dancer. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Above: Debgopal Mondal with Bhadu artists Shishir Hajra (left) and Ajit Hajra (right)
– photo credit: Pawan Dhall. Top: Ajit Hajra sings a popular Bhadu song:
“O Bhadu jash na jole, emon hele dule . . .” – photo credit: Prosenjit Pal

Debgopal Mondal remembers that in his childhood Birbhum had at least
six Bhadu artist groups (each included at least a few transgender
individuals). Now the number has come down to two. Of these the one
near Uchpur (in the photographs above) has five members left after one
member passed away recently. Photo credits: Debgopal Mondal

The joker has been introduced into Bhadu performances as a concession to ‘modern
tastes’ (top), while Bhadu artists now have to depend more and more on handicrafts
(above) and government accreditation as folk artists for a living. The second often
entails singing ditties to popularize government social welfare schemes like
Kanyashree or perform in ‘cultural events’ in cities. Photo credits: Debgopal Mondal

Some members of Debgopal Mondal’s film group in Sainthia – in the forefront (right)
is theatre artist Bijoy Das, who hosts the film group’s activities at his residence.
A revered guide to Debgopal Mondal, he has scripted a play on the socio-economic
challenges faced by Bhadu artists. Not only has Debgopal Mondal enlisted the support
of theatre artists, film actors and film technicians from Sainthia and Kolkata, he has
also mobilized a motley group of youth, some of whom are queer, to train and act
together in the film. Indeed, a good way to build bridges! Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Debgopal Mondal on a guided tour of the planned film shooting
locations in Uchpur and Nandulia. Photo credits: Pawan Dhall

There is much to soak in and think about in Uchpur and Nandulia.
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Till the next time . . .
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall 

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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