The ‘Her’story of Indian Theatre

Drama Queens by Veejay Sai

Sage Bharatha of Natya Sastra fame in the 2nd century CE chose to ordain his 100 sons to propagate the arts thereby setting off an imbalance that is still in the process of correction. When the demand arose for artistes capable of expressing emotions and gestures were needed, Brahma created the apsaras – celestial maidens wearing beautiful costumes and capable of beautiful music. Girish Karnad, in his introduction to Veejay Sai’s book Drama Queens, writes the above lines to highlight the politics of gender that dominates the history of Indian theatre. Women were not welcome on stage and if at all they made it, it was purely as eye candy. And there was above all the social stigma – women as performing artistes were considered to be of easy virtue. Which is probably why Tyagaraja refers even to the celestial nymphs as Deva Lanja. Even within the community of women performers there was a strict hierarchy – the Devadasis looked down on those who took to theatre. Being in close proximity to, acting in the company of, and travelling to remote locations with men in the troupe damned them in the eyes of their compatriots.

Which probably explains why women of 19th /early 20th century Indian theatre remained largely undocumented. That is also true in part about women artistes in general but in comparison to those on stage, the singers and dancers appear to have fared better. Drama Queens, Women who created history on stage, by Veejay Sai, corrects this imbalance. It is a pan Indian book, for it deals with the lives of ten stage actresses of the past, who between them cover several of the languages in which theatre flourished. Featured in it are Kumbhakonam Balamani (Tamil), Tarasundari Devi (Bengali), Munni Bai (Parsi Theatre), Mukhtar Begum (Urdu), Hirabai Barodekar (Marathi), Manavalli Sundaramma (Kannada), Jahanara Kajjan (Hindi), Moti Bai (Gujarati), Rushyendramani (Telugu) and Thambalangoubi Debi (Manipuri).

Many interesting patterns emerge as you read the book – the artistes made it to the arc lights for various reasons – grinding poverty, good-for-nothing spouses, dominating mothers– but once there, each held her own under the most daunting of circumstances. The lives followed a similar trajectory. There was an initial struggle to the top, and then unheard of riches and fame, an obsessed Maharajah/Nawab who sometimes took them away and made them the plaything of an idle hour, a cinema opportunity or two, and then a swift decline, most often to an unsung death in the midst of the same poverty from which they had come. Some married fellow artistes while others appear to have remained single or had unknown spouses. Almost all of them have had no epitaphs to commemorate their contributions, until this book came along.

Drama Queens has many layers. While at the superficial level it may be the lives of ten very interesting women, it encompasses within it the dynamic atmosphere of the late 19th/early 20th century India. The arrival of the railways meant travelling theatre troupes and it is amazing how much of a cross-cultural influence there was. The Parsi Theatre kindled creativity in so many different places – Calcutta, Madras, Benares and Mysore to name just a few. Technology contributed in other ways too. The proliferation of photography, print and voice recording meant all these women were captured in some way or the other for posterity and Veejay Sai’s book has several pictures bringing to life a bygone era. Cinema was in its infancy and many in theatre would make it to the screen, albeit briefly. Those who made it to the talkies were even fewer. But theatre made it to cinema – with many of its hits getting on to celluloid.

Several well-known historic figures flit in and out of the lives of these artistes – Mahatma Gandhi, Maharajah Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Sarada Devi, the Maharajahs of Mysore, Framji Madan of the Elphinstone chain of theatres, actors such as Gubbi Veeranna, impresarios, troupe owners and stage managers…the list is endless. Famed men of letters – Manto, Dharmapuri Subbarayar, Agha Hashar Kashmiri are there too, as is the overarching pair – William Shakespeare and Kalidasa who between them appear to have had something to do with all that went on in theatre at that time, no matter what be the language or setting. What is also of interest is the inter-religious flow – not only in terms of relationships between people of various communities but also the freedom with which men and women took to staging plays dealing with various religions. True, some critics carped. But art triumphed in a way that could be a lesson to the present time.

Keeping in focus the main ten women, Veejay manages to pack in a wealth of information on several other female artistes. And you are left yearning for more on these. What for instance happened to Latifa Begum who was secreted out in the overcoat of a rich admirer and sped away with him in a horse carriage? Closing the book you feel there is enough for a sequel.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 25, 2017

Drama Queens is published by Roli Books.