MARATHI THEATRE

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In Search of Women in History of Marathi Theatre, 1843 to 1933 Neera Adarkar The recorded history ofMarathi theatre both marginalises and undervalues women's real contribution to theatre. However, there is extensive material to show that when the presence of women became necessary for the survival of the theatre, patriarchal society suitably modified its views on women performers. IN July 1990, 'Expressions' a women's Cultural festival was organised by some women from various women's groups. Since the focal point of the festival was 'theatre' an effort was made to invite some of the first generation stage actresses of the 1930s to share their experiences. It was soon realised that the task undertaken was rather difficult as very few women of that generation were alive and amongst those who were, most were confined to the house because of their age. The third important factor was that actresses from the upper caste background were comparatively easier to contact than the actresses of Devdasi origin. We were denied access to them by their family members who were rather ashamed of their past. The study which follows is the result of further research undertaken to explore women's presence in, and their contribution to theatre in the recorded history. History of Marathi theatre in addition to a chronological documentation presents a comprehensive analysis of the various aspects and issues related to theatre. Annual events of natya sammelans (annual conferences on theatre), magazines like Rangabhoomi published by a theatre company and dedicated only to theatre, many literary periodicals and frequently held seminars, discussions, lectures provided a continuous platform to raise, discuss and debate, to the minutest details, issues connected with theatre—from aesthetics and techniques of the theatre to the political, social and moral values of the people involved in theatre. From the study of the available material it is seen that the actual contribution of women to theatre is marginalised in the otherwise comprehensive analysis of the theatre. Thus an important component of women's cultural tradition is missing. On the other hand one can find extensive material to show how women in the context of their 'use' to the theatre were viewed by the patriarchal society. This paper deals with these two aspects. DOCUMENTATION OF WOMEN'S CONTRIBUTION TO THEATRE Women as performers, as theatre company owners, as playwrights are practically invisible as only a brief mention of the names of a few of these women with cursory one line remarks about their work in the history if made. This stands out starkly against the backdrop of glorious accounts of the contribution made to the theatre be men, specially those who performed female characters on stage. It is interesting to note that historians of different periods have given the same information about women theatre companies while male theatre is reviewed with a revised analysis over the years. The earliest record of women performers is of 1865. Women performed in theatre companies which were very often owned and founded by women. Although specific information about their background is not available, one can conclude from their names that these were prostitutes or from the low caste communities perhaps earlier associated with 'tamasha' (a folk form). These theatre companies were 'all women' theatre companies and the female as well as male roles were enacted by women. There is not a single mixed theatre company mentioned till 1929 when it was founded by the well known classical singer Hirabai Badodekar although Kamlabai Gokhale performed both female and male roles in the company owned by her husband and later managed by her. Barring these exceptions, women actresses were not part of mainstream theatre. The recorded documentation is given below. I have quoted some cursory remarks available in the history books, specially the ridiculing comments of the women's enactment of male characters. The earliest mention of women performers in the theatre company as per historical record is of 'Vibhujanchittachatakswativarsha Punekar Hindu Stree Natak Mandall'. The main heroine's name was Mhalsa "who was young and beautiful" [1, 2]. This company was owned by a brahmin and the cast composed of prostitutes. The company performed the play 'Padmavati' which dealt with child marriage, widow marriage and world religious principles [1, 3]. In 1867 was set up the Natakankar Manoranjak Mumbai Hindu Stree Mishrit Natak Mandali where Neerabai, Taibai, Vithabai, Mhalsabai were in the cast [2]. Manik Prabhu Prasadik Purnachandroday Sanglikar Mandali was also owned by a brahmin, Joshi. Soni Punekarin was the main performer, who was "beautiful and was a good dancer"[l]. Purnachandroday Sanglikar Natak Mandali seems to have been a mixed company where Krishnabai acted as Draupadi. She is described as being "fair, slim, medium height but the quality of her voice and singing ability was average" [1]. From 1908-1925 three companies were performed regularly—Belgaonkar, Satarkar