I was first introduced to the Heroines of Rabindranath Tagore in the early days of college. While sipping a lebu cha (Leamon tea), nibbling on samosas, I saw that ‘Chandalika’, a play by Rabindranath Tagore was to premiere the next day. I almost had to coerce a couple of friends, who didn’t seem as interested to my then eyes, to come with me for the show.
It was amusing to others, and me as well, to be a South Indian Telegu kid and be in love with Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali literature. Half of my life had been spent in Bengal since I was born and I had grown accustomed to the region’s air, and almost immediately had fallen into love with the culture, the literature, the music. When talking about conversions, I joke I converted to a Bengali.
It was the musicals, yes. The musicals of Rabindranath Tagore and the women in his stories instilled something in me that was more than a passing or a literary interest. I would watch these plays and feel like they were all speaking to me, they were my stories. My gender-fluid self would relate to the gender complex of these heroines that had sprung out from pages right onto the stage.
With time, I was introduced to many such characters.
Two of them held my fancy the most, which made me question the gender structures in place: Potrolekha from Tasher Desh and Chitrangada from Chitrangada. One reason might be their popularity more than others – both were adapted by two diverse Bengali filmmakers into feature films. One of the most impactful characterizations was by filmmaker Q, also known as Kaushik Mukherjee, who made Tasher Desh -the Land of Cards. This movie had ungendered the idea of Potrolekha, the guru or the messenger who drives the entire story; the gender non-conformity of the character was an inspiration, something which I wanted to adapt and create of of my own.
A few years later, when my friend Aniket Shah, a celebrity stylist, who was interested to see my anti beauty tranimal drag, asked me to do a photo project depicting strong women. I pitched Tagore, to recreate these images of Potrolekha and Chintrangada with Drag. The idea was to gender-bend both of these characters to dismiss the traditional gender attitude. We grew as a team by collaborating with Fashion Label Renusaa by Saikumar and Rehan and makeup artist Vaibhav Mua. Anindya Biswas, a photographer and friend was on board for the shoot and theme-set.
Till then, I had assumed and experimented with drag as a solo play, but nothing could be farther from the truth, as I learned with this – seeing a diverse set of individuals coming together to create art about something that is much needed today, something that is close to me personally, and something that is an important social movement.
Aniket Shah, the lead, made Potrolekha into a newlywed woman mixing the character Potrolekha from Tasher Desh, the movie, with Potrolekha the poem by Rabindranath Tagore.
“Why can’t Men be the bride?” I dressed up.
Anindya Biswas, who was the behind the lens rebuilt the backdrop story, to a gender-fluid Potrolekha who is shy and timid, advising her new husband to go and explore the other side of the world. A multi layered directive, it motioned the husband to explore sexuality and sensuality and their vast possibilities. And then waits for her husband to return. The costuming by Rehan and Saikumar was a fusion of the traditional Bengali bride with a wonderful silk saree that complimented the character. Aniket added his apparel from the flirt diamond wedding collection which added to the depths of color, and personality. The face was painted by Vaibhav who envisioned a balance between the mystical and the real, grounded, Potrolekha.
The second character we explored was Chitrangada. Tagore puts Chitrangada in a spot to explore and deal with her gender neutrality. The queen of Manipur, who was raised as a king falls in love with Arjun and then questions and rediscovers her feminity. Had to be our second muse no doubt. We bought inspirations from the movie by Rituporna Gosh’s Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish where we wanted to interspersed masculinity and feminity.
Aniket came up with the image of Chitrangada as a tribal queen and showcasing her masculinity in a tribal attire, that of warriors. Usually, tribal wears are gender fluid in themselves and we surely wanted to respect it by basing the source look around that. Saikumar and Rehan created an indifferent fusion tribal look with a green saree draped in a Kohima fashion.
Flirt diamond oxidized jewellery added the subtle nuances to the look, and an over the top face makeover by Vaibhav popped up the dis-gender.
I felt my Chitrangada to be familiar and at peace with the green, and the brown of earth. I climbed a few trees, Chitrangada climbed a few trees. Choreographed by Anindya to reflect a balanced approach to the idea of drag and the Indianness of the characters, they felt apart and close to Tagore both at the same time.
It took us effort, hours and love to do this project. Five people came together from varied backgrounds of gender, sexuality, and physical disability for a project they felt close to, for Tagore, for drag, and mostly for the community.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Heroines.
Photography by : Anindya Biswas (Instagram @potraittosimple)
Stylings and concept : Aniket Shah (Instagram @flirtdiamond)
Fashion Designer : Rehan and Saikumar (Instagram @Renu_saa7)
Make up : Vaibhav Mua (Instagram @mua_sunny_vaibh)
Model and Drag Artist : Patruni Chidananda Sastry (Instagram @sas3dancingfeet)