Feminist Review

, Volume 84, Issue 1, pp 155–157 | Cite as

staging resistance: plays by women in translation

  • Aparna Dharwadker
Book Review

Tutun Mukherjee (editor); Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. x+551, ISBN 019 567008 6, £21.99 (Hbk)

The near-invisibility of women playwrights in modern Indian drama presents a striking contrast not only to the prominence of female authors in print genres such as fiction, poetry, and non-fictional prose, but also to the increasing success of women as actresses and directors in the post-independence decades. During the colonial period, men dominated the activities of playwriting, acting, play-production, and theatre management to such an extent that women were more or less marginal in all these spheres. However, since the 1940s, actresses such as Tripti Mitra, Sova Sen, Sulabha Deshpande, Sudha Shivpuri, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Baokar, Rohini Hattangady, and Sunila Pradhan have set the standards for theatrical performance in the same measure that directors such as Shanta Gandhi, Vijaya Mehta, Joy Michael, Usha Ganguli, Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, and Amal Allana have influenced and reshaped the artistic process of realizing playscripts on the stage. The energetic presence of women in the theatre, however, has not redressed the problem of their absence from the print medium. Mahasweta Devi's theatrical adaptations of her own Bengali short stories make up the only available collection of plays in English translation by an Indian woman playwright (Five Plays, Seagull, 1997), augmenting a handful of individual titles by Shanta Gokhale, Dina Mehta, and Manjula Padmanabhan, among others. The imbalance of gender continues in recent anthologies: again, Mahasweta Devi's The Mother of 1084 is the only play by a woman author in G.P. Deshpande's Modern Indian Drama: An Anthology (Sahitya Akademi, 2000), while Chandrashekhar Kambar's Modern Indian Plays (National School of Drama, 2000) excludes women altogether. Only Erin Mee's DramaContemporary: India (PAJ Books, 2001) establishes a bolder equation by including two women authors (Usha Ganguli and Tripurari Sharma) among the six playwrights featured in her selection.

In this context, Staging Resistance, which brings together 18 plays by modern Indian women playwrights in English translation for the first time, is a self-evidently groundbreaking collection. In her ‘Prolegomenon to Women's Theatre', the editor Tutun Mukherjee offers a series of general and specific, artistic and circumstantial explanations for the problematic relation of women to drama and theatre in both eastern and western cultures. ‘Drama and theatre are two … cultural products,’ she argues, ‘in which the bias of gender generics and sexual difference are in evidence as social and psychic reality. Placing the forms within the discourse of ‘gender as genre’ reveals the way [the] sex-gender system operates in the art and practice of drama and theatre and controls their cultural reproduction’ (p. 4). Unlike the autonomy and comforting privacy of print, the public, performative, collaborative, and materially demanding medium of theatre places women at a distinct disadvantage, especially in India, where the vast majority of them are still circumscribed within the domestic sphere. However, while acknowledging the virtual absence of women from ‘the documented history of modern Indian theatre as a cultural process and drama as a literary genre’ (p. 7), Mukherjee also recognizes new strides in women's theatre since the 1970s. The purpose of her collection, therefore, is ‘to explore the imbrication of gender in the history of Indian theatre … [and] to explore the relationship between theatre, society, and gender’ (p. 16).

The wide-ranging nature of the anthology in terms of chronology, language, and genre supports these claims. The oldest author in the collection, Rabindranath Tagore's sister Swarnakumari Devi, was born in 1855; the youngest authors, such as Vinodini and Jameela Nishat, were probably born in the 1960s (the headnotes on them do not offer this information). The 18 plays represent 10 important Indian languages from across the country: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Although Mukherjee describes the idea of ‘resistance’ as the common thematic in her selection, an interesting diversity emerges at the level of form and content. The plays by Varsha Adalja, Catherine Thankamma, C.S. Lakshmi, and V. Padma draw on figures from Indian myth, such as Sita, Mandodari, Ravana, and Mahabali from the Ramayana, and Amba from the Mahabharata. Nabaneeta Dev Sen's Medea reworks the well-known Greek myth into a surreal portrait of a failed marriage in contemporary Bengal, while Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry's Fida reworks Racine's Phaedra as Punjabi verse tragedy, and Manjit Pal's Sundran rewrites the Punjabi legend of Puran Bhagat to focus on his abandoned eponymous lover. Tripurari Sharma's A Tale from the Year 1857 is set against the Mutiny, a turning point in colonial history. In a radical shift of focus to the present, several plays in the realist mode (including Swarnakumari Devi's The Wedding Tangle, Kusum Kumar's Listen Shefali, Malatibai Bedekar's Prey, Muktabai Dikshit's Gamble, and Jameela Nishat's Purdah) deal with the social problems particular to their time, from dowry, widow-remarriage, and bigamy to the exploitation of women in the home, untouchability, and the male control over women's bodies. Among the most innovative plays in the volume are Usha Ganguli's The Journey Within, a monologue that interweaves autobiography with characters from her own plays, and Volga's The Six of Them, which dramatizes six female characters taken from the fiction of the male Telugu writer Chalam.

In a collection that offers such a range of material and makes several extraordinary plays available in English for the first time, it is reasonable to expect that the editorial machinery would chart key historical developments, forge connections across languages and social groups, and create a uniform body of knowledge about the authors. Mukherjee's ‘Prolegomenon’ is theoretically ambitious and consciously international in its consideration of feminism and gender. The remainder of the volume, however, is divided into 10 sections corresponding to theatre in specific languages: between the expansive globalism of the opening discussion and the restrictive regionalism of the rest, the intervening space of national, translingual connections is ignored completely. Each section contains a quick historical overview of modern theatre in that language and the place of women in it, followed by short, inconsistent headnotes that often omit even the basic dates for authors and works. There are no lists of dramatic personae preceding the plays, and no substantial information about staging. Some of Mukherjee's editorial decisions are also questionable. Usha Ganguli practices theatre primarily in Hindi, but is grouped with the Bengali playwrights because she is based in Calcutta (Kolkata), where Bengali is the majority language. The attribution of Fida to Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry is problematic, because the Punjabi poet Surjit Patar adapted this Racine play in 1997, and Chowdhry was its director. However, Patar is not acknowledged anywhere in relation to the play, even as a collaborator. These editorial lapses do not override the significance of Mukherjee's collection for readers, scholars, and theatre enthusiasts. However, if editorial practices were more rigorous when such valuable material is presented to a national and international readership, especially under so prestigious an imprint as Oxford University Press, the final product would be immeasurably more satisfying.

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© Feminist Review Ltd 2006

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  • Aparna Dharwadker

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