Do you ever put down a biography you have just finished reading with an inexplicable urge to meet the author? The other day, when I picked up Gulab Bai: The Queen of Nautanki Theatre by Deepti Priya Mehrotra and started reading, I kept telling myself how I would have loved to hear Gulab Bai sing and perform in one of the many nautankis with names such as Teen Betiyan urf Dehleez Ke Paar, presented by the Great Gulab Theatrical Company. I know I will not and cannot meet Gulab Bai in the flesh because she passed away in 1996. But high on my wish list for this year is a meeting with Mehrotra, who makes it possible for me and other music and theatre lovers to get an honest, factual, carefully-researched and beautifully-written glimpse into the life of a great artiste and her work.
Biographies of musicians and artistes have suddenly become rather fashionable with publishers. But a large number of these biographies remain lavishly printed, often extravagantly priced coffee-table picture albums, with some carefully-strewn, designer formatted text that binds together the photographs loosely and often inaccurately. Or, else, they become my-dad-is-the-best, my-mom-is-the-greatest accounts written by doting family members.
Mehrotra’s biography of Gulab Bai doesn’t just tell the story of a great folk artiste, it also brings to today’s readers a reminder that though many of us may not be totally unfamiliar with the term nautanki, only a handful of us may have actually witnessed a performance. As the Bollywood monster and the Ektaa boa slowly, but steadily, swallow and devour many forms of music and theatre that once flourished in the country, books like Mehrotra’s may remain one of the few sources on this once hugely popular travelling folk form of North India.
Women performers in the past were undoubtedly admired for their artistry, but also considered disreputable because they performed in public. To this, you have to add the fact that Gulab Bai was a nautanki artiste and the art itself remained a male bastion for long. By the mid-1930s, Gulab Bai, known then as Gulab Jaan, had become one of the most popular artistes in this field, but this could by no means have brought with it the stamp of respectability. Gulab Bai belonged to the ‘’lowly’ Bedia community whose women “did not marry, led unconventional sexual lives and provided for their natal families”. The community also “had a well-established tradition of women earning their livelihood by singing and dancing”. Ironically, her citation for the Padmashree that she later received from a well-meaning government described her as “Mrs. Gulab Bai”. Despite the stigma and the disrepute society heaped on women performers such as Gulab Bai, her associates and friends describe her as a woman of great dignity and strength.
Mehrotra’s account of her life and times is as dignified as the woman she writes about. It never attempts to sensationalize. But she does not beat about the bush or mince words about the unconventional lives of women in nautanki. And, in doing so, she gives women performers like me the opportunity to recognize and understand the social contexts in which women performed in the past.
Write to Shubha Mudgal at firstname.lastname@example.org