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Acts of defiance

Zia Mohyeddin |

For over 2,000 years India’s dramatic output remained an all-male affair. It was only in the latter half of the 19th century that, because of the untiring efforts of some courageous men and women who defied the prevalent moral code, it became possible for women to appear on stage in dramas. Veejay Sai’s book, Drama Queens: Women Who Created History on Stage, deals with the lives of 10 of the most conspicuous women who achieved great prominence as stage artists in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century. Their wonderful life stories are woven into the social-cultural milieu of their times.

Sai’s research is awe-inspiring. He has also managed to collect some rare and precious photographs of many of the forgotten thespians (male and female). I was delighted to see one of my favourite classical singers, Hirabai Barodekar, decked up as an ingénue in a Marathi play called Sanshay Kallol. She and her brother, Suresh Babu Mane, often acted as a romantic pair in the Marathi theatre of the early 1920s.

Unbeknown to many people, Barodekar was the daughter of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of the Kairana gharana. He had forged a niche in Baroda around 1890. The Maharaja of Baroda, called the Gaekwad, was much impressed with Khan’s musical ability and engaged him as a teacher in the music school he had established in Baroda. The daughter of a Sardar in the Maharaja’s court, Tarabai was one of Khan’s pupils and a gifted student. When Khan was asked by the Maharaja to prepare a proper course for the students, he sought Tarabai’s help. Her admiration and respect for him gradually intensified into love.

“The love affair of a Hindu girl with a Muslim ustad was the last straw the Baroda royals needed in their court,” writes Sai. The star-crossed lovers, along with Khan’s brother, slipped out of the palace and took a train to Bombay (Mumbai). This was in 1898. They decided to stay together much against everyone’s wishes, creating one of the earliest and biggest scandals in the history of Hindustani music. They remained in a relationship for a whole year before they were married. Tarabai, now converted, took on the name of Tahira Bibi. The couple had seven children of which five survived — two sons and three daughters. The sons were named Abdul Rahim and Abdul Hamid; the daughters were named Champakali, Gulab and Sakina.

After nearly 20 years of married life, Khan became enamoured of another on of his disciples, Bammabai Latkan, and decided to marry her. He left Tahira Bibi and his children and moved to Pune where he set up another school of music. Betrayed and abandoned, Tahira Bibi moved out of her home and, with five children in tow, began a new life in Bombay. She made a complete break from her past and adopted her maiden name, Mane, for her sons and Barodekar for her daughters. Abdul Rahim became Suresh Babu Mane and Champakali, the eldest daughter, became Hirabai Barodekar.

Barodekar was now trained by another ustad from the Kairana gharana. She also learned to dance and with her comely looks and rich, contralto voice, was soon picked up to act in Marathi plays. Her fame spread and she was offered leading roles on the big screen as well. She toured the country giving concerts with her brother and harmonium accompanist, Mane. Over the years she made nearly 200 recordings for various recording companies.

She was given the title of Star Broadcaster by All India Radio. After 20 years of acting jobs she gave it all up to concentrate on her classical singing. At home we had at least 20 of her HMV recordings and I well remember that, in 1943, I was mesmerised when I heard her rendition of the raga Maru Bihag on All India Radio, Bombay. The nine other divas that Sai has written about are Kumbakonam Balamani (Tamil theatre), Tara Sundari Devi (Bengali theatre), Munni Bai (Parsi theatre), Malavalli Sundaramma (Kannada theatre), Jahanara Kajjan (Parsi theatre), Moti Bai (Gujrati theatre), Rushyendramani (Telugu theatre), Thambalangoubi Debi (Manipuri theatre) and Mukhtar Begum (Parsi theatre). Parsi theatre, as most of my readers know, meant Urdu drama . Mukhtar Begum — like our own Noor Jehan —could not in all honesty be called a dancer. The rest of them were all actresses who were accomplished dancers and singers.

In Pakistan people know only of Mukhtar Begum. In musical circles she is remembered as the elder sister of our refined ghazal singer, Farida Khanum; the literary circles know her as the paramour of Agha Hashr, who was called the Indian Shakespeare. Saadat Hasan Manto, in his profile of Hashr, tells us that in his youth he, along with his companion, went to pay his respects to Hashr at Mukhtar Begum’s salon in Amritsar. During his meeting he became bold enough to request Hashr to recite some portions of his play, Rustom-oSohrab. Hashr refused to do so, but then the gorgeous Mukhtar Begum  entered the room and heard of Manto’srequest, she commanded him to recite and Hashr, like a good boy, did. Manto came away with the impression that Hashr was head over heels in love with Mukhtar Begum.

