Androgyny is an engaging subject of discussion and research in the present times. This volume makes an effort to understand concepts of androgyny and 'nari bhav' or sensibility of the feminine beyond the anatomy-directed definitions circumscribed within the dubious realm of the 'third sex', or 'third gender'. As expressed through various literary and performative traditions in India that emphasize interrelatedness of art and society, the concept of 'nari bhav' is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and the male symbolized, for example, as Ardhanariswara. The belief that the constant interplay of duality engenders balance and harmony in both personal and social aspects of human life, and the acknowledgment of the existence of male and female tendencies-physiological and/ or emotional-psychological-within each individual has aesthetic validity, may be seen to form the basis of female impersonation in India. Such perception urges more inclusiveness in social attitudes, easier acceptance of different sexualities and ways of expressing gender. The volume discusses concepts of androgyny that permeate Indian cultural ethos and as expressed through female impersonators not only in religion, theatre and dance but also in contemporary performative mediums like films, television, and the internet. The volume also presents interactions with performers of the dying art form of female impersonation.
Tutun Mukherjee is Professor of Comparative Literature, University, of Hyderabad, India, and has also taught courses at Centre for Women’s Studies and Department of Theare Arts in the university. Her specialization is Literary Criticism & Theory and research interests include translation, women’s writing and theatre, film studies. She has written extensively on these subjects which overlap in her work. Besides articles and book chapters in national and international journals, as single author and editor her publications include I.A. Richards’ contribution; jointly edited companion to comparative literature, World literature and comparative cultural studies, to mention a few. She is on the editorial team of several journal and is a reviewer for publishers.
Niladri R. Chatterjeeis Professor, Department of English, University of Kalyani, West Bengal. His doctoral work was on the novelist Christopher Isherwood. A recipient of Fulbright Scholarship and the British Council-Charles Wallace Fellowship, he co-edited The Muffled Heart: Stories of the Disempowered Male, contributed to the American Isherwood and so on. He has published in the journal American notes and queries, Intersection and has recently begun contributing to The Wire. He has reviewed for Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (U.S.) He has been teaching a course in gender studies at his university since 2009, and runs a facebook group called New Gender Studies, which has over 11200 Member.
As a child I remember visiting a Radha Krishna temple with my Father where there were colourful festivals during Dol Utsav (Holi Festival) Raashpurnima (celebration of Krishna's union with all his sakhis and their dance under the full moon) and Janmashtami (Krishna's birth celebrations). The main priest, a man of few words and kind eyes, would often appear in a saffron saree and sing and dance like Radha or Krishna's female sakhi. There were phases when he transformed to Radhabhava, probing into his latent feminine self and giving it an external manifestation. Within that Vaishnav temple the transformation seemed totally acceptable and beautiful. My very young mind perceived this transformation as unique but acceptable within the natural frame of things. More so as the transformation was played out in the context of a devotional tradition and a joyous atmosphere of kirtana song and dance. As I revisit that space in and his anguish of losing "her" after the shoot, will be the stuff of urban legends to come. In Chitrangada, Rituparno reinvested the Tagore dance drama with the vigour it had lost in repetitive middle class tropes. Coding the debate over gender and identity through choreography and stage performance, sex reaffirmation surgery with its clinical truth, Ghosh disrupted and dismantled normative codes of family space, love and desire.
Two potent creative forces, two close creative partners, Rituparno and Bireshwar went too soon. Treading the borders for long, hurtling into unmapped territories both per formative and cinematic, reminding us of lost traditions and fables, revalidating unacknowledged chapters of history, they are icons today offering strength and validation to younger artists aspiring for non-normative narratives and personae. That will be the eternal voice of the outsider struggling to be heard.
So when a young theatre group approached me with the Bengali play "Rituparno Ghosh," I was surprised to learn it was not about the filmmaker, but about an everyday individual who struggles with his sexual identity. Overcoming the natural storm and domestic calamity, he steps out to travel to Nandan to bid goodbye to Rituparno on the fateful day of his death. My company 'Baithak' produced this play (along with 'Weavers Studio') which continues to tour and run in its third year, thus renewing a legacy of gender politics and trans-debate in the performance space. Predictably, the young actor Ranjan Bose, has now found public acclaim after his recent performance as a female impersonator (chhokra in the alkap tradition) in the award winning feature Maya Mridanga, based on Syed Mustafa Siraj's controversial novella, currently running its tenth week in Bengal.
