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Female Playwrights and the Theatre in India: Challenges and Perspectives

Indu Pandey

University of Delhi, India

Vol. 1, No. 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/bp.v1n1.07


 Playwriting is a mixture of site, history, representation and audiences within the context of ideology. It tries to establish relationship between the reader and the text. “Playwriting, which is an intricate and complex interweave with site, history, representation and audience as well as conventions of realism, narrative and stage practice, emerges as a crucial arena of exploration for contemporary feminism, providing insights into the politics of writing and the possible basis for a feminist theory of reception”(Forte, 1996, p. 19).

The ‘fact of power’ accounts for much of the lack of appreciation of women’s texts; until there is an appreciable change in power structure, it is unlikely that women’s fictional accounts of their lives lying in drawing rooms, the parlour, the nursery, the kitchen, the laundry will have the force to induce masculine jouissance (1996, p. 28). Men’s traditional disregard for women’s writing and women’s mode of existence is caused due to the reality of male power.

As Brecht noted, “the theatre as we know it (he calls it illusionism) shows the structure of society (represented on stage) as incapable of being influenced by society (in the auditorium)” (1996, p. 22). The Play maintains illusion of reader as subject who shares with the absent narrator the position of ultimate understanding.

Theatre has been used as a means of communicating protest against any form of violence and oppression. It is a broad term which includes dramatic literature and performance. Theatre has replaced books or films which are considered as popular means of protest. From 1870 onwards, the protest through theatre was directed against social evils in Indian society. The form of theatre differed in pre and post-independence periods. ‘Street Theatre” began to be performed at public places in metropolitan cities. It was used to spread awareness regarding women’s issues.

Popular theatre was a highly discriminated sphere on the basis of gender. Here, males ruled the female performers who generally came from the courtesans and prostitutes classes. The public sphere was male dominated where only women who were considered as ‘public’ women were allowed to perform. In male theatrical domain, women were forced to perform roles assigned to them by the male practitioners. Therefore, these women characters got constructed and identified by male playwrights and directors who completely ignored the women centred approach. However, the entry of women practitioners in theatre had led to the questioning of assumed normative discourses. A new kind of theatre started emerging on the horizon which is feminist in nature. This kind of theatre was called ‘Stree Preksha’ in the ancient India and it is known presently by the name “Feminist Theatre”.

The feminist theatre helped in breaking up stereotypical images of women being constructed in theatre by men in the beginning. It has given voice to the silence, reconstructed the traditional images of women and presented them on stage. They try to project sensitive issues concerning women in the play so as to spread feminine issues present in the Indian society. Anita Singh in the introduction to her book Gender, Space and Resistance: Women and Theatre writes, “To begin with feminist theatre thrived in cities and towns in India primarily in non-commercial spaces. Jan Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Front) of Safdar Hashmi formed in 1973 performed an agitprop street play Aurat (Women, 1979) which dealt candidly with issues like bride burning, dowry and wife bettering” (Singh, 2013, p. 23). Women forayed into the male domain of theatre with the emergence of feminist movement in the Indian theatre. One of the reasons held responsible for the absence of women in theatre is that theatre is a public space and women’s exclusion from that space is deliberately done by society. Women is regarded as object/objective/obstacle and necessarily positions in the oppressed subjectivity (which is not subject but object of feminity). They were considered as objects and categorized as the ‘other’. The emergence of women’s theatre helped women to speak for them and thus become ‘speaking subjects’. The public/private divide was broken by these speaking subjects as they became conscious and free to make their own choices and decisions. The Conscious women focused on themselves and stopped depending on the opposite sex.

In the west, women of aristocracy have written short plays but were not recognized until they appeared on stage. The best known and first professional woman playwright was Britain’s Aphra Behn. She had become a victim of male prejudice for daring to enter the world of theatre which was a male preserve in those days. Since about 1978 a new feminist-influenced, performance-based work has developed. After the success of feminism, women playwrights came to light and gained equality.

Indian women’s theatre came to limelight with women liberation movement of the west. This brought forward gender biased issues into the public arena. Several social issues like dowry deaths, female foeticide, sexual violence, ignorance, illiteracy, gender discrimination in families and society etc. have been exposed by the women’s movement in India. Women Liberation Movement moved nations in support of women’s fight against oppression. It proved that women are capable of thinking logically and are equally intelligent with respect to their male counterparts. In 1970s, the emergence of urbanization and industrialization created employment opportunities for women. This lead to emergence of sensitive writers who wrote about neglected section of the Indian society. Many tabooed issues found place in the writings of these writers.  Women’s movement along with socially active Indian theatre began to show way to the oppressed ones. Theatre became medium for creating social changes. Soon, street theatre presented various issues especially those of women from women’s perspective.

Some of the Indian pioneers of feminist writing in India have shown a greater understanding of Indian life around them. Tuntun Mukherjee writes in the prolegomenon to her anthology Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation thus: “The denial of education to women, the male exclusivity in the print culture, the tendency to ‘vulgarise’ and ‘devalue’ oral culture (generally the female domain), the separation of the private and public space have all served to confine women to certain genres and restrict or erase their presences in others” (2005, p. 4). This book tries to make us understand the possible reasons held responsible for the distancing and alienating women from theatre. Further, she emphasizes that “Theatre seems to reflect, like other cultural activities, an institutional structure in which artistic and administrative control still remains largely in the hands of men”(2005, p. 4).This discriminating ideology of male theatrical domain caused production of work that could be defined only in patriarchal terms. Theatre is regarded as an institution which still is controlled by males. It clearly indicates the role played by both the sexes in the public sphere. Here, women are restricted to the private domain, which is family where the most important task is the reproduction and bringing up the progeny…Full Text PDF