and Manohar [1]. Belgaonkar Stree Sangeet Mandali was a popular all-women theatre company founded by a prostitute Ekamba which performed a 'pro Ttlak' play Dandadhari. The women performing male characters looked like *ardhanari', 'ugly' and 'abnormal' [4]. A prostitute named Sheshasani founded a company where male and female actors performed [1,4]. Sarubai owned Satarkar Stree Sangeet Natak Mandali [1]. Kamlabai Gokhale from 1914 onwards performed male and female roles in the company owned by her husband. In 1929, Hirabai Badodekar a famous classical singer with her two sisters and one brother founded a 'mix caste* company [3], In some memoir books there are a couple of other local companies mentioned, one of them at Sawantwadi, where a local trader collected the local prostitutes to form a theatre company. MARATHI THEATRE AND SOCIO-POLITICAL MOVEMENTS The growth of Marathi theatre has paralleled the political and social movements in Maharashtra. The year 1843 marks the beginning of Marathi theatre when Vishnudas Bhave with the performance of Seeta Swayamwar started a tradition of mythological plays (which lasted till 1860). This wat the period when religious resentment, specially of the upper caste Hindus, towards the Christian missionaries had reached its peak. The theatre companies of this period were in the hands of brahmins, pundits and shastries. The objective of these mythological plays, according to Bhave was 'national entertainment'. The concept 'national' includes consolidation of religious sentiments and moral values. The plays were mostly based on Ramayana to show Ram as an ideal of manhood against the effeminate males portrayed by tamasha' (a folk form of decadent Maratha period) which was still continuing at the time. From 1861 a new tradition of historical plays started to evoke the emotions of patriotism rather than religious fervour. These plays were termed 'bookish' plays since for the first time the script of the play was written down. The establishment of universities and the exposure to English literature encouraged many college students and teachers to translate Shakespearean Economic and Political Weekly October 26, 1991 WS-87plays as well as old Sanskrit plays and stage their shows in the colleges of Bombay and Pune. These historical plays in addition to evoking the patriotic sentiments also upheld orthodox, conservative and moral values. The plays reflecting social reform issues had to take the form of 'social plays'. Although nearly 35 plays seem to have been written on the theme of social reforms pertaining to women till the 1930s, the 'golden era' of Mara!hi theatre is identified only with musical historical plays between 1885 to 1920 which had a patriotic message and very high standards of production and music This is also characterised by the era ol glorification of some of the male actors performing female roles. Actors like Balgandharva were legends. Most theatre company owners, playwrights (especially, Khadilkar), actors (such as Balgandharva) were highly influenced by the personality and political ideology of l.okrnanya Tilak. Plays like Rana Bhimdev, Khara Rajput (Real Rajput) glorified virtues of self righteousness, strength, valour, national and religious pride and martyrdom. All these plays were not subtle in conveying the messages and directly provoked the British rulers by characters and situations identical to the then prevailing political events. Almost all the political events of that period specially those taken up by Lokmanya Tilak in his paper Kesari and Marathu became ready material for plays. A few examples: the Swadeshi movement and boycott on foreign goods advocated by Tilak reflected in the play Swadeshi Chalwal. In the first Natya Sammelan of 1906, a resolution was passed to use only 'swadeshi' material for theatre company requirements. Partition of Bengal, the Vang Bhang movement got reflected in Divya Arunoday and British atrocities on the people demanding their right to sing 'Vande Mataram' under the presidentship of Surendranath Bannerjee a close friend of Lokmanya Tilak (were reflected) in the Marathi play Barisakhi Dhamdhum. For Tilak the priority was political freedom and not social reforms which according to him would divide the people by isolating the orthodoxy, whereas leaders like Agarkar, Bhandarkar, Lokhitwadi stressed on the social reforms, specially those related to women. These differences among the leaders on social and political pnorit> are well known. Since the theatre was more influenced by Tilak, plays on women's issues although not directed against the reforms reflect Tilak's low. priority for women's issues. The plays were structured to depict the characters and views of both the sides, the traditional and the reformist, however characterisations and the situations created in a very shrewd and clever way, always showed the reformist as westernised, over enthusiastic ridiculous and a hypocrite. There were during that time a few examples of famous leaders like justice Ranade who advocated widow remarriage but himself remarried a young girl of 11 years. Such