“The theater was created to tell people the truth about life and the social situation.”
The entire craft of literature and its public representation has always rested in the hands of the educated upper class male. The ‘Bhadralok’ has always been the guardian and care taker of art forms and have kept them divorced from women and lower classes. Women kept within four walls could never witness the fourth wall in an auditorium. Deprived of education and the lack of means to have access to something which has been forbidden to them, how did women then constructed their way to the stage?
Woman as a central figure has always been a site of problem. In a patriarchal male dominated society she can be seen in a positive light only if she abides by the rules and regulations that are laid by these men and obliges to their very command.
“The theater is where people ‘act out’ who they are, were or imagine themselves to be. And in the nineteenth century, before the cinema, the theater was the art of/in the public sphere.”
How then these women got the spot light?
“The theater was not simply performance for the babus; it was also by and of the babus.”
The entire concept of keeping the education within a class of people to maintain its essence of being ‘elitist’ is contestable when one looks at the larger picture. The doubt is not that whether women can perform or understand but the reality is that the doors are closed and a board for ‘No Entry for women’ has been hanged.
The Bengali Stage in the Indian context can be said to present a platform to the ‘other gender’ which had no access till then.
But who were these women who got a chance to act?
These were the ‘prostitutes’ who chose stage as a means to earn income to support their lives. Even then these hypocrite men who find it considerate to sleep with them because that is what they are meant for; but their coming on the stage and performing women roles became problematic because then it would be a bad mark for the ‘Bhadralok’ who came and watched theater.
The introduction of women in theater was not just an important revolutionary beginning for them but also for the young boys who played women roles.
Girish Ghosh arguments that “when boys are employed to play [female roles], not only is the performance inept, it impairs the boys themselves beyond recovery. Having imitated feminine behaviour from a very young age, they acquire a certain effeminacy thatstays with them for the rest of their lives.” Therefore casting women for playing women roles not only sounded commercially viable but also morally ethical.
Though the viewers might see in the ‘ prostitute-actress ’ the flaw that they are trying to seduce men in the audience by their gestures on the stage but for these actresses playing characters in a play was a mode of self-transformation. When they played divine roles they themselves underwent a personal spiritual journey.
The nineteenth century Bengali stage saw the coming of women actors with Ghosh’s plays but even then it is sad to note, a stage where somehow women got an opportunity to act were not considered potential enough to perform stronger roles.
Apart from the mythical roles when a story of the real world was constructed these women were considered capable enough to portray roles of only vamps, temptresses, mad women and martyred mothers and daughters. The playwrights and directors didn’t consider these women capable of performing roles of wives or mothers in a ‘ babu household’ because for that they need to possess a ‘moral character’ which they lacked being the ‘prostitute actresses’.
They cannot be the ‘domestic women’ whether on stage or in the real life. Women till date are considered as ‘the second sex’ and are ‘othered’ under numerous categorizations. But the stage where they entered and sought a chance to speak, to voice out hasn’t faded over the decades.
Definitely the times have changed and people have progressed in mind and thought but still the equilibrium has not been attained when one can rightly say that women have equal space as men. The twentieth century theater has emerged successful when we see it in light of the women roles. Not just the Bengali Theater but other regional theaters as well as sub-continental ones.
Fawzia talks about the titles related to the identification of the Muslim woman which she came across –“Behind the Veil, Beneath the Veil,Beyond the Veil!”
She strongly comments on the stereotypes of the Muslim Woman in a play that she saw and writes: “Images of her being beaten into submission by husband, lover, pimp, coalesce around the rectified image of her donning the head-scarf, the veil, the hijab, as a sign of the power she reclaims at the end against the male ‘gaze’ that has sought to reduce her in every relationship with a man.
Thus, while ostensibly following a trajectory of liberation of the heroine (the choice to don a head-scarf was meant to signal that the veil is not always a signifier of oppression), it left me depressed at the thought of life’s possibilities for this Muslim Woman being reduced to the representation of such banal gestures, thrust upon us with such symbolic force by the mullah and his antithesis alike. To veil or not to veil- is that now the question for our times, I find myself asking dispiritedly.”
Though Fawzia’s context is the post 9/11 phase, yet the question still remains intact that why does a woman actor needs to be analyzed on parameters which have nothing to do in relation to the craft of the actress.
How do class, religion and sexual orientation matter when one is performing a character?
The binary idea of identity in categories of being a ‘prostitute – actress’, ‘domestic –woman’ or ‘Muslim– woman’ should not be the criterion any more.