Mukhtar Begum’s singing was more famous than many of her contemporaries as she could manage classical ragas (she had been trained by the likes of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, doyen of the Patiala gharana) thumri, dadra and ghazals as easily as she could sing songs for the characters she played on stage. With Hashr’s support she climbed newer heights.She was a singer, an actress and a queen of style as well. Offstage she could be seen in expensive saris, sporting fancy handbags and silver footwear. In the 1930s, she was a trendsetter. Sai tells us that at the peak of her career, she (like a Hollywood star of the same period) once kept the entire unit of director A.J. Kardar waiting for over an hour and when the master technician Krishna Gopal went to the green room to call her to complete the shoot, he saw Hashr lying on the floor reading dialogue to her as she was busy putting her makeup on. Hashr said to Gopal, “Look at her trying to add beauty to her face, as if anyone is going to see her when they have my lines to listen to.” At this Mukhtar Begum got up and immediatelyput her heeled foot on his chest and said, “Look at the Shakespeare of India. Here he lies humbled under the heel of the great Mukhtar Begum.”

The taboo about women’s presence on stage was not confined to India alone. In England, which had a very robust tradition of theatre, the Catholic Church  would not allow women to be part of it. It was not till the 16th century that women first made their appearance in England and that too in masques (a musical entertainment without dialogue) that were permitted in the royal palaces. William Shakespeare’s Juliets, Cleopatras, Ophelias, Desdemonas and Kates were all played by boy-actors. Likewise in India, female impersonators (even after they had begun to shave) played women’s parts. Some of them continued to do so long after women had made their entrance. Many playgoers preferred this practice.

In his foreword, eminent playwright and director Girish Karnad tells us that in the first chapter of Natya Shastra, the oldest surviving text on dramaturgy, Brahma entrusted the sage Bharata with the task of the creation of the Art of Drama in the universe and asked him to proceed with this command: “You have a hundred sons whom you can use.” Not much later when a demand arose for some graceful movements and gestures, Brahma created from his mind apsaras – celestial maidens wearing beautiful costumes, capable of beautiful music.

Hence, as Karnad rightly observes,“The two statements spell out unambiguously the politics of gender as it has underlined our theatre history from the start. The display of the erotic was considered a prerogative of a specially created class of ‘professional women.’ Bharata’s daughters were evidently not welcome to take part in the process.” The first ‘queen’ in the book is the incomparable Kumbakonam Balamani for whom poets wrote panegyrics and painters craved to paint her portrait. She was the Tamil drama queen. Special trains in her name took audiences to venues where she performed.

Balamani was a devadasi [a hereditary female dancer in a Hindu temple] who had learned to act and sing in Sanskrit, a language long since vanished. Sai quotes French novelist and travel writer Pierre Loti, who had an audience with her in 1898, “The bayadère (the French word for a devadasi) comported herself with so much reserve and dignity, indeed, that I saluted her just as I would have done any lady of position. She offered me her hand with an easy and assured grace. Her proposal, she informed me, was to revive the whole of the ancient Sanskrit plays and she professed much flattered when I said that I would speak to my friends in France.” In addition to performing Sanskrit dramas, Balamani was the first woman to take up social themes in Tamil theatre. She was also the first woman to set up a drama company of her own made up entirely of women artists. Bengali theatre was one of the first to enlist women performers on stage.

Many of them came from the families of those who are called ‘fallen women.’ Tara Sundari Devi was a unique example of someone belonging to this background who joined a theatre company at the age of six. She was trained to sing and dance and obviously to read and write. Her histrionic ability surprised everyone. With passing years she became a highly accomplished actress. Sai records that in the eyes of the cognoscenti of Bengal, she could be compared with Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. She was dubbed the greatest tragedienne of the Bengali stage. Sai writes, “Within a few years after Independence, Tara was forgotten even to theatre historians.”

The earliest female entrants to the stage in Urdu drama took on stage names such as Miss Bijli, Miss Putli and Miss Kamli. Their work was designed merely to titillate a male audience. Within a few years, however, they had learned to speak their lines and became regular members of a theatre company. In explaining the lives of the 10 ‘drama queens,’ Sai has enclosed the entire history of the dramatic movement in India over a period of 150 years. It is a thoroughly documented work and Sai has told the heart-rending stories of the 10 queens without sentimentalisation. It is a commendable work.