hypocritical behaviour of a reformist was quoted frequently in the plays to undermine the reformist movement in general. Educated women were often portrayed as immature, juvenile, flippant and anglicised. The play Sampan Kaydyache Natak was written on the 'Consent Act' of 1891 which prevented a husband from having intercourse with his wife under 12 years, the play showed how one of the sections of the act becomes responsible for ruining the married life of an innocent young man. Another play on the same act, Indira Madhav SadhyasthiU was written to oppose the views expressed by the former play as it exposed the hypocrisy of Tilak's supporters and their shortcomings. It is difficult to slot these plays as being pro or anti reforms for women since many plays which were considered pro women by the writers and the viewers of that time will not be so considered in today's context. it is an interesting fact that, with the exception of Dandadhari which was produced by a women's company founded by a prostitute, almost all these plays on social reforms dealing with women's education, child marriages, love marriages, infanticide by widows, divorce, dowry marriages were enacted by a totally male cast. This contradiction is never mentioned in any of the debates about women and theatre. Women theatre companies which existed during 1885 and 1925 had male roles enacted by women. These roles were severely criticised and ridiculed by the historians of Marathi sheatre with derogatory remarks like "ugly, cheap, abnormal' [4]. The play Dandadhari provides a good example. This was performed by an all-women company, Belgaonkar Stree Mandali founded by a prostitute named Ekamba. The play was in the tradition of the pro Tilak plays. Dandadhari is the 'nayak' of the play who advocated a cautious and restrained attitude towards remarriages of widows, not hurting social sentiments. In contrast, the character of a reformist stresses the immediate importance of remarriages. Both these characters dressed like Lokmanya Tilak and justice Gokhale respectively, were performed by women. The review of the play in one of the memoir book states that the audience applauded when Dandadhari appeared on the stage and both the actresses playing Tilak and Gokhale showed their acting talents but they looked like 'Ardhanari Nateshwar, Brihannanda' [4j. They looked ugly and unnatural. A paradoxical situation of this play is worth noting. The play on widow remarriage, was performed by a cast of actresses who were prostitutes and conveyed the message against widow remarrige. Glorious accounts of some of the male actors who performed female roles mainly showed how these male actors even when outside the theatre could fool society by posing as women. A frequently quoted example is how Vishnu Watwa enacting the character of Sati Ramabai is worshipped by the women in the audience. There is at least one record to show how women looked at male actors who performed female roles. At the Natya Sammelan in 1912, held at Amravati, an educated woman Mathurabai Dravid read out a paper titled 'Actors and their Acting' [5j criticising very boldly males enacting female roles, their entire appearance, mannerisms and acting calibre. She has described the way the actors wore the low necked blouses and the manner in which the saree was stretched over the front emphasising the breast in a vulgar fashion. She has observed that the young boys acting as grown up women, do not do justice to the language the characters speak and how even if an actor was enacting an elderly married woman, he used seductive gestures all the time. She wonders whether these actors believed that they could replace good performance by ornamentary gimmicks. "Certainly, at least the women cannot stand this obscenity", she says. This paper must have had a fair impact because in the debate which took place in Rangabhoomi magazine later many participants have taken note of the criticism and supported it. DEBATE ON WOMEN AND THEATRE While women performers are cursorily mentioned, the debate around this issue is documented extensively! The debate is carried from 1903, continues till 1940 on the platforms of theatre conferences and literary conferences, periodicals and daily newspapers, public lecture series and seminars and is conducted and participated by urban educated middle class men only. Careful scrutiny of the debate shows that the patriarchy initially justified the exclusion of women from mainstream theatre but later to retain the commercial viability within the changing society, the same system justified the inclusion of women but within narrow and restricted confines. The discussion on this subject started in 1903 but an intense debate took place in two phases after 1910, the deciding factor was "the change in society's attitude towards male enactment of female roles". The debate only centred around the possibility of women as actresses, to replace male actors enacting female roles. Women as playwrights, company owners and music composers were not considered. The period 1903 to 1915 was the peak period of the 'golden era' of Marathi