Every art has a language, and queer art, in particular, seeks to debunk that language by playing with its norms. Queer artists are always in search of an alternative way of expression, the alterity of which is disturbing as well as powerful, yet pleasurable in a way one had not anticipated. My constant engagement with the works of Rituparno Ghosh, the most fearlessly ‘out’ filmmaker India has ever seen, since I began working on the anthology Rituparno Ghosh: Cinema, Gender and Art with my friends in 2013, has revealed to me the myriad ways in which Ghosh has been queering the language of Indian cinema, drawing profusely from native sources. Ghosh has never been self-conscious of producing ‘queer art’ so to speak until he acted and creatively assisted Kaushik Ganguly in Arekti Premer Golpo/Just Another Love Story (2010) towards the fag end of his life; even before he ventured into using films as vehicle to ‘come out’, all his earlier films, when approached with this awareness that Ghosh has always been gender non-conforming, reveal unambiguous symptoms of an emergent queer cinema, which was raring to break out of the heteronormative mould of Bengali cinematic traditions.
The language through which cinema communicates is extremely complex – it is a holistic effect of images, frames, sequences, gestures, dialogues, and sound. Ghosh’s mises en scene when closely analysed, disclose interesting elements and nuances which are neither too radical nor too unfamiliar to an audience alert to local literary, musical and cinematic traditions. Yet, the manner in which Ghosh re-deployed certain images, props, and most importantly, music, while playing with the gaze of the camera, has in it insinuations of a queer subversion. In my opinion, Ghosh was in search of a language of cinema which could be adequately expressive of queerness; he was slowly moving towards inventing that language, which would not be alienating to his conformist audiences, yet, would be intelligibly pleasurable to his (informed) queer viewers. However, he passed away too soon to eventually arrive at such a cinematic language. But, there are innumerable suggestions that he was experimenting with the visual, auditory and haptic language of cinema, trying to invent an alternative cinematic rhetoric, yet, not quite achieving it, despite immense potential.
In this article, I will focus exclusively on one particular aspect of Ghosh’s experimentation with a possibility of evolving a queer language in his films – the love songs which he wrote and used as narrative devices not only to propel the plot forward but also to create the right kind of ambience to cinematically capture emotions. Due to lack of space, I will focus on one song only, which, in a way, has become an anthem of the queer community in Kolkata, as underlined by its repeated circulation on social networking sites. It is the theme-song of Memories in March (dir. Sanjoy Nag, 2011) – Bahu manarath saju avisaare pehnu suneel bes (Expectant of a Clandestine Encounter [with my lover], I dress up in blue)– penned by Ghosh and put to tune by his long time musical collaborator Debojyoti Mishra. The song which inaugurates the narrative when decoded in terms of language, inspiration and execution, with an awareness of its genealogy, reveals its stupendous queer currency.
Cast in viraha-bhava, the song sets the tone of eternal separation between the queer protagonist (Ornab) and his lover (Siddharth) who passes away in an accident. This is, however, not the primary drift of the plot – the film is more about Siddharth’s mother’s coming to terms with her son’s sexuality which she discovers after his untimely demise. I shall not go into the plot analysis here, for, I am more interested in the song which brings out the profound grief of the lovelorn Ornab (played by Ghosh himself), who posits himself as the virahini nayika (lovelorn heroine) of Vaishnav Padabali, (a cluster of verses produced between the 15th and 17th century, often dealing with the Radha-Krishna legend) eternally waiting for the arrival of her lover. In the absence of exemplary queer romances in Indian history, Ghosh takes resort to the iconic love story of Radha-Krishna, to articulate his queer protagonist’s desires as well as his misery at not finding fulfilment in love. Ghosh could have used the same analogy and could have achieved the same impact even if he had written the songs of Memories in March in modern Bengali; that he chose to return to an archaic language, Brajabuli, is what makes this song more intriguingly queer.
Ghosh’s interest in Brajabuli was triggered by Tagore, who in turn was inspired by a republication of the medieval poet Vidyapati, when he was in his teens. Under the pseudonym of Bhanusingha, a name synonymous with Rabindranath, the young poet wrote 23 poems, which created quite a stir in Kolkata’s intellectual circuit. In his earlier films, such as Chokher Bali (2003) and Abohoman (2010), Ghosh used songs from BhanusingherPadabali, as the collection of poems came to be known, at strategic plot points. He experimented with the form and language in Raincoat (2004), a poignant love story of estranged childhood lovers, in which songs (such as, Mathura nagarpati, Piya tora kaisa abhimaan, and Akele hum nadiya kinare– all written by Ghosh) worked towards generating a mythological subtext of the love story of Radha-Krishna, iconic lovers, involved in parakiya prem (adulterous love affair), who were never ‘officially’ united. Raincoat, as Richard Allen has argued in our book on Ghosh, is not queer per se, but was anticipatory of Ghosh’s queer films in the sense that in the film, ‘Ghosh applies the sensitivity and sensibility of a contemporary, queer-identified film-maker to understanding the social costs of the contemporary organisation of desire’ (154). Ghosh eventually opened the closet in Arekti Premer Golpo, and Memories in March and Chitrangada: a Crowning Wish continued that project. The deployment of Brajabuli in the songs of Memories in March was, in a way, Ghosh’s tribute to the long (literary) history of this lyrical romance and desire, sexuality and uninhibited passion, unacknowledged and often frowned upon by society.
