Drama Queens

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Remembering the first divas of the stage

Drama Queens: Women who Created History on Stage | Veejay Sai | Foreword by Girish Karnad | Lustre Press | 208 pages | Rs695

FOR THE LONGEST time in modern Indian theatre, as it is seen today, there was a serious inexplicable vacuum when it came to finding stories of the real people behind significant events. First there was the age of great Sanskrit drama that gave Indian theatre a vast heritage of plays and playwrights to look up to. However, the tradition of written plays stopped after the eighth century and royal courts that patronized Sanskrit drama gradually switched to vernaculars. The Bhakti Movement that began in the Tamil-speaking regions of peninsular India, along with several other socio-cultural movements, aided in the growth and nurturing of local performance practices. Forms like Yakshagana, Kathakali, and Koodiyattam flourished in little pockets across south India. With the rise of local literatures in languages like Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, theatre traditions also gradually evolved. Following that, for the longest time there was a severe pronounced absence of any activity to do with written Sanskrit drama and theatre for centuries on end till the eighteenth century. However, regional language theatrical forms and practices gathered momentum along with music and dance. But unlike Sanskrit drama of the earlier era, texts were not available as oral traditions became prominent. According to one theory suggested by playwright and director Girish Karnad, Sanskrit was a pan-Indic language that followed a written format. One of the many reasons for this was because most of the actors who belonged to lower castes could not improvise in Sanskrit. They had to learn the texts by rote. This gradual growth of regional language theatres was not a national phenomenon. By early nineteenth century, theatre became the main source of entertainment in the region called ‘India’ before 1947. With generous royal and feudal patronage, scores of drama companies sprouted all over the country. The theatre economy was bursting forth so much so that at one time, investing in a drama company was a role model for success. This gradually gave way to the more popular medium of cinema in the early twentieth century. The year 2012 completed two centuries of active life of the Indian proscenium theatre.

Scores of artistes have spent their lifetimes to the service of this art form. In the presumption that the ‘art is bigger than the artiste’, many lives have gone unnoticed, unwritten and forgotten. The beginning of nineteenth century saw more than an artistic fervour in the sphere of India’s performing arts and artistes’ communities. Women artistes, as on record, penned the first autobiographies. These were figures marginal to the national narrative. Most of these stories also stayed hidden in non-English language literature and press and hence escaped notice beyond their circulation amongst a small closed circle of enthusiasts. Most of these stories preserve memories of an era gone by of performances, personalities and a cultural economy that once prospered across rural India and a newly- emerging urban India.

Actors like Binodini Dasi (1862–1941) had managed to serialise their autobiography (Amar Katha) in popular publications like Natyamandir (1910) and Roop o Rang (1925) but most of these magazines and papers favoured scandal, allegations, and diatribes and often fabricated life stories of these actresses. Many other actresses in the south were treated with much contempt from caste-ridden conservative societies. The only women who ‘performed’ in public belonged to courtesan cultures and backgrounds whose morality was questioned by the newly-formed legal establishments in India. Most of these women belonged to that world of performance practices where they negotiated patriarchy, paradoxically with greater levels of autonomy as well and their own struggle.

In Europe and even in America, this time was significant in the growth of performing arts, particularly theatre. Figures like Sarah Bernhardt achieved unprecedented fame. Her contemporaries from India remained largely unknown even outside their own geographical boundaries. In the decades before India’s independence, several women took it upon themselves to design and redefine what arts were going to be like, thereby becoming a part of the mainstream narrative of arts history.

