On World Theatre Day, we ask theatre practitioners whether women’s issues receive balanced and nuanced representation on the Indian stage
Critic Shanta Gokhale notes that a majority of the theatre productions in India are funded by male producers, which in turn dictates the subject matter and content of the plays staged
In Indian theatre, when it comes to drawing focus on women’s representation, there seems to be a gaping lacuna. On the 58th anniversary of World Theatre Day, Mint spoke to theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja, and veteran performing arts journalist-critic Shanta Gokhale, who made acute observations about the extent to which Indian theatre provides an agency to women’s concerns and aspirations today, and the responsibility of women directors, producers and performers to take the lead for authentic portrayal for such concerns.
Feminist theatre in India principally surfaced in the 1970s, as a response to the pre-existing male-centric narratives which dominated the theatre space back then. While there were a handful of plays written by women for women (like Swarnakumari Devi’s The Wedding Tangle (1904), which explored the social threads of widow re-marriage), those plays were a few and far between. It was in the 1970s that feminist theatre removed itself from the periphery and demanded centre stage.
Safdar Hashmi’s Aurat (1979), for instance, was an important street play that boldly brought crucial issues like sati and dowry to the forefront. In the 1980s, Sai Paranjpye penned Jaswandi, which depicted the predicament of a vulnerable upper-class housewife who is stuck in a stifling, loveless marriage. Lonely, she is seduced by her driver, only to have her heart broken. Then, there was Vijay Tendulkar’s Mitrachi Goshta(1981), one of the country’s first plays that explored and embraced the theme of homosexuality in women. Critics today however, argue that while Tendulkar’s play may have been “path-breaking" for its time, it did not necessarily authentically depict LGBTQ+ concerns.
Even today, a majority of the plays staged are not actively or responsibly engaging with women’s issues. Shanta Gokhale notes that a majority of the theatre productions in India are funded by male producers, which in turn dictates the subject matter and content of the plays staged. “There aren’t enough women producers in Indian theatre," she points. “The money is still coming from men. So, they have the last say. Anyone who has the money is the one calling the tune." There have been of course, a handful of women producers in Indian theatre like Lata Narvekar who’ve received considerable push-back in the past for producing plays such as Char Chaughi (1992), which depicts the life of a strong, single woman who brings up three daughters she had with a man who is already married.
Taneja, who performed Thoda Dhyan Se, a bold piece that looks at the absurdity behind the number of directives given to women as ‘advice’ by a paternalistic society, feels that women’s representation in Indian theatre still “needs a lot more work". “If we look at scholarship, it’s shocking to see how very little is written about and around women practitioners," she says. “While I think that roles which are being written for women still require a lot more work, there are many women who are choosing to write and perform their own work. I think this is happening because there is a sense of frustration with parts that are available to play."
Women producers like Mukta Barve are producing and acting in plays that sensitively give women’s dilemmas an amplified agency and visibility. Barve, for instance, produced Chhapa Kata, a Marathi play, which looks at the relationship between a pathologically possessive mother, who tries to manipulate and control her daughter. In the end however, it is the daughter who emerges with absolute resilience.
Between Paranjpye’s Jaswandi in the 1980s and Barve’s more recent Chhapa Kata, Gokhale sees a change in the way women are represented. Modern women are depicted as capable and resilient individuals. “Theatre in India doesn’t show women suffering anymore," she points out. “The old kind of suffering where the audience wept in sympathy—those kinds of play don’t get made anymore. But the question now stands is that when you show a woman being manipulated or exploited, how do you depict it? Do you show her as a helpless victim, or do you show that she has some agency, so that despite the exploitation, she is aware that she is being exploited and is able to find weapons to fight back?"
Taneja feels that it’s important to present women in theatre as women are in real life – “as their mundane, everyday selves," she explains. “Sometimes flawed, resilient but also extremely fatigued, can be brilliant but sometimes also boring. I wonder if a slightly more ‘real’ representation of women will lead to a more realistic discourse around us? These are some questions I find myself dealing with."