Vidyapati’s songs produced in the medieval period pulsate with unrestrained desire, sexual excess and passion which are considerably tamed in Tagore’s more lilting romantic lyrics. But, the impassioned delineation of Krishna’s leela (sexual playfulness) is seen in neo-Vaishnavite poetry of the late 15th and early 16th century, with the rise of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, under the leadership of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Sukumar Sen (1935) in an encyclopaedic work on Brajabuli sahitya notes: ‘Some of the companions of Caitanya-deva were the first writers in Brajabuli and the entire literature was the outcome of the efforts of neo-Vaishnavites of Bengal. The entire literature was devoted to the Radha-Krishna theme’ (3). Sen later elaborates how most of these lyrics are celebratory of polyamory, erotica, and sexual playfulness, which may appear ‘crude’ to today’s middle class sensibilities. But, what is more important, and particularly, interesting in relation to this piece is the valorisation of androgyny in the philosophic oneness of Radha and Krishna as well as in Krishna’s assumption of Radha-bhava in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Sen shows how, Chaitanya-deva and his followers, inspired by their gurus such as Madhavendra Puri and Ishwar Puri, loved Krishna not as a deity, but as a parent who loves his child, a boy who loves his playmate, a woman who loves her husband or as a girl who loves her lover (see, 12). The idea of prem or pure love in these lyrics is not delimited by gender or age or norm. This is exactly why the use of Brajabuli becomes loaded with meaning when used in lyrics in a queer love story of eternal separation. Bahu manaratha is an embodiment of pain and agony, much in the same manner as the Vaishnavites lament their eternal separation or viraha from their beloved Krishna/Shyam. The song in question is in sringar rasa which has two aspects – sambhoga (joy/pleasure in union) and vipralambha (sadness in separation). The song begins with the expectation of sambhoga (bahumanarath), but ends in vipralambha (brutha manaratha), predominantly foregrounding the latter in lines such as Sakhi Chir Abhagini Hum/Baithe Ekakini Pohano Rajani/ Tobo Nailo Shyaam (O friend, am eternally hapless/I waited all night, all alone/Even then Shyam did not come) or Krishna Kaajare Pighala Sajare Nayaner Neer Dhare/E Kathin Patha Brutha Manoratha Biphal Abhi Saari. (The black kohl from my eyes melted away with tears/An arduous road it was to this clandestine encounter/ which remained unconsummated, frustrating my expectations). The devotee and the lover melt into one in these love lyrics, in which the gender of the narrator remains elusive; in Bahumanaratha Ghosh alludes to and deploys this elusiveness to tell a queer story of loss.
What is unique about Brajabuli as a language? Why did the language appear so ‘useful’ to a queer filmmaker of the new millennium? As Sukumar Sen says at the very outset of his book, Brajabuli is a mischsprache, that is, a mixture of many languages, in this case, Maithili, Bengali, Hindi and Braja-bhasa (distinct from Brajabuli). Writing about Bhanusingha’s mistaken identity as a poet of a bygone era, Tagore, in his Jiban Smriti/My Reminiscences, notes: ‘It was not difficult to pass [Bhabusingha’s] poems as that of an ancient poet; because the language [Brajabuli] in which they wrote is not their native language, it is an artificial one. It has undergone different kinds of changes in the hands of different poets’ (77). In other words, this language is neither limited by geopolitical space nor to a single linguistic community; rather it is transient, flexible, and open to accommodate mutations brought about by individual poets. The language, therefore, is perpetually ‘in the making’, and does not demand adhering to stringent grammatical rules. Such an elastic language could therefore appropriately capture in-between-ness, excesses and fluidity of gender identities as well. In addition to that, as evidenced by Vidyapati’s poems and those of the neo-Vaishnavite poets, this language has been the vehicle of extreme passion, sexual abandon, and erotic romance, throwing to the winds puritanical reservations about them. For Ghosh, who strongly believed in locating his art in native traditions, what could be a more suitable language to channelise and also historicise queer desires and agony?
Allen, Richard. ‘Closeted Desires and Open Secrets: Raincoat and Noukadubi’. RituparnoGhosh: Cinema, Gender and Art. Eds. S. Datta, KaustavBakshi and R K Dasgupta. Abingdon and New Delhi: Routledge, 2015. 153-169.
Ghosh, Rituparno. Bahumanaratha. Memories in March.Dir: Sanjoy Nag. SVF, 2011.
Sen, Sukumar. A History of Brajabhuli Literature: Being a study of Vaishnava lyric poetry and poets of Bengal. Kolkata: University of Calcutta, 1935.
Tagore, Rabindranath. JibonSmriti/My Reminiscences (1912). 4th edition. Kolkata: Viswabharati Granthabibhag, 2011. All translations from this text are mine.