theatre. Male actors like Baigandharva, Keshavrao Bhosale, Tipnis, Vishnu Pagnis were creating history by their mass appeal. Therefore during this period there was not much discussion - on women entering theatre, and whenever there was, it only assumed the possibility of prostitutes as actresses. In 1903 Abaji Kulkarni, a historian, talked of disadvantages of having women on stage. To support his statements he described an unbelievable situation in a play on Radha and Krishna. "Just before the curWS-88 Economic and Political Weekly October 26, 1991tains opened 'evil thought s' entered the minds of the performers playing Radha and Krishna and they were overcome by lust and could not take their entry on the stage. The curtain of course could not be raised and the theatre company was ridiculed by the audience" [2]. According to him there was no art in women enacting female roles but there was art in men enacting female roles. For Abaji Vishnu Kulkarni who shows in his book his intellectual and scholarly approach to the analysis of history of Marat hi theatre in a manner which may be appreciated even today, the statement he makes against women appearing on stage (as mentioned above) sound superficial, hollow and ridiculous. The first phase of the debate was the latter half of the 'golden era' of theatre. Society had seen and appreciated male enactment of female roles but at the same time, with exposure to western literature and western thoughts the shortcomings of the male enactment were noticed sharply. Simultaneously because of women's education and their increased visibility in society the possibility of 'kulin' (from upper caste origin) women enacting female roles in theatre was considered for the first time. Hence the focus of the debate was whether the kulin women should enter theatre to replace the male actors performing female roles. In the second phase between 1925-1933 the complexity of the debate increased. The theatre trade was declining because of a stiff competition from cinema. Educated women in good numbers were emerging in the so far prohibited fields and the theatre trade needed all pos s ible props for its financial sustenance. So the trend was more towards kulin educated women joining the theatre. In both these phases the arguments, whether against or in favour of kulin women's entry into theatre, were firmly rooted in the base of patriarchal moral values. This patriarchal bias was sometimes shrewdly camouf laged in the arguments which were in favour of women's entry. In the first phase in 1915, Rangabhoomi invited open debate from readers on the subject of kulin women and theatre, by publishing a questionnaire which dealt with the questions of moral values, development of art and the advantages and disadvantages of kulin women entering the theatre [6j. The response from the men, most of them well known in either theatre or literature, was tremendous. Only one woman seems to have participated in the debate. The arguments given in favour of women's entry only cpneerned the 'development of theatre art' [7]. It is very clear that in this period the only relevant issue was the growing dissatisfaction in society towards the male enactment of female roles and towards the obscenity, vulgarity and artificiality which followed in the script, in the acting, as well as in the production in general. Development of art in practical terms actually meant improving the above situation with women enacting female roles to replace men. In theory most men agree to the concept of the 'development of art* but assumed that there was an inherent contradiction between art and morality. The choice was of morality over art for the stability of the society. The advocates of morality seemed quite sure that if women and men came together in the 'vulnerable' f i e ld,of theatre, morals would be adversely affected. It was said that to imagine any man other than the husband, in the role of husband was in itself immoral. There were some very 'practical' objections raised by these men, "if women take to theatre as a career, then during the menstruating period, is the company going to stop the shows? Even the spoiled actors of the theatre trade would not dare touch this actress in her impure days!' It was further asked whether the purity of theatre as conceived by Bharat (author of Bharat Naiya Shastra) would be retained by such impure behaviour [10]. It is important to see how society viewed prostitutes and widows in the context of the theatre. For those who thought women necessary for the 'art of theatre' but who did not want kulin women to lose their morality, gave reluctant 'consent' to the prostitutes but with condi t ions that they should be neeteeman', fil into the moral standard of the society; or else these prostitutes would spoil the morality of the men in the theatre compani e s. They were willing to accept prostitutes in theatre under the guise of 'reforming the prostitute' by offering them an opportunity for a decent profession which in turn would improve their immoral behaviour. Prostitutes' entry into theatre is justified by saying that their