Saturday, October 17, 2015

Acting Up- Gender and Theatre in India

Rahul Vaidya

(A book review of 'Acting Up- Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards' by A. Mangai  pp. 271 | 2015 | LeftWord Books | New Delhi)

‘Theatre is about representation, about individual bodies, and the way these bodies relate to, reflect, subvert and remake social bodies. ‘Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 onwards’ explores these intersections of gender and theatre through an examination of the work of women theatre practitioners. It looks at the conditions that shape these processes: feminist and class politics, caste, ethnicity, faith, and nationalism. This book thinks through a new feminist idiom for contemporary theatre practice. By examining the conditions of actual production of theatre work, often by a collective effort not tied to any single point of authority (text, playwright or director), this study gestures towards an alternate aesthetic framework’ (From the jacket of the book)

This exhaustive and erudite work by A. Mangai around history of activism around gender and its manifestations in theatre since 1980s is an important reminder for recognizing the place of counter-culture in our politics as well as need for our art forms to duly recognize politics as an overarching presence in terms of the content as well as the form of the art. While the book is a rich resource of evolution of theatre forms especially in the wake of women’s movements as well as gender politics and its critical inputs in ‘gendering’ theatre through ‘formal’ interventions, I would limit myself to certain key themes of the book which are critical for progressive cultural politics in general. It is not to indicate that an independent discussion of theatre forms, or the ‘gender’ as concept which informs these creative efforts is not possible or desirable since gender and theatre are secondary to ‘politics’- on the contrary, it is to A. Mangai’s credit that she has already showed how to ‘read’ the gender and theatre in the wake of ‘politics’. I would merely use the entry point of ‘politics’ to discuss these themes.

Body & Gaze- the politics of ‘staging gender’

The democratization of theatre by entry of women during colonial times which challenged the triad of ‘home-family-history’ and unevenness associated with these processes is well captured by Mangai is the dialectic employment of ‘body and the narrative’ as essential components of ‘representation i.e. politics of staging gender’. The politics of the body that she explores is on dual levels- the particular bodies of female artists on stage which challenged and shaped the social bodies of ‘gaze’. Further, this challenge was further complicated by aesthetic conventions. Rather than searching for ‘individual women performers and mark their contributions’, Mangai calls for ‘attention to the conditions under which women perform in various contexts and conditions[1]’. The ‘female performers’ and their lives, be it Tamasha performers in Maharashtra, or actors from ‘kulin’ households, the treatment meted out to them by theatre in terms of acceptance, and livelihood is starkly in contrast with the eulogies which were showered upon female impersonators like Bal Gandharva. Mangai rightly highlights the ‘valorization of the aesthetics of female impersonation and the unease reserved for flesh-and-blood women performers’. This valorization, in turn, is a cultural move to assert the patriarchal image of an ‘ideal’ woman and a female impersonation to conform to it.

The democratization process which gives rise to a greater representation of women as well as the theatre that addresses explicitly the feminist/ women’s issues is not free from the larger political problems emblematic of the structure and agency. The identity of gender doesn’t by itself mean a radical approach to other social realities such as caste, as highlighted by Mangai in case of Tamasha women performers who carried their own biases and conventional outlook although their moral outlook differed widely from the middle-class, upper caste outlook towards family and notions of good ‘art’. Mangai is clear that portrayal of women as merely victims won’t take us far and the need to recognize their location within established culture and caste system cannot be overstated.

Ultimately, the democratization process is important for the access and representation of social groups. However, the mere act of ‘staging’ is deeply related to a political act which confronts the conventions and traditions of aesthetic- the bulwark against all anti-establishment acts. Thus, Mangai begins the discussion around ‘staging gender’ by specifically adopting the starting point of women’s movements in 1980s and their early association with theatre to highlight the inter-dependence. What is important is the unfolding of a dialectic which warrants more elaborate discussion. 

 Dialectics at several levels

Mangai’s book is an admirable effort which has managed to dialectically posit the relations between the categories at so many different levels- the question of structure and agency, form and content, or activism and culture.

The challenge faced by all progressive cultural activities is how to resist the logic of commodification and retain the counter-cultural edge and not be irrelevant at the same time- a short hand for hegemonic effort. The gender movement, too like others such as environment or caste, is at a crossroads to deal with a distinct phase of capitalism after 1968 which recognized the issues of ‘identity’ as soon as they were raised as outcome of the whole ‘ideological’/ cultural revolutionary fervor of the decade of 1960s and 1970s. The NGO backed initiatives of awareness campaigns and development works definitely led to democratization and consciousness- however, the intervention within the norms which defined ‘what is culture’ which the progressive movements sought to do, was overlooked in these kinds of initiatives. What is more, Mangai rightly points out that ‘theatre still remains elitist. There is a discernible move towards commercializing theatre- while there is a history of commercial theatre; it takes on a whole new meaning in our contemporary context of neoliberalism. Commercial theatre of the 1930s in the Indian context would never be as ideologically and practically aggressive as commercializing of the kind that we have today’[2].

Another problem confronted by cultural politics around gender, like other movements, was the question of ‘cultural activism or activist culture’. In other words, this debate is continuing one and another manifestation of content and form dialectic. Mangai has elaborately reflected on this dilemma that the established culture didn’t accord aesthetic recognition to street theatre about women’s issues on one hand; and on the other, the larger women’s movements treated the aspect of culture as merely a mobilization tactic.  What we call as the autonomous ‘politics of culture’ or in Mangai’s words, ‘art that is not viewed as an instrument, but a form of knowledge, and a political practice’[3]  is missing in the agendas of progressive movements and political organizations. In times when culture and tradition is heavily appropriated by the revivalist and fascist tendencies; the counter-culture and its political importance cannot be overstated. This point of counter-culture merits further elaboration in the context of the book we are discussing.


