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
 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
Ibid, pg. 251-252
[3] Ibid,
Ibid, pg. 101
For further discussion, please refer to Sharad Patil’s books- ‘caste ending
Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and its Socialist Conummation’ & ‘Caste-
Feudal Servitude’
Acting Up- Gender and Theatre in India, 1979
Onwards: A. Mangai,