The Indian doll’s house

Thoughts on women in theatre after attending the National Women's Theatre Festival

Today wherever there is a the atre movement in India, women work in every department of theatre production, be it set design, costumes, lights, direction or acting. But till recently, women's presence at a theatre was confined to being seated in the audience, and even then, segregated from the men and perhaps sitting behind screens. Back then the female characters on stage would be males with padding for breasts and pancake makeup to hide greening stubble, and this is still in evidence in many folk theatre forms. But even in the urban milieu, during the colonial period when women were allowed to 'act' on stage, the opportunity was confined to those from red light areas or engaged in entertaining male connoisseurs with their song and dance.

Developments since then notwithstanding, the question of lack of space for women is still relevant. This question came up at the "National Women's Theatre Festival", organised by the well-known Nandikar group in Calcutta (February 2002). To hear the veteran artistes, both from films and theatre, it would seem that the struggle for them to gain respect / vindication / recognition of their existence was as hard as the struggle of the heroes and characters they sometimes portrayed on stage. The patriarchy that bogs down women in the Subcontinent obviously informs the seemingly 'open-minded' form of theatre too.

The theme of women's search for identity ran through the plays presented at the festival. In Jaara Brishtite Bhijechchilo (Those who got wet in the rain: Bengali), Bijaylakshmi Barman's protagonist was the archetypal girl next door, trapped in an exploitative marriage, her aspirations for higher education smothered. Swatilekha Sengupta's Shanu Roychowdhury (Bengali), adapted from the Willy Russell play Shirley Valentine, had the eponymous character as a role-model housewife and mother whose desires to enjoy life and hankering for love remain unfulfilled within the domestic setup. In both plays, the painful search for an identity by these middle-aged 'ordinary' women yields results; the former finds release in the company of her fiercely independent school friend, and the latter while travelling to Kathmandu with a feminist friend. In both these plays walking out of an oppressive home situation seemed to echo Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A doll's house.

The space to rebel against the system is something women in the past did not have, even in theatre. Binodini Dasi of Calcutta, better known as Nati Binodini (1863-1941), to whom Nandikar dedicated the festival, came out of the red light district to fulfil her love of the art. A legendary actress, she could pull a full house with the promise of her histrionics. Yet her lifetime ambition of having a theatre hall named after her never materialised even though her savings funded the legendary Star Theatre on Beadon Street (now Bidhan Sarani) in Calcutta. In her autobiography, Antar Katha (My Story), Binodini laments the betrayal by her mentor, the renowned playwright Girish Ghosh.

An ironic complement to the Binodini story is that of the enormously talented Ketaki Dutta. Ketaki played the lead in the runaway success, Barbodhu, which ran an unprecedented 1800 shows between 1972 and 1980, where she acted as a sex worker with aspirations for a 'normal' life. Though her performance was immensely appreciated, the role almost ended her career. At 60-plus now, the actress recalls, "I was stamped for life. I was a fallen woman in the play and directors would not give me any other role, saying the audience would not accept me". It fell on Usha Ganguli, director and the moving spirit behind Rangakarmee, a Hindi theatre group, to resurrect the artiste in Mukti (Freedom), the group's first Bengali play in 25 years.

Usha herself has metamorphosed from a classical dancer, to a stage artiste, to a director. Rangakarmee's plays are known for focusing on social issues, especially women-centred ones. Her autobiographical play Antar-Yatra (Journey Within) premiered at 'Samanvay', a forum she had organised to showcase women in the performing arts for Women's Day on 8 March 2002. In the play, at one point she asks, "Do I sound too much like a 'naaribadi' (woman activist)? But then I am a woman. If I talk about a woman's inner turmoil and her problems, isn't it natural?" Women are still made to feel guilty about voicing their concerns, and every time they do, they find a justification must be tendered. Naturally then, despite the wide-ranging repertoire of roles in her long career, the character closest to Usha's heart is Sanichari of Mahasveta Devi's Rudali. Sanichari is the professional crier who cannot cry as family members die, but weeps heartrendingly at the loss of Bhikhni, an old friend who has been discarded by her family. In their partnership for survival in a cruel world, the two women formed a lasting bond.

The recurrent theme at the festival was that of women searching for space, a search conducted in theatre that reflects that search in society. Dr V Padma (under the pseudonym A Mangai) observed in 'What does she want? Female Identity in Indian Drama' that even in the plays of the legendary Badal Sircar of Evans Indrajit fame, female presence was shockingly minimal. She argued that it was nearly impossible for male writers to do justice to women characters. It is then apparent that even in an intellectually progressive and apparently gender-neutral domain like theatre, women players/members are faced with a void, an under-representation of women's concerns, that they feel the need to fill. Interestingly, this feeling of alienation is probably felt more in the urban milieu, dependant as it is on the patronisation of a usually conservative middle-class audience. In folk art forms where women do take part, whether in India's Pandavani of Madhya Pradesh, or the Chhattisgarhi of the new state of Chattisgarh, the women seem to face less censure. The same applies to the tradition of dohori geet in Nepal, which is a form of music rather than theatre, but a performing tradition nonetheless.

When elements from these art forms that are not grudging of a woman's space are introduced in contemporary theatre, such as when a theatre director of the stature of Habib Tanvir adapts the Chattisgarhi style for stage, or Manipur's H Kanhailal incorporates the nuances of its traditional martial art and Manipuri dance style in plays such as Draupadi, women protagonists exude an extraordinary power. Perhaps while exploring for stylistic elements for women-theme plays, picking up from such traditions can introduce a more vigorous grain to contemporary plays.

Ibsen wrote, a century ago, "There are two kinds of conscience, one in man and another altogether different, in woman. They do not understand each other, but in practical life the woman is judged by man's law, as though she were not a woman but a man". Critics who find fault with the 'uni-dimensional' concern of women's theatre would benefit from keeping that in mind. From Nora to Shanu, from Draupadi to Sanichari, the basic concerns of a woman seem to repeat themselves over and over again. Hence, women's theatre is bound to reflect her realities in a niche of her own till the general creative corpus expands to give her the space she requires.

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Himal Southasian