minds are full of evil thoughts rather than se.....5le thoughts which would help them enact all kinds of emot ions [6]. Those who were not very happy with the choice of prostitutes suggested that widows could take up acting [7] with necessary training in theatre craft. In the second phase of the debate, i e, after 1925, the arguments against the kulin women's entry are almost the same, but the arguments in favour be come stronger and very elaborate to make them sound convincing. The women were required in theatre, as popular male actors performing female roles were getting older and new men did not find the enacting of female roles very lucrative. The earlier glorified examples of male actors were at this stage replaced by giving examples of their ridiculous appearance and acting. Examples like these were given to illustrate the 'degradation of the art of theatre". Govind Tembe a very well known personality in the world of theatre mentioned that young men in our society were beginning to imitate popular actors enacting female roles. He maintained, that at a time when the nation required strong men. this tendency to look effeminate was to be discouraged [9|. The technical side of production by this period was quite advanced. Threedimensional realistic sets replaced 'painted back drops'. One finds description of how the entry of the artists used to be purposely delayed to allow the audience in the theatre to appreciate the set of a pool side garden [10]. Changes in social attitude c ame about due to a combinat ion of more realism in techniques of production, and in the contents of the plays and due to the greater visibility of women in various fields so far. A shrewd twist was now given to the earlier objections on the grounds of morality versus art. It was argued that the danger of any degradation of moral values was not so acute any more because the women joining theatre would be educated, cultured and kulin, unlike the women of the earlier period [4J. It is clear that at this stage the supporters of women's entry into theatre did not visualise women as independent and responsible persons but as women who fit in the mould of the moral values put across by the reformer men with women only in supportive roles. 'Natural feminine' qualities of women were romanticised to pave their entry into theatre. Much was written about the natural grace of movements, flair for music and natural inclination towards the emotions. The most amusing comparison between the two sexes made in order to prove that women were beneficial for the art of acting is "the imitating qualities" seen in young girls playing with dol l s. How they imitate and transform themselves into the roles of mother, wife, grandmother with utmost involvement as against boys of that age who cannot concentrate in a single game. It was further added that this quality in women ought to be encouraged and purposely used for the art of theatre [4]. The inclusion of kulin women had another aspect. It was openly admitted that the theatre trade in its prevailing low financial state, could not afford prostitutes because the prostitutes earned Rs 1,000 per night whereas the theatre trade could only afford Rs 150 per month. Yet the needs of the trade was greater than the number of kulin women w ho were available. Therefore a very clever move of expanding the definition of kulin to include more women was made after an elaborate, intricate analysis of the concept of kulin [II]. According to the traditional concept, kulin is linked with 'higher' birth whereas the modified version included women who were not necessarily kulin by birth, but by their moral behaviour. It had two expectations, one of being loyal to one man and secondly of having an aspiration of giving birth to a new kulin 'khandan'. The true intentions of this modification of the definition should be seen in the context of the social scene in Maharashtra. There was a class of devdasis from Goa who had a concubine status. They had a high standard of artistic talents, specially in music which the theatre trade could not afford to waste. In order to be able Economic and Political Weekly October 26, 1991 WS-89to be called 'neetiman', with high morals, they could be pressurised to follow a life style prescribed by the middle class patriarchy. One can find examples of such women, some of them still alive today, who must have been emotionally pressurised to modify their lifestyle in order to be called kulin. On the other hand educated urban high caste kulin women had to be trained in the art of theatre. Quite pertinently nobody questioned whether male actors needed any training at all. Both these classes of women had to follow a strict code of conduct prescribed by the 'well wishers of the theatre*. In 1915 when Rangabhoomi imited people to react to the debate only one woman Kashibai Herlekar had responded. In 1933 when the periodical Sanjiwani in its special issue on women and theatre invited reactions, seven upper class educated (all degree holders) women from places like Indore, Nagpur, Khandwa, Pune and Bombay responded. Out of these eight women