Naribhav has a long legacy in Indian culture both ideological as well as performative. Androgyny is present and discussed in many cultures around the world. With the current thrust on trans -studies these narratives are being revived for a newer audience. This book Nari Bhav: Androgytny and Female Impersonation in India is a timely intervention in that collective global dialogue where scholars are bringing new research together. I congratulate editors Tutun Mukherjee and Niladri Chatterjee (the latter my student from my first teaching years in Manindra Chandra College) and am delighted to join the multiple voices in the book with my own thoughts and cultural interceptions on the subject.
I am happier that this intervention is not just an academic exercise. It is supported by perceived change in popular culture with marginalised Mahabharata characters retold in Devdutt Pattanaik's Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don't Tell You; the popularity of trans- narrative such as Holdey Golap (Ananda Puraskar 2015) the currency and touring potential of the Bengali play Rituparno Ghosh (written/ directed Rakesh Ghosh) the acceptance of feature films Balgandharva and Maya Mridanga, the critical assessment of Rituparno Ghosh's cultural iconism and catapulting star status of trans-activist Lakshmi whose autobiography is now translated in many Indian languages. Our book Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art (ed. Sangeeta Datta, Kaustav Bakshi and Rohit Dasgupta, Routledge, 2015) and its critical reception also extend the dialogue with these narratives. My documentary on Ghosh, currently in production, will further question the fluid artistic identity and its social context.
Androgyny means fusion of the male and female. The concept is intriguing and finds elaboration in myths and stories of all ancient cultures. Plato's dialogues refer to a myth of three sexes, the male-male people who descended from the sun, the female-female people who descended from the earth and the male-female people who came from the moon. The last pairing represented the androgynous couple. Greek myths tell stories of Aphroditus who bore both male and female genitalia, and of the androgynous Hermaphrodite born of union of Hermes and Aphrodite. There are similar indications from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Sumeria. In contemporary times, the word 'hermaphrodite' describes an individual incompatible with the biological gender binary. Ashley M. Dawson explains in her essay on the secrets of androgyny in ancient Egyptian religion that gender reversal and internal androgyny was basic to the understanding of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth in Egyptian belief. Similarly, native Americans held androgynous people, feminine males and masculine females in high regard. Referred to as 'two-spirit' people, they were honoured for their sensitivity and special spiritual powers. Mithras, the Persian Light-Saviour, is considered to be masculine, but he divides himself into feminine Mithra (Mithraic mysteries) with maternal potency? Similarly, the Chinese concept of Yin-Yang suggests the fluidity of female- male characteristics to enhance harmony. Polynesia too has many myths of the androgyne. All these are from centuries prior to the Christian era.
In India, the Vedas and Upanishads inform the discourses of the major schools of Hindu philosophy which focus upon the Universal Absolute called Brahman explained as the Great Cosmic Spirit, the Ultimate Infinite Reality, the Supreme Self, which transcends individuating characteristics and is beyond all limitations and differentiating qualifications. It is a transcendental concept that includes all virtues, forms, genders, characteristics, cap cities, knowledge and beingness. But the Brahman is imagined in many forms to suit the finite understanding of the human mind that must gradually aspire to the supra-consciousness of realizing the formless, fathomless Brahman. Thus, the Hindu devotee imagines Absolute Brahman as a pantheon of deities each presiding over a particular realm and who can be entreated for help in the conduct of life within the Brahmanda or the world of Maya engendered by Brahma the Creator to entangle the human spirit/jeevatma. Each male god has a female consort con figured as his 'shakti', meaning energy or power, though shakti in itself is genderless. Hence, the names of male gods are often preceded by the name of their shakti roop - the female consort, for example, Radha Krishna, SriKrishna, SitaRama, Janakiballav, Sitapati, Umapati, Gaurivara, and so on. The most well-known concept is that of Ardhanariswara, one of the sixty-four forms of Parashiva, represented as the fusion of Shiva and Parvati, and symbolizing the synthesis of Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female energies in the universe (Danielou 1992; Goldberg 2002; Pande 2004; Yadav 2000). Ardhanariswara is in essence Shiva, the male iswara is half-female (ardha+nan). In his invocation to his works Raghuvamsa and Malavikangnimitram, Kalidasa says Shiva and Shakti are inseparable as word and meaning.
