An intersection of art and activism, Indian Feminist Theatre is a product of the Political Theatrical Movement.
Indian theatre has a long history of activism and in times of such change and turmoil, we explore how women are changing the narrative and bringing feminism to the masses.
A chapter in Mahabharata narrates the story of Madhavi, King Yayati’s daughter who is used as a pawn by three egoistic men for their self-interests — her father, her lover and her lover’s guru. The theme of men exploiting women for selfish interests is an old and often repeated one. But noted playwright Bhisham Sahni’s 1984 play of the same name, radically deconstructs the age-old tale and retrieves Madhavi from the margins of the mythical narrative by putting the spotlight on her. This modern day woman is able to see through the narrow, self-serving attitude of the men and can take a stand. “She is the protagonist, and the entire story revolves around her which makes her the central theme. In the play Bhisham Sahni tries to portray the dilemma of every woman. She has always been seen as a giver, as a mother, wife, sister, but when it’s her time to receive she is denied. Madhavi is a metaphor for today’s woman, she refuses when she is not receiving her due and she still stands strong. Madhavi decides to live on her own, she rejects the man who can’t stand with her. She sacrifices her life for others, father, lover but she still survives with dignity and pride.” says, Chirmi Acharya who played the protagonist in the play Madhavi.
Indian theatre has a long history of activism. From anti-British narratives during the Independence movement to lending voice to those marginalised in recent times, theatre as a medium has provided a platform at a community level. And the feminist movement is one such movement that has found a voice through theatre over the last few decades. The movement began with the reinterpretation of our mythological epics — a group of women using their creative skills to shine a light on women’s issues without completely renouncing our traditional texts. Their aim was to question, explore and undermine. So today’s Sita knows that Rama loses the right to consider himself an ideal man when he kicks his wife out for no good reason, and Madhavi would much rather save herself than wait for a man to champion her cause. They knew that discovering new norms within a familiar context was what would bring artists and their audiences together. Within the confines of the theatre, they questioned everything from gender roles to the very essence of the female identity.
And it’s all thanks to the feminist movement, which, for years now, has been trying to strike down unfair stereotypes and do away with injustices, knowing that every woman needs a strong role model — whether that’s from life or literature. Among the scores of thespians who have devoted their lives to this cause are Tripurari Sharma, Anuradha Kapoor, Usha Ganguli, Vijaya Mehta, Kirti Jain, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry and most recently Mallika Taneja.
Beacons of change
An intersection of art and activism, Indian Feminist Theatre is a product of the Political Theatrical Movement. Feminist theatrical narratives first emerged in the 1970s, in response to the overwhelmingly male-centric discourses presented in regional theatre. Today, theatre is leading the way as far as bold and progressive narratives are considered, while other mediums of popular culture lag far behind.
In 1979, Safdar Hashmi’s Jan Natya Manch or People’s Theatre Front performed a street play titled Aurat, which dealt with themes like bride burning and dowry harassment. Dramatic works of Usha Ganguli and Mahashweta Devi followed suit. They spoke of gender inequality, societal exclusion fuelled by illiteracy, the remnants of feudalism in rural India, and the struggles of being a woman. Though Usha, who now runs the theatre company Rangakarmee, didn’t start out as a feminist writer, her woman-centric plays won her much acclaim. Speaking about her experience helming the Indian Feminist Theatre Movement, she says, “It came about because we believed in that kind of theatre. We believed that things needed to change for women in our society and culture.”
According to Usha, it was when women started working outside the home that they acquired a new sensibility that gave them the ability to look at texts, designs, and presentations in a new light. She emphasises the simplicity in the works of women directors like Anuradha Kapoor and Tripurari Sharma, who were considered pioneers of their time. “I did not have to hunt for stories. They were already there. They just needed to be designed and presented with simplicity to the audience,” Usha says.
Feminist plays began to be performed everywhere — on the streets, at community centres, in schools, and even in temples. Among Usha’s works were Beti Aayee (A Girl is Born), which spoke of discrimination against the girl child, and Hum Mukhtara, the story of a Pakistani woman who became the victim of gang-rape. “I took up socio-political plays which mirrored Indian society,” she explains. She wanted to use her creative voice to present the reality of the circumstances of a woman’s life. And her unconventionally simple plays won her the Sangeet Natak Academy Award for Theatre Direction in 1998.
Shattering the glass ceiling
The emergence of female-centric narratives not only provided people with a different perspective on women’s issues, but also led to a more authentic portrayal of women, their lives, their relationships, their sexuality, and their desires. Tripurari Sharma wrote her first play, Bahu, when she was a final-year student at the National School of Drama (NSD), and despite the backlash, she insisted on presenting her story from a woman’s point of view. She thinks of feminist theatre as the culmination of years of observation and suppression. “There was a kind of an urgency to become visible and make your existence matter. All women made plays with deep conviction,” she says.
According to veteran theatre director Anuradha Kapoor, who is best known for her play Umrao Jaan, the inspiration to present female-oriented texts as plays came from the observation of traumatic events occurring in women’s lives, which had long gone unnoticed. “Women started raising their voices, and writers brought to light the seemingly fictitious realities of women’s lives,” she says.
