This book explores the shifting identity of the female performer in India, starting from the late 19th century to the early years of independence, through the study of autobiographies and memoirs. It attempts to make visible the actress figure by entering the history of performance, guided by the voice of the female performer. The discussion on performing woman in this book spans across the performing traditions of the tawaif, actresses in public theatre, early Indian film actresses, and actresses in the Indian People's Theatre and the Prithvi Theatre.
Sheetala Bhat is an actress and a writer from Sirsi, a small town in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. She holds an MA in English Literature from Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University, Manipal. She worked with Chintana repertory, exploring the possibilities of theatre In education in government schools in Karnataka. She writes short stories and poetry in Kannada. Being a reclusive reader and an enthusiastic actress, she often finds herself rummaging and weaving in between the fields of theatre and Indian literature, with an emphasis on the gender concerns in these areas. Performing Self, Performing Gender: Reading the Lives of Women Performers in Colonial India is her first book.
Sulochana, a Eurasian actress, had become a "craze" in India, around the year 1925 to 1940, marking the time when European actresses were ruling the stage and the screen. On receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke award in 1976, four decades after her career ended, these were the only words that Sulochana was reported to have said about her acting career: "I remember nothing: I cannot, I should not.
The actress who made more than 50 films, and received a salary of four digits, which was said to be more than the salary of the then Governor of Bombay, at a time when most of the popular male actors got only a few rupees, refuses to remember her life as an actress after four decades. We can find many examples of female professionals in the field of theatre and film such as Sulochana, who after a period of popularity in their career went into oblivion.' This is not just reflective of the paradoxical nature of the identity of Sulochana, which entailed highest fame and disrespect at the same time, but also of the failure to recognize the importance of individual female performers as artists, and independent workers. As much as she was the epitome of success, downfall was seen to be an eventuality of such a career. For reasons that contain the complexity of the position of the actress in Indian society, this was the location where many socio-cultural forces were at work. I found a reluctance to talk about one's actress identity very palpable as I started facing troubles in finding autobiographical materials by performing women of colonial India. Even in the available material, one needs to read between the lines to hear the voice of the performer-self, as most of the discussions are embedded in the rhetoric of morality, which is nonetheless unavoidable. While reading the autobiographies of women performers, it is crucial to understand that the "telling of lives is caught up in a tension between the desire to tell the truth, and an equally intense desire to regulate it." An understanding of the category of performing woman through their words and silences needs to be concertized in particular historical conjunctures. Because of the nature of the subject position of the actress, the category of the woman performer has been in constant flux.
It needs to be said here, that the performing woman is spoken about as a discursive category, and discourse has been understood along the lines of Miguel A Cabera's definition, as a "social phenomena," "in the basic sense that it gestates and transforms within social practice." The construction of the category' of the performing woman, taking into account the multiplicity of this identity, is seen through the historical developments of the socio-political world, on the one hand, and in conjunction with embodied experience of individual performers, on the other.
The attempt is to explore the shifting identity of the female performer in India, starting from the late 19th century to the early years of independence, through the study of their autobiographies and memoirs. This book is largely invested in the nationalistic era, which marks the crucial points of the multi-dimensional and transforming subject position of the female performer, in quick successions. This is owing to the proliferation of discourses on women who were brought to the centre in the nationalistic rhetoric, and to the massive changes brought about by the socio-political situation of the times, in the everyday lives of women. The present study deals with performing woman in the nationalistic era in great detail. Nationalism hence becomes a pivotal point in tracing the different facets of the female performer in history.
The individual performer is often invisible in the scholarships on gender and performance where the social and political scenario of that time takes precedence. Talking about the questions that fictional works based on stage actresses raise, Bhatia notes, theatre came to be caught up in the nexus of social and nationalist ideologies, which marginalised the identity of the stage actress as an artist and as an independent worker." To retrieve the identity of women performers, it is important to revisit the history of performance, guided by the voice of these performers. This book focuses on the different ways in which these women frame their performing selves. Life histories, which have been neglected in South Asian scholarship, play a significant role in bringing forth the women performers, who otherwise remain carriers of meanings inscribed on them by the dominant discourses of that time? As David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn note, life histories "reveal emotional and social realities that otherwise elude identification and explanation."? Various aspects that the actress wishes to reveal or emphasize, and the way she presents the realities of her life and time, are more pertinent to this project than the historical veracities. In all its fragmentariness, this book thus presents a study of women performers' identity in colonial India.
The discussion on performing woman in this book spans across the performing traditions of the tawaif, actresses in public theatre, early Indian film actresses, and actresses in the Indian People's Theatre and the Prithvi Theatre. The attempt here, is to study in parallel the women performers in the tawaif tradition, those of modern theatre." and the ones that belonged to early cinema. Each of these performing figures search for identity has been moulded by the history of women's position in the other performance traditions, or fields of performance. This book moves between different categories of women performers, who have influenced, dominated, borrowed from each other; the negotiations being in touch with the dominant discourses and socio-political realities of the time. They have been studied separately in the existing scholarship. However, I argue that it is possible to see continuities in their stories, when they are placed alongside each other. There are ruptures and missing links too, which nonetheless illuminate different possibilities of reading them.
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