 The therapeutic quality of theatre, especially the activist theatre (where line between actors and audience is consciously blurred), which acts as a means to counter the effects of alienation that mainstream culture promotes is acknowledged. This quality, combined with the gender discourse, which drawing from structuralism, emphasized upon ‘reading’ of the patriarchy in the established structures of culture, family, and state- holds an irreverence towards the mimetic and reified ‘tradition’ of the ruling classes which has material interest in valorization of ‘tradition’ as such.

One thing to bear in mind is, this irreverence has to battle the tradition not of actually existing feudal interests alone, but also the reified form of a ‘national tradition’ which emerged after independence. This national tradition, sought to trace back its roots in Sanskrit theatre theories like ‘Natya shastra’ overlooking the historical development of theatre and women’s participation during colonial times. Hence, ‘defining ‘modern’ in post-colonial nation turns into an exercise of seeking continuity with the pre-colonial (therefore pre-modern) era, and in disjunction with colonial practices’[4] The further manifestations of this ‘national-modern’ discourse, which was easily adopted by the right wing forces claiming cultural supremacy in the name of ‘great tradition’ are for everyone to see. The persistence of stereotyped vision of a woman either as a wife or as a courtesan is proof of cultural survivals and their reification despite the supposed transition to modernity. Even the positing of ‘individual’ as a bourgeoisie project is on a weak footing and its effects most visible in unresolved caste-gender questions.

So what should be the response of art that seeks to build a counter-culture? One response has been recovering the ‘past’ through adoption of myths. While the mainstream focus has been the ‘universal’ myths of Ramayana and Mahabharata which defined the national culture and even the nation as such, Mangai points out the efforts of women’s theatre in appropriating regional and female versions of myths to challenge this monolithic form of ‘nation’. However, Mangai is critical of male efforts in terms of myth adoptions- ‘while male practitioners have also resorted to myth, their concerns have been with the grand universals even when they consciously work with regional forms: Hayavadana deals with the notion of completeness, Nagamandala and Jokumaraswami with sexuality and Andha Yug with nationhood. Women engagement with myth and lore on the other hand has consciously sought to project disjunctions, discontinuities and foreground the element of the new and the startling’[5]. Here, one is reminded of Com. Sharad Patil’s theoretical work about the recovery of alternative histories from the point of view of women and Shudras as essential part of the revolutionary project. His explanation of the term ‘Ganika’ is a case in point: this term, earlier meant to signify the female leader of the Gana (clan) under matriarchal system, underwent a radical procedure of inversion and came to signify a ‘woman available to all people’ (prostitute) under the patriarchal system[6]. Such recovery in theory through historical materialism needs to be complemented by their creative adoption in cultural artifacts.

The women’s movement in theatre has been political- willingly or unwillingly. However, the one area it has insufficiently addressed is the issue of caste. Ideally, it should have aligned much more actively and critically with caste emancipation movement; however, as Mangai notes in case of Tamil Nadu politics, the progressive- socialist- emancipatory parties didn’t acknowledge the gender as an issue worth aligning with thereby displaying the reach of patriarchy. On the other hand, it is also plausible that the class-caste background of the existing theatre- be it commercial or activist; and strength of caste as an ideological blinker is so much so that there is this ‘invisibilisation of caste in theatre’.

However, the one notable critical aspect of the activist gender theatre has been its direct engagement against communalism. In the wake of surge of Hindu Right in late 1980s, memory and history became focal points of their endeavor especially as reflected in themes of Anuradha Kapoor’s Umrao, or later the Antigone Project, Tripurari Sharma’s Azizun Nisa, Kirti Jain’s Aur Kitne Tukde etc. The themes ranged from recovery of female narratives in medieval Muslim culture, reading them in a different light than the existing manner, showcasing compositeness of culture vis-à-vis the polarized vision that was presented, as well as use partition narratives to invoke the horrors of such polarization and futility of violence where women bore the maximum cost.  

Finally, this important archive and theoretical intervention enriches us to think through our cultural efforts and their political underpinnings. As much of the classical Marxist debates in ‘Aesthetics and Politics’ revolved around the questions of ‘what constitutes art’ and ‘how politics can effectively constitute an art’- ‘Acting Up’ deals with these questions in a manner reminiscent of Ernst Bloch and his emphasis on the necessity of ‘principle of Hope’ for a utopian progressive art.

She sums up quoting Augusto Boal, who in his Theatre of the oppressed, says that ‘to resist it is not enough to say no. It is necessary to desire’. She further adds, ‘It is this desire that is a driving force for most women in the field of theatre. The coalition of a rainbow of desires has provided a rich tapestry of colors, emotions, experiences and expressions. One need not accept everything with equal fervor, but no one can deny this variety of colours’[7]. It is this variety of colors that ensures a lively cultural endeavor, and an active political resistance to patriarchal hegemony in culture. Acting Up is a rich tribute, archive and theorization of this resistance- which needs to be read and reflected upon by one and all.

The author is an independent researcher based in Delhi. 

[1] Acting Up- Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards: A. Mangai, pg.14
[2] Ibid, pg. 251-252
[3] Ibid, pg.75
[4] Pg.20,21
[5] Ibid, pg. 101
[6] For further discussion, please refer to Sharad Patil’s books- ‘caste ending Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and its Socialist Conummation’ & ‘Caste- Feudal Servitude’
[7] Acting Up- Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards: A. Mangai, pg.254

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