Across cultures, hermaphrodite figures like Ardhanariswara have traditionally been associated with fertility and bounty. In the Ardhanariswara form, Shiva/Purusha in his eternal embrace with Parvati/Prakriti represents the immutable reproductive power of Nature that is regenerated perpetually. Other than this overwhelming concept that seeks to go beyond dualities, stories abound in the puranas and the epics about males becoming females and giving birth. The most reiterated story recounted is that of Mohini, the female form, which Vishnu adopts on many occasions to resolve contentious issues (as cited in Bhagvata Purana, Brahmanda Purana and Shiva Purana). There is also the myth of Vena, the primeval androgyne created by Brahma that describes him splitting to join again sexually and become father and mother of Prthu. IIa, another king born of the lunar dynasty, changes from man to woman and back again or becomes a kinnara, a half-man half-horse (Zimmer 1972). The book on same-sex love by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (2008) refers to the story of Sumedha and Somavan narrated in Skanda Purana. Contemporary writer Devdutt Pattanaik has contributed to the trove of such narratives by weaving imaginative stories with characters from the Mahabharata, like the well-known Shikhandi or Amba-reborn, who plays a crucial role in the battle, and from a tangential strand a lesser-known character called Yuvanashva (pattanaik 2014; 2008). Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty recounts and analyses many myths from different cultures in a comparative framework in her book Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts. She emphasizes 'psychological androgyny' of three kinds: 'splitting androgyne' who embodies male and female qualities but must 'split' to become creative; 'fusing androgyne' who must merge with a male or female personality to become bisexual; and 'two in one' androgyne, often represented by a couple uniting in perfect love. She also discusses androgyne-like figures such as eunuchs and transvestites. It is clear that feminine males and masculine females recur and have received respect in all cultures.
In Buddhism, Tara also known as Arya Tara or Jetsun Dolma, invoked as the deity for tantrik meditation, is considered the feminine aspect of the 'male' Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Jain faith also locates the powerful feminine element in 'male' Tirthankara Mallinatha. Early Buddhist literature emphasizes the concept of the ungendered Self. Isidasi Sutra is about female Isidasi who attains enlightenment as an unfettered Self. Lotus Sutra presents a conversation between monk Sariputra and a goddess." To the monk's question why she does not change her sex, she says she c not distinguish the innate characteristics of the female sex as distinctive. Then the goddess magically transforms the monk into a female and herself into a male and explains that just as the monk appears a woman and she appears a man, so all beings exhibit the traits of a sex but essentially possess no sexual distinctions. She then changes the monk back into a male and herself back into a female and asks the monk where his female form and its innate characteristics are now. The monk, now liberated from sexual dichotornism, realizes that innate sexual characteristics do not exist. Thus, this sutra is significant in dismantling notions of sexist binary. Gayatri Reddy writes that whatever the differences between Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain texts, there was certainly an extensive debate and literature on the concept of sexuality, differences between biological and grammatical gender, elaborations on sexual object choice and the notion of third nature in India, dating back to at least the third century if not before' (2005: 21). A. Constantinople's significant essay on the subject challenges the basic assumption of unidimensionality of sex identity and gender roles. She states that masculinity and femininity are co-existent and not contrary, and this understanding is the first step towards unravelling the complexity of psychological variations in gender construction. Constantinople says, 'Given these data, one would also be forced to ask whether M-F is a true personality variable with some relationship to biological sex as is usually assumed' (1973: 405). In other words, she questions the connection between biological sex and social-psychological gender.
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