Tripurari credits Badal Sircar as the most influential feminist playwright of post-emergency India, and Shanta Gandhi’s 1967 play Jasma Odan was unconventional and a landmark in contemporary Indian theatre. “At that time, plays focused on articulating women’s concerns and saying what was in their hearts,” she says. “It is because they wanted to convey something, and theatre gave them an opportunity to do that,” Usha adds. Jasma Odan is a story of a woman and her struggle against power politics, where she chooses to be with her husband and sacrifices her life instead of marrying the king who had fallen for her beauty.
After Shanta Gandhi, many theatrics have attempted the play in various folk styles. Jaydev Hatangadi was the first to attempt it. In 1980 former National School of Drama director and Padma Shree recipient Ram Gopal Bajaj guided the play at Department of Theatre at Punjabi University in Patiala. Talking about the play he says, “The play is feminist but it is more about standing against subjugation. The protagonist stands for the entire deprived labourer community not just for her husband. She is loyal to the community as much as to her husband. A play like this is a metaphor for the present scenario.”
Chandigarh-based theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who was awarded a Padma Shri Award in 2011, is of the opinion that some sort of glass ceiling was finally shattered, because women were being seen as equal to men, in positions of power, as decision makers. “I think a silent revolution was happening then,” she says.
In the 1960s and 70s, directors such as Sheela Bhatia, Shanta Gandhi, then Vijaya Mehta brought a new sensibility to the theatre, ultimately changing the way women were perceived through meaningful, creative work. “When women came into the theatre, they weren’t following a precedent, and that made their work more collaborative,” Neelam says.
It also meant that theatre director — a position that earlier resonated with male authority — was redefined.
Leading the way
Meanwhile, the theatre also become a platform for women to show off their talents as actors – a sphere dominated by men until then because women were not meant to be looked at by one and all. Dadasaheb Phalke’s daughter Mandakini became the first female cinema artist and Durga Khote, the first female actor to take the stage.
Anuja Gosalkar, founder of The Drama Queen Theatre Company and the flag-bearer for documentary theatre in India, says that though the women who performed in plays were initially looked down upon as uncultured, the theatre was always progressive. “It was progressive because the women producing and directing plays were highly educated and highly cultured,” she says.
She also disagrees that progressivism is a characteristic of modern times. “Women in theatre have always been progressive. During the freedom struggle, lots of women came out and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA),” she says.
The aim of the feminist movement wasn’t just to discuss and debate about women’s issues, it was also to encourage women to become thinkers, creators, writers and artists. Talking about her personal motivation for joining the movement, Tripurari says, “I think women play an important role in all situations. I wanted to open up opportunities and explore areas that were previously unexplored.”
Neelam says that most women who championed feminism were motivated by the desire to take control of their own histories and tell their stories in their own way. Explaining how some women directors quite literally evolved new narratives styles that best suited them, she adds, “Some works didn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a regular narrative. They changed the way stories were presented.” Anuja believes that entertainment, and theatre, in particular, is still developing today. “Theatre is changing, and there is still a lot of room for experimentation,” she says. And Tripurari agrees that theatre needs to evolve every couple of years in order to remain relevant. “The pace of life is changing so fast, and theatre has to remain in tune with it,” she says. She adds that changes in the audience’s perception of theatre and its purpose have also given rise to many new genres, voices, and styles. “At one point, theatre was dominated by a handful of major playwrights. But that has changed. Today, we have different kinds of writing, different kinds of people doing theatre. There is so much new work happening,” she adds.
Back to the future
With waves of the feminist movement continuing to rise, Neelam believes that when working in a creative space, it is not just the obvious that is conveyed through a performance, it is also the subtext. “I think it’s a very complex thing. When we talk about women’s theatre, there is some kind of ghettoization at play. But all we want is to try and evolve a performative language in our own way and be recognised as artists,” she says.
Today, as girls continue to be sexually abused and then victim-shamed, Delhi-based theatre artist Mallika Taneja uses her 12-minute satirical piece Thoda Dhyaan Se (Be Careful) to call out those who find a woman’s choice of clothing to be the reason for her abuse. She stands on stage in her lingerie, challenging society in no uncertain terms.
Mallika says that after the Nirbhaya gang rape of 2012 the conversation surrounding gender and sexual abuse has become louder than ever. Now, writers are paying attention to the kind of roles they’re writing for women, all because a few women decided to start raising their voices against discrimination nearly 50 years ago. “The seeds were sown years ago by women artists across the country,” she says.
And it’s not just the performers and creators who are responsible for the change. The audience plays an equally important role in furthering the cause. Unless radical, thought-provoking plays are accepted and appreciated, feminist thespians will go unheard. “Audiences are willing to watch a lot more than we think they are ready for,” Mallika comments.
She and many like her have come a long way, and they continue to look forward to the challenges ahead. Just as the patriarchy continues to exist in life, it does in theatre too, and women continue to fight it. “We have to fight the deep-rooted issues from within, and the biggest fight we have is against ourselves,” the actress says.
Over the last two decades, women’s voices have become an integral part of mainstream Indian theatre. Several theatre groups organise festivals and workshops to encourage and celebrate women in the field. For those who’ve spent years pursuing the goal of equality, it’s a good time to be alive. “I think any woman who does something out of the ordinary is looked at and thought about differently. In my experience, doing something out of the box is empowering. There may be people who hate you, but personally, I have found a lot of love and encouragement in the theatre,” Mallika concludes.