who responded, two were totally opposed to the idea whereas six were in favour and were very clear in advocating their views. Some of the important points which emerge from these reactions are: (1) Whether women should act on stage, should be considered their personal choice based on their personal inclination, in the same way they would make a choice of careers as a school teacher or a doctor. Concepts like woman's urge for art, their ability for self expressions are pointed out by these women, which were never mentioned by men at any stage. (2) Art need not be linked to morality or with being kulin. (3) Women should not hesitate to take the risk of entering theatre as any new venture has its own risks. They should not allow men to make a mess of the theatre. (4) There is no need to wait for society to accept women in theatre but women should overcome societal prejudices. One should follow the examples of the courageous women who have already taken to acting to satisfy their extreme urge to act. Jyotsna Bhole and Padma Vartak [12]. (5) Women should accept and encourage free mixing of men and women to overcome inhibitions. It is a matter of our own opinion and not that of society. (6) There are some very bold statements by Yamunabai Dravid [18] regarding Khadilkar the famous playwright and Balgandharva. According to her playwrights cannot portray women characters and Khadilkar is no exception. She has criticised the way Khadilkar in the play Maneka, has insulted the womanhood and motherhood by making Maneka run after Rishi Vishwamitra urging him to make her the mother of his child. She says "Every woman has an urge to become a mother but certainly women are not so crazy as to run after a man. How can a male writer like Khadilkar understand this? No wonder that a male actor like Balgandharva is not ashamed to portray this Menaka. She adds that Rukrnini and Draupadi portrayed by Khadilkar in his famous play Swayamwar are similarly 'male nayikas' [13]. (7) Many women thought it would be ideal if both the partners were in the field of theatre, not necessarily as husband and wife. That any art form requires total dedication therefore the women should marry only if she can select a husband who also respects and loves art, otherwise one should remain unmarried to serve theatre. Therefore in conclusion, we see that when female roles performed by men were appreciated by society, there was a trend against including women performers whereas at a later stage when the demands of 'realism' appear, the trend not only changed in favour of women but sought to lure women into joining theatre by romanticising feminity and by widening the definition of kulin women to include even the devdasis so that the needs of the trade were fulfilled, but at the same time containing them by not allowing them to deviate from a code of conduct based on patriarchal standards of morality. There is no mention of women's creativity or of their own inclinations. Thus on the one hand the 'well wishers of theatre" looked down upon prostitutes as having a commercial attitude towards the art. They were called greedy for wealth and were accused of not having a genuine love for the art. On the other hand when women performers become necessary of the same •well wishers' blatantly used the language of 'using' women as a commodity to help the theatre trade to elevate its financial and social status. R e f e r e n c es [I] Valimbe, R S, Marathi Natya Samiksha 1865 to 1935. [2] Kulkarni, Appaji Vishnu, Marathi Rangabhoomi, 1903. [3]Joshi, Sumant, Marathi Natyasrishtitali Mushfiri, 1966. [4]Kanekar, P G, Mazya Kahi Natya Smriti, 1944. [5] Rangabhoomi (monthly), 1912. [6] Rangabhoomi (monthly), 1915. [7] Rangabhoomi, (monthly), 1916. [8] Bipinchandra, 'Prostitutes and Theatre*. Rangabhoomi, 1912. [9] Tembe, Govindrao, 'Rangabhoomi Ani Striya', Part I. Ratnakar, (monthly), 1928. [10] Kale, P S, Lalit Kalechya Sahwasat, 19S6. [II] Desai, Vasant Shantaram,'Kulin Striya Ani Rangabhoomi', 1933. [12] 'Striya va Rangabhoomi', special issue of Sanjiani, 1933. [13] Dravid, Yamunabai, 'Striya va Rangabhoomi'. Filling the Rice Bowl: Women in Paddy Cultivation K. Saradamoni Based on intensive field work in three states (Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala), this book is a study of women's contribution to agricultural work. The book documents in detail women's work in rice cultivation, both in the fields and in support work (processing, supervision). It redefines concepts like 'work', 'agricultural work', 'household work' etc. and sets out in an appendix possible measures to ameliorate the lot of the women. The author's profiles of some of the women bring out the ways in which they manage their chores in the face of tremendous odds, with a courage and dignity that light up their otherwise difficult lives. The author taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, until her recent retirement. Hardback Rs 150.00 Orient Longman 3-6-272 Himayatnagar, Hyderabad 500 029 WS-90 Economic and Political Weekly October 26, 1991

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