The Pakistani theatrical scene like the Bengali Stage is similar when one joins the dots through the representation of women. Both represent the’third world’ and when it comes to talking about the ‘other’ (the woman); both hold similar mind set. Till date the ideology is such that “it is never the rapist/buyer of sex who is blamed, but the woman who is raped or forced into prostitution: she has to bear the burden of having ‘dishonored’ her family, who can never accept her back, because of the‘shame’ she has bought them!”
A woman is also a woman and not just an actor on the stage but a man is just an actor on the stage.
With transition in time plays saw changes both in terms of the plot,action and the characters.
Mohan Rakesh, a playwright started writing plays which targeted the root cause of an upcoming modern society where families were being disjointed and there were loopholes in the entire operation of the system. He was trying to revolutionize the twentieth century stage.
Now woman had a strong role to play on stage, but again she didn’t possess a wholesome happiness. Like all his plays where ‘mutual alienation’ is the recurrent theme, a very popular play Adhe Adhure also witnessed a strongly voiced female character Savitri but her plight is that she is seeking a “complete human being as a partner” which lacked in her husband and all other male characters which she encountered.
The twentieth century has seen a variety of changes in an overall orientation of the theater. Playwrights, directors and actors have experimented heavily to reach a point where they did establish a benchmark in the field by contributing something which was never produced before.
Regional theaters such as in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra incorporated local folk forms, legends and performances into the act. This also opened gates for women to now act and not just dance as they did in‘ Naach’ performances in Chhattisgarh, ‘Lavani’ in Maharashtra, ‘Yatra’ in Bengal and so on. Also with these experiments going on and with formation of IPTA (Indian People’s Theater Association) in 1943, the theater no longer remained a private property of only ‘the elitist’.
The objective was now to make it a people’s theater that is “for the people and by the people.” This people’s approach and objective not only gave light to the regional folk traditions but also allowed people in general who enjoyed but did not have the skill, a chance to perform on stage. Theater now extended its arms in terms of both stage and street and broadened the overall reach.
The idea of art has always been to reciprocate meanings and messages which are well-understood when presented in such a way that one has no other option but to synchronize their thoughts in relation to what is being presented and get a hang of it.
To say that women have not progressed over the years would be incorrect; but to also mention that they have the social standing is also an incorrect statement. In urban areas the progress can be seen to some extent but the rural areas are still struggling. The woman as a subject becomes a larger question because the fight is not just to give it rights to act on stage but in general the right to live, to be respected (in stories as well as in reality).
Kanika Batra talks about Janam’s play ‘Aurat’ which “primarily dramatizes women’s lives within the broad framework of class relations;it also succeeds in highlighting other seemingly non class sites of oppression, specifically the family and the state.”
She also talks about the performance strategy adopted by Safdar Hashmi due to lack of women in the group and only one actress that is Mala performed all the female roles. In an interview, Mala Hashmi herself remarked that “the impact is better left when only one woman appears before the audience in different roles.”
The play becomes a point of relation when the plot and the character’s plight go hand in hand with what already exists in the society and what is being caricatured in front of the audience. If not an eye opener, the medium of theater definitely becomes a mode of waking up people from the lulled dreams or the blinded eyes.
‘Aurat’ as a play became a mouthpiece highlighting “the threat of sexual violence faced by girls and women on a daily basis, the indifferent and often instigator role of the police in these circumstances, the family’s concern with the preservation of women’s chastity as linked to its ‘honor’ and standing in society, and the hapless plight of an initially reluctant but eventually politicized woman worker.”
With the emergence of women directors from the 1990’s one tends to see a much bolder representation of women in plays and a proper assertion of their characters. Even if the character is that of a ‘ prostitute woman’, the woman actor playing is not seen with a lecherous eye but is presented such that along with bringing out the pathos she is equipped enough to raise the larger question.
Anuradha Kapur articulates that “if body is a social script then the performance of the gender is a social act governed and engineered by codes that are embedded in prevailing social structures.
Women directors are concerned to surface and make visible this process of gendering: the process of showing how bodies are ‘materialized as sexed’: how men and women are made. Shifting the elements of gender, of the social codes of masculinity and femininity, would mean destabilizing them and refocusing on them.”
Women should no longer be requiring a multi-layered pillar to prove their standing. They are potential and worthy enough and all they need is a platform where they are safe and respected.
The theatrical stage is one such medium which offers them to be able to live more than one life and thrusts them with confidence and enthusiasm to be something which the patriarchal society in general has always continued to deny. Theater is not a commodity but a medium which has potential to change the world for better.