Books on actresses working in the public theatres in India are a rarity and in that sense Sarvani Gooptu’s The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta is a bit of a novelty. It begins with a premise of tracing the journey of women and their engagement with early theatrical practices in Calcutta. Gooptu attempts to provide readers with anecdotes of the actresses’ professional and personal lives through an examination of a variety of themes, the theatres, its plays, audiences and also their complex relationship with their mentors. The book sets the stage for the performance culture of Calcutta, mapping the journey of women and their first appearance on the stage.
The problematic of periodization is always a grave challenge for any historian. Gooptu begins her narrative a little before the momentous appearance of four Bengali women in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s Sarmistha staged at Bengal Theatre in 1873.1 Gooptu writes about the efforts of Russian traveller Gerasim Lebedeff who established a theatre in 1795 at Domtolla in North Calcutta. At Lebedeff ’s theatre women performed female roles. This practice, however, was not sustainable and soon it was discontinued. There were sporadic attempts to bring Bengali women to the stage but these efforts did not come without their own challenges. According to Gooptu after a brief period of experimentation, ‘there was always a presence of actresses through the period from 1795 to 1873, even when they were absent in reality. Actresses appear constantly in the minds of the audience and the critics.’2 Such a categorization is challenging for any reader to fathom as there is evidence that Nabin Chandra Basu staged the popular play Bidyasundar in 1835 with both men and women as performers.3 Also, if we were to turn to theatre history for recourse, European women had created a precedent by appearing on the Calcutta stage from 1789 to 1842. Thus this absence/ presence of the actress in the public theatres of Calcutta was a long drawn battle. The arrival of the first ethnically Indian actresses on the stage between 1872 and 1910 was a complex affair as they were ‘commodified but indispensable in the public sphere, they were the only visible women in society’.4
The appearance of women on the stage generated enthusiasm and excitement among the public, it also evoked anxieties around the publicness of these women. This heady combination of pleasure and prohibition is the hallmark of the discourse on women in the public sphere at the turn of the century. The actress was banished from the stage though her presence was strongly debated in the public sphere. This contentious discussion about the publicness of women interlaced with the discourse on colonial modernity was a heady mix. Gooptu writes about the exchanges between intellectuals, artists and theatre afficianados in contemporary newspapers and journals. The archival material presented in the book is a good introduction for readers to the world of theatre, its space and the kinds of anxieties and awe it inspired. Despite this promising use of archival material and Bengali sources, there is a dearth of interpretation and analysis. Many of the Bengali sources are presented in translation without attempts to critically engage and provide newer perspectives on the issues. Memoirs of theatre personalities like Aparesh Chandra Mukhopadhyay and others are used to fill caveats in the chapters. While the use of biographical and autobiographical material is an overused methodological tool for analysis of the past, Gooptu’s exercise is fraught and many of the assumptions are taken quite literally. There is little attempt to complicate the sources. Some of the assumptions about the actresses as women of ‘easy virtue’ or ‘uneducated’ and ‘unsophisticated’ bear close resemblance to the ways in which contemporary writers (mostly men) wrote about public women.
Professional women in the nineteenth century did not always find space to articulate their choices and often their choices were frowned upon which is reflected in the way they wrote their memoirs. One has to take into account that often the men—in journals and novels—largely spoke for the actresses rather than giving the women a forum to write or speak for themselves. Rimli Bhattacharya in her work on the nineteenth century Calcutta stage actress Binodini writes, ‘[T]here is a kind of discourse of redemption which many actresses participated (in) and which they internalized for the purposes of self worth.’5 There was a need to conflate work with a sense of dharma, a duty to work which accords value to their labour and to their talent. ‘The rich text of the actress’s dharma by which she lives and works, comprises pleasure and pride in performance’.6 Binodini’s autobiography, The Story of an Actress overwrites this text, so that at the individual level, it is only ‘the sense of sin (fullness) which remains foregrounded through redemption’. It is not surprising that in the interest of redemption, Binodini casts herself as either a patita or bhadramahila or both, and Bhattacharya points out that little or no space is accorded to ‘her sense of identity as a worker who is a woman.’7 Binodini’s memoir affirmatively reveals the experiential realm of her life as a performer but there is a lot of play. In an implicit act of gender performativity, Binodini is always apologetic about her choices.
The book interestingly sheds light on the training process of the actresses. Often the actresses were brought to the theatre from the local red light district of Calcutta. The discourse of reformation and improvement of these ‘fallen women’ was thus a key charm of the theatre initiative in the early years. The author discusses the role of mentors like Girish Ghosh, Ardhendhu Sekhar Mustafi or Amritlal Bose in transforming the lives of the actresses (from ‘fallen woman’ to someone who could portray mythic characters of nationalist resonance). Gooptu cites examples from the journal Nachghar where the debate on the need for education and reform of the actresses was seen as an integral part of the training programme. However Gooptu’s stress on the relationship between the actresses and their mentors is a bit disconcerting. She writes, ‘Their career graph often fluctuated with the personal fortunes of these men. If the supporters of the use of actresses in Bengali theatre believed that the acting profession would be the savior of all these degraded women by granting them respectability, they had miscalculated. They did not take into account the emotional factors. These women always placed love and loyalty for individuals above their careers. Some considered domesticity a better alternative than a career on stage while for others, even in their career choices, priority was always given to the patron’s wishes.’8 In this account the actresses come across as a being without agency. Their relationship with their mentors was a complex set of negotiations and compromises were never far from the corner as the material in the chapter on the scandals and the law suits point towards.
The book collates brief biographical sketches of the actresses at the end of the book. In the accounts the personal is enmeshed with the public and it reinforces the ‘auratic’ connotations of these performers’ profession. The short length of the sketches piques the reader’s curiosity about these pioneers, however, leaves you wanting for more. The poems by Tarasundari and Binodini in the appendices are powerful and showcase the creativity and talent of the actresses. The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta is a rich pool of sources for researchers and theatre enthusiasts in search of the roots of theatrical practice in Calcutta. It provides useful material through which the intimate histories of women can be written and address questions around agency and the struggle of women in the public theatre.
1 Performers Jagattarini, Golaap, Elokeshi and Shyama, p. 8.
2 Introduction xx.
3 Bidyasundar was performed at Shyambazar Theatre and actresses Radhamoni, Joy Durga and Rajkumari acted in the female roles. p. 1.
4 It is surprising that Gooptu’s bibliography has missed out Bishnupriya Dutt and Urmimala Sarkar, Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers In Search of An Identity, Sage Publication, 2010, p. 50.
5 Rimli Bhattacharya, ‘Introduction’ to Binodini Dasi’s My Story and My Life as an Actress, tr. and ed. Rimli Bhattacharya, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1998, 194.
6 Ibid. 195.
7 Ibid. 195 (emphasis mine).
8 Gooptu 83.
Sarah Rahman Niazi is a PhD candidate at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has worked on questions of identity, female stardom and performance in the Bombay film industry from 1925–47. Currently, she is working on the interactions between cinema and the Urdu public sphere.