In 1911, the State took it upon itself to take a ‘nation-wide action against performers’ to bring about moral reforms. The self-respect movement in the 1920s and 30s aided this campaign in more radical ways than one could imagine. In Chennai, Rukminidevi Arundale, an upper-caste elite activist, backed by the ideologies of the Theosophical movement established Kalakshetra. In this institution centuries- old dance practices were transformed and modernized into a classroom exercise to be delivered to a newly forming nation. She became a representative of the ‘national culture’ in general and a champion for India’s renaissance in the arts. Several artistes from traditional communities of performers like Thanjavur Balasaraswati (1918–1984) struggled to retain the original aesthetic of the art form, which was once patronized by royal and feudal societies. Around the same time, as late as 1936, in Marathi theatre, ticketed shows by celebrated thespians like Bal Gandharva had special tickets for women who came from courtesan cultures. Veshyas as they were announced on drama publicity posters must have been a sizeable population that fed the economy of many dance and drama companies so much so tickets were subsidized for them. As India became an independent nation in 1947, the famous Madras Devadasi Act was finally passed, and overnight, lives and art practices of scores of traditional artistes became illegitimate. Under the stewardship of Dr Mutthulakshmi Reddi, the project of citizenship had to dovetail along with notions of respectability. Many of these performing artistes had their livelihoods snatched by an unjust system and judged through a lens of morality. As Douglas Knight Jr writes in the biography of Balasaraswati, ‘The increased incidence of prostitution in the Devadasi community affected a relatively small number of women. However, no real effort to address the root cause through effective social action was ever attempted and the entire community became the object of disdain, neglect and disenfranchisement.’ Respectability according to the colonial establishment became an object of desire for every citizen and women performers couldn’t be left behind. If you were not within that framework, you had to risk being labelled and scarred with a prejudiced system for life.

Women artistes were figures marginal to the national narrative. Most of their stories stayed hidden in non-English literature and hence escaped notice

Meanwhile, recording companies thrived in India and the music of scores of women artistes belonging to different traditional communities was being documented. Several singer-actors became gramophone celebrities overnight with record sales. The message to these women was clear—their art was saleable while their characters were under public scrutiny. In other spheres, multifaceted artiste-activist-reformer geniuses like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903–1988) were pioneering the arts and crafts movement. She was the first woman representative to the Geneva conference of educators as early as 1929. She sacrificed a successful career as a stage and screen actor and plunged herself completely into the social reform movement of those decades. In Calcutta, where Parsee and Bengali theatre communities flourished in independent economies, women performers were the fulcrum of all activity. Several women were forerunners in various fields of performing and visual arts. The artistes in Drama Queens were integral to the successful theatre economy of their times and yet their contribution was largely ignored. If silent cinema displaced many of their livelihoods, the talkie era did further damage. A few strong ones survived to tell the tale by India’s independence. Most of the artistes from that era were forgotten and eventually faded out of public memory.

The severe lack of any information and documented material available on the women who created history on stage was the biggest handicap any research scholar had to deal with. The other big challenge was the availability of good quality images. That was an era when photography and recording was considered a cultural taboo and even an evil. Rumours ran high that an artiste’s lifespan would reduce if she got photographed or if her voice was recorded into a gramophone. Several leading singers refused to record, owing to these odd rumours. Despite that, some stage artistes dared to defy public opinion and keep their lives as open books. It is because of those who dared that we have whatever little we possess now. The richness of Indian language sources like defunct Urdu chronicles, old Tamil and Bengali literary journals, Marathi scripts, vernacular press clippings and so forth made up for the lack of material available in English. This makes for a subaltern narrative of history....

Each of these women led unimaginably rich artistic lives. As performers, administrators, homemakers and women of substance, they proved to the world that there was no stopping if they willed hard enough. We have no clue of how and what happened to some of the brightest careers of the stage. Whatever we have of some of the finest actresses comes from anecdotal evidences and random press clippings from private collections – Gohar, hailed as the prima donna of Bombay; Wasi, the female impersonator who drove the city of Lahore wild with his acting and charm; Bachchasani of Lakshmeshwar who ran the first all-women Kannada drama troupe and was harassed by the locals and later the British; the women of the Andhra Dramatic Party in Madras; Shyama Zutshi, the first superstar stage actor from Kashmir who later joined cinema and gave it up to join the independence movement; PK Rosy, a Dalit Christian girl who got driven out of her village in Kerala with death threats for acting on stage and as an upper-caste Nair girl on screen; Maria Regina Fernandes, the first lady of the Goan Tiatr tradition of whom nothing more than an image and scanty details are available; Radharani the superstar of Odia stage of whom only an image remains in the now dilapidated Annapoorna theatre complex outside the Jagannath temple in Puri. In fact, three pioneers of the Odishi classical dance form, Kelucharan Mohapatra, Debaprasad Das and Pankaj Charan Das emerged from Odia theatre. The Odishi classical dance vocabulary owes much to the theatre culture, courtesan practices and folk dance traditions of that region. In the remote corners of Manipur, several artistes like Chirom Gouramani who pioneered the theatre movement have long been forgotten. The war of 1942 erased out any physical evidence of their long artistic careers with every other place bombed. The many Nangiyaars of Kerala who silently kept the Koodiyattam tradition of Sanskrit drama alive, scores of female impersonators and many more whose stories will never be told as their lives were taken for granted and never documented. What about all those artistes who toiled to make elaborate and extravagant stage sets, costumes, makeup artistes and more who were a part of the success many of these artistes enjoyed. That is another neglected area in modern theatre history. An odd scrap of trivia, an odd image is all that we have of most of these women. The generation of audiences that witnessed their performances is no more around.

