By Annesha Ghosh:
Even as students at Presidency University hold referendums on the imperiled autonomy of the institute, a crucial narrative that ensued on the streets of College Square about a month ago, continues to be debated extensively on Facebook, by remonstrative voices from the students’ community across Kolkata.
On August 21, Tamoghna Haldar, a former student of the Indian Statistical Institute, had participated in a protest rally organized in solidarity with the ongoing protests at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). In his individual capacity, the youth performed a satirical rendition of Draupadi’s Vastraharan from the Mahabharata, with Gajendra Chauhan’s portrayal as Yudhishthira in the 1988 B.R Chopra television adaptation of the epic working as an obvious subtext.
Dressed in black boxer-briefs and a white bra – that bore the words ‘Khuli Khidki’ (‘Open Window’- the title of one of many C-grade movies that largely make up Chauhan’s filmography) – Tamoghna walked in the rally with film reels wound around his body, that were eventually stripped off him, thereby completing the symbolic disrobement.
Following this, many of the protesters, including Tamoghna had proceeded along the College Street area towards the nearby Presidency University, where resonant sloganeering by a large number of students of the autonomous institution was already underway against incumbent Vice Chancellor Anuradha Lohia. The agitation was subsequently heightened by an alleged assault on the students by the security team of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Due to the commotion at Presidency that had assumed chaotic proportions, Tamoghna Haldar had to remain in his costume for some time, before he could eventually recover his belongings from a friend and put on his clothes.
Tamoghna’s mode of protest came in for some scathing criticism as a significant faction of the local media chose to play devil’s advocate, weaving a factually incorrect narrative around Tamoghna’s act. In what was largely meant to capitalize on the shock value of the available footage recorded on camera, certain local dailies and news channels brazenly misrepresented this act, thereby robbing it of all the nuances that come with the very ‘choice’ of cross-dressing and performance as forms of resistance.
Quite sadly, for the layperson inhabiting a society that prides in calling itself ‘educated’, the collective misrepresentation left the larger context of Tamoghna’s individual’s protest mutilated, its principal objective martyred.
Condemning it as a glaring breach of ‘accepted’ tenets of decency, a faction of academicians in the city perceived the image of a bra-and-boxer-brief clad Tamoghna as nothing less than the very personification of ‘obscenity’ to have entered the hallowed premises of Presidency University. Many a noted gender activist from this part of the country, too, joined the bandwagon reproaching the ‘image’ as being unacceptably obscene.
The ‘indecent agitation’ at Presidency — as the media had labelled it while placing Tamoghna at its very fore —witnessed another untoward incident in its course, after three District Intelligence Bureau (DIB) officers raided Tamoghna’s residence, on August 25. According to a report published in DNA India, the cops “couldn’t find Tamoghna and the house was locked.” Later, the officers spoke to the neighbours and came to know that he was about to leave for California that week to pursue his Ph.D.
Curious enough as it is, anybody even vaguely familiar with the laws of the land would struggle to decipher how any ‘choice’ of a man walking the streets in a bra and boxer-briefs could warrant a police raid!
Forced to delete (or deactivate) his Facebook account, Tamoghna Haldar, issued a clarification through a status update as to how he has often embraced nudity as his political statement and that he harbours no feeling of remorse on that count. However, expressing the kind of mental trauma he has had to endure on account of the misrepresentation by the media, he did tender his apology to the protesting students at Presidency, should they feel that his act had caused any unintentional harm to the integrity of their protest.
Students, artists and individuals subsequently took to Facebook voicing their resentment over the distorted portrayal by the media of Tamoghna’s protest, under the hashtag #AmioTamoghna (I too am Tamoghna).
In other parts of the world, such forms of protest are but a common sight. Only a month ago, hundreds of protesters including men, took to the streets of Hong Kong, holding demonstrations outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai, while wearing bras or waving lingerie.
That feminine underwear continues to be viewed as a sexualized object, even by those who have taken to using the cause of ‘gender equality’, underlines the appalling gender insensitivity that continues to hold in its tentacles ‘informed’ and ignorant minds alike, especially in a country like India.
No wonder, a couple of years back, a section of highly-enlightened fellow homo-sapiens in Mumbai had sought a ban on bikini-clad mannequins in the city, accusing the latter of causing “pollution of minds” among men.
The narrative that has emerged around Tamoghna’s alleged transgression begs a few serious questions. Has it shocked the intelligentsia out of the comfort of their self-righteous morality only because a man chose to wear a bra? Does the furore necessarily mean that no such baseless accusation of indecency would have been labelled at Tamoghna had he sported a ‘masculine’ piece of garment (let’s say, a vest) instead of a bra? Can the media, that shoulders the responsibility as an undeniable force in shaping public opinion, afford to encourage such a discourse that upholds unfailing adherence to rigidities of gender roles, even in today’s day and age?
Irrespective of how elusive the answers to these questions may seem, Tamoghna Haldar’s ‘bra’ve act has certainly come as a resistance to a hegemonic propagation of conservatism. And it will continue to resonate as a resounding slap on the bigoted sense of morality that a wide cross-section of the society continues to endorse while reveling in their self-chosen ignorance.
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