Enter Queens, Centre Stage

A well-researched book trains the spotlight on some of the earliest women performers and impersonators on the Indian stage

Updated: September 16, 2017 6:56 am
The influence of Western theatre increased the demand for greater verisimilitude in visual representation and scripts resulting, quite naturally, in the demand for women to render female roles.

Book: Drama Queens: Women Who Created History on Stage
Author: Veejay Sai
Publisher: Roli Books
Pages: 208

The recently published Drama Queens deals with “Women who created history on stage”, as its subheading suggests. Scholars like Kathryn Hanson and Mrinal Pande are among the very few who have contributed to scholarship on women performers on stage, which makes Veejay Sai’s offering both timely and special. Sai has chosen 10 actresses from yesteryear well — they were among the very first to pursue the relatively new profession of acting that was opening up to women from the mid-19th century onwards. Up until this point, the woman’s role in vernacular performing traditions, as well as early proscenium theatre, was the sole domain of female impersonators.

The influence of Western theatre increased the demand for greater verisimilitude in visual representation and scripts resulting, quite naturally, in the demand for women to render female roles. However, though a door had been opened, another was shut — this period also saw the end of an era of some great acting, when female impersonators like Bal Gandharva and Keshavrao Bhonsle had rendered women characters with unsurpassed nuance and sensitivity. Responding to the clamour for glamour and greater fidelity, Sai describes how and why natak company producers began hiring women, and the next 50 years brought a spate of female singer/actresses, who soared meteor-like to the top of the charts in theatre and the gramophone industries.

Through a reconstruction of their lives in bio-sketches, it becomes clear that these, mainly unlettered female pioneers, were not isolated examples of women striving to create a public space for themselves. There was, in fact, a growing tribe of women who were ambitious and motivated enough to withstand not just their debilitating financial circumstances, but worse, suffer the humiliation, criticism and social ostracization meted out to them by an increasingly gentrified Indian middle class, morally outraged by the arrival of women on stage.

Gravitating from their small mofussil hometowns to buzzing commercial business centers like Bombay and Calcutta, where new natak companies had established themselves, Sai’s actresses were performing in the most popular languages in which Parsi theatre, between 1880s and 1950s, flourished — Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Manipuri. The book is formatted chronologically into an introduction and 10 chapters, one allotted to each personality. The schema enhances the temporal sweep that Sai covers, and, together with the variety of language theatres he has referenced, gives the book a comprehensive, national perspective.

Parsi theatre, along with its regional derivatives, was taking on a unique operatic character at this time, demanding of its performers quality singing abilities. In addition, if the aspiring young women in question had good looks and the ability to emote, they were regarded as assets that would contribute to the production’s saleability. Sai draws upon a group of well-known singer-actresses of this period — Munni Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Hirabai Barodekar, Jehanara Kajjan among others — many of whom hailed from the geneology of various musical gharanas, or were students of ustads of various gharanas. It is in tracing their musical lineages where Sai succeeds so well — he is clearly well acquainted with the histories of both Hindustani and Carnatic music. Sai rates the impact and successes of these actresses by the yardstick of their proficiency in operatic skills, rarely venturing into details of their ability to emote. Such a musical vantage point in assessing the theatre of this period is indeed unique and fills a much-needed lacuna in our appreciation of this era.

Citing reasons for his choices, Sai mentions in his Introduction, “Whereas the artists in Drama Queens were integral to the economic success of theatre, their contribution was largely ignored… Silent cinema displaced their livelihoods, the talkies even more… Eventually forgotten, they faded out of public memory.” For Sai, the lives of these women provide a subaltern narrative of cultural history that, he feels, cannot be ignored.

A notable aspect of the book is the wealth of biographical detail the author has collated. It has been blended well into a smooth exposition of the unique trajectory of the life and contribution of each actress. Telling anecdotes are used to deftly delineate the temperaments of the protagonists: Tara Sundari emerges as a tragic, yet spiritually inclined young woman, while Kajjan, very aware of her good looks and feminine charms, uses these attributes to steer her career forward; Hirabai Barodekar, with unassuming looks, comes across as a fighter determined to overcome the societal prejudice of her mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage, struggling to wrest a place for herself in a profession that is ruthlessly competitive.

However, a surfeit of details in some instances, tends to distract from the main thrust and diffuses the intensity of his protagonists’ struggles. But this is more an issue of editing and sharpening. One is keenly aware that this particular endeavour must have entailed an exhausting amount of fieldwork, resulting in the discovery of new material that he offers us for the first time. This, along with copious photographic illustrations which he has managed to collate, makes Drama Queens a rich and invaluable resource for future research.

However, one must point out that the title is somewhat misleading. At first glance it appears that what is offered is predominantly a theatre book as the word ‘Drama’ in the title suggests actors rather than singers. Secondly, the word ‘Queens’ today tends to suggest the LGBT movement, or if taken metaphorically could suggest stars. So for me, the title indicated a book about either famous female theatre stars or female impersonators, or the words ‘Drama Queens’ taken idiomatically, could suggest that the book is about highly charged /temperamental actresses. Maybe Sai intended that the very ambiguity of the title makes it attractive enough to pick up! It’s certainly an important addition to every theatre and cultural studies library.

Amal Allana is a theatre director, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner and former chaiperson of the National School of Drama

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