Munni Bai who ruled the Parsi stage, Gauhar Keyommamajiwala, Sharifa, Mukhtar Begum, Kajjan and other artistes commanded equal respect on stage and later their screen careers. Balamani reigned over the Tamil language stage for close to half a century and many more actresses like TP Rajalakshmi and KB Sundarambal were pioneersof Tamil screen. Jahanara Kajjan became a sensation on the stage and screen in her own short lifespan. Malavalli Sundaramma, a well established and equally recognized genius of a Carnatic classical vocal music was also the first woman to perform on the Kannada stage; Sundaramma, Jayamma and the other ladies from the famous Gubbi company held sway over audiences, both on stage and on screen and R. Nagarathnamma, known for donning many male roles also established one of modern Kannada theatre’s all-women’s group. While Surabhi Kamalabai stuck to performing on the stage and maintaining one of India’s first only family-run company theatre in Andhra, others like Rushyendramani and Pasupuleti Kannamba became names to reckon with in the post-independence era of Telugu cinema. Kamalabai Kamat Gokhale and Durga Khote were strong role models with their stage and screen careers. Hirabai Barodaker’s name became synonymous with highly evolved aesthetics of Hindustani vocalism as per her Gharana tradition. Binodini Dasi was a legend in her own life time and Tara Sundari was the greatest tragedienne Bengali stage ever saw in that half of the century. Thambalangoubi broke patriarchal stereotypes and earned fame as a stage star and a classical dancer in war-ridden and devastated Manipur. Gulab Bai spread the earthy flavours of the rich and rustic Nautanki theatre tradition. Zohra Sehgal switched from a rich career in dance to the stage before she became a hit on the silver screen. Shanta Gandhi, Dina Pathak and Shaukat Kaifi who brewed in the vibrant IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) movement were the voices by India’s independence time.

While the list of women directors on stage in the century before 1947 is long, several veterans like Vijaya Mehta, the late Pearl Padamsee and others carved a niche for themselves. Post-1947, the National School of Drama was set up. Under its mentoring, scores of women directors emerged. Several like Amal Allana, Anuradha Kapur, Kirti Jain, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, B Jayashree, and others are continuing the tradition of their predecessors. Scores of actresses have enthralled audiences both on stage and screen. Pratibha Agrawal set up, what could be south Asian theatre’s most comprehensive documentation and archival project with Natyashod Sansthan in Kolkata. Under the stewardship of actors-turned-administrators Sanjana Kapoor and Arundhati Nag, two of South Asia’s most important theatre spaces Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai and Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru continue to thrive. Women continue to nurture the art of theatre for the sheer love of it.

Ages ago, I remember being part of a conversation between the late editor Behram Contractor and theatre actor and director Pearl Padamsee in Bombay. ‘Someday someone must write the stories of our mad lives and why we are in love with this creature called “theatre”!’ exclaimed Pearl. I am indebted to her for sowing the initial ideas for this project.... Today we partially inherit a world they shaped through their art, struggles, politics, lives and ideologies. It would only be appropriate to acknowledge them by studying their artistic journeys and life stories.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning culture critic, writer and translator. This is an edited excerpt from Drama Queens: Women who Created History on Stage; Foreword by Girish Karnad, Lustre Press; 208 pages; Rs695)