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We take performing arts, creative life and women for granted in our society, says writer Veejay Sai

With his first book Drama Queens, Sai hopes to remedy the neglect our historians' neglect of our cultural history
Published Jun 21, 2017 02:36pm

In his latest book Drama Queens released this spring, writer Veejay Sai has immortalised 10 female actors of the subcontinent — women who gave us theatre and music as well as political activism in the form of art as we know it all today.

The cover of Drama Queens with a powerful quote by Farida Khanum
The cover of Drama Queens with a powerful quote by Farida Khanum

Images talks to Veejay about researching his first book and the insights he gleaned in the process.

Images: You’ve written about 10 South Asian female performers. How did you choose these particular women?

Veejay Sai: Firstly the project didn’t start off to become a book. I was randomly researching women performing artistes. Musicians, dancers, actors and so forth.

I had a great interest in the century before 1947. That century was a politically active and highly turbulent time for South Asia. The war of independence had begun, two world wars happened; finally in 1947 India and Pakistan were independent nations from several years of colonial rule. Like every place has a social and political history, it also has a cultural history. I was interested to study that. And in that see how women contributed to that.

Like for example, why are their lives any less or more important than political leaders of that era like Gandhi or Jinnah? As I went about my research, I found many untold stories. Only 10 made it to the book because once it was thought out as a book, there was a certain format to be followed.

Each chapter had to have a certain word count and certain number of images. Keeping to that format, I boiled down on these 10 women. But there are tons of stories that can be told. What you see in the book is only a small percentage of all the research material I gathered. But this itself took seven years in the making! So imagine the kind of work left for anyone who is interested to pursue further research! It is endless!

The writer Veejay Sai
The writer Veejay Sai

Images: These performers could sing, dance and act. Some were nationalists and some formed their own theatre companies. But none of them wrote plays. Why?

Veejay: That was an era where mythological and historical dramas were prevalent. Yes, all actors had to know to sing and dance and were trained in them. The scripts were of musical plays and so all actors needed to be able to sing and dance.

The playwrights of the era like Agha Hashr Kashmiri and Betab were writing in many languages. Sometimes a mix of Urdu, Sanskrit, several dialects of Hindi like Avadhi, Bhojpuri and even Persian. Some of these playwrights would translate Shakespeare’s plays into Urdu.

While we don’t have any of these women writing plays for the sake of performance, what we do have are their stories, which they wrote. Binodini dasi in Bengal serialised her autobiography in some local magazine, others like Kajjan were writing poetry.

So it wasn’t that they were all illiterate. They chose to perform over writing. Performing as a visual medium also got them more eyeballs to make their political statements when they wanted to, time to time.

Jahan Ara Kajjan
Jahan Ara Kajjan

Images: Did religion play a role in how female actresses were treated? For example those with a Parsi background like Munni Bai were treated with more respect than say Rushyendramani who was literally spat in the face?

Veejay: Religion might have surely played a role. But not much. If you see how many Muslim actresses were performing roles of Hindu goddesses. Munni Bai was born into a poor Muslim family and got into the Parsi establishment soon. I don’t think religion mattered much to any of them. Nor did it to the owners of theatre companies or to audiences. It was made to matter later.

"All along our historians have only told us the political history of our country. Our cultural history has been long neglected. My book was just one small step to write down cultural history through these life stories."

Like when a paper editor demanded a free pass for a show and he didn’t get it, he went back and wrote a nasty editorial saying how a Muslim woman (Gauhar Bano) was playing the roles of Sita and Draupadi. And this led to riots breaking out in Lahore. So these odd incidences aside, within the system, religion didn’t matter. I think they believed in keeping it as a private practice and not letting it interfere into their work.

Tara Chaudhary was the first Muslim Bharatanatyam dancer. She came from undivided Punjab and came all the way down south to Bangalore, Kerala, Madras and learnt dance. She even acted in Tamil movies. when I discovered her story I was so fascinated. I did a short feature on her for The Hindu newspaper.

Did you know she died only as late as 2012 and that too in Karachi! No one knows what happened in between, how she reached Karachi and died there after having lead such a rich artistic life! That she was a Muslim really didn’t matter to her or to her Gurus who taught her Bharatanatyam. Such are the times we live in where artistes lives, their journeys and their art seems to matter less. But these stories need to be told. That is the only way they’ll come out.

Images: How influential was the Parsi drama era in paving the way for non-Parsi performers?

Veejay: Parsi drama had a major influence on that era. Parsis were greatly enterprising. In business they pioneered in shipping, textiles and more. In every field they’ve contributed. In fact no other community has been so enterprising and yet so low-key like the Parsis have been. They had great interest in arts. If they saw a scope for business there, they invested.

The Madan Theatres was the largest of that era. So Parsis have had a major role to play. They introduced many elements to enhance the theatricality of a play. They had the money for it too. Extravagant sets, costumes, backdrops, scripts with song and dance and much more. They had really high standards.

That was the era when there was no cinema or television. Theatre was one of the prime contributors to the cultural economy. Many of these actresses were highly paid. Lived lavish and in great style. The actors were mostly non-Parsis. Many actors, Jewish by birth, kept their stage or later screen names. The Parsi community was open to all, wholeheartedly.

Images: They were wives, mothers, businesswomen like Balamani, spiritual devotees like Tara Sunder Devi and political activists like Rushyendramani. Sadly their anti-Raj activism is not commemorated anywhere today. Isn't it devastating to see their efforts go unacknowledged?

Veejay: Yes, these women were way ahead of their times. Both politically and professionally. Several of them used their art as a statement of protest against an oppressive patriarchal system. Yes, it was sad to see their contributions go unacknowledged as they were thought to be ‘people of entertainment’ with a limited value. Their political views were not considered important. Despite that, they continued to work silently and made a lot of difference. This book is a small effort to acknowledge the great contribution of some of these artistes.

Kumbakonam Balamani
Kumbakonam Balamani

The more one researches into these areas, the more fascinating it gets. All along our historians have only told us the political history of our country. Our cultural history has been long neglected. My book was just one small step to write down cultural history through these life stories.

Images: One views these ladies as feminists who decided not to be beaten down by society but almost always there is a man behind a female performer’s success – an ustad or a husband as seen in Mukhtar and Agha Hashr’s case. But Balamani and her sister went on to set up their own company which empowered other women to do the same. Yet not many did the same. What held them back?

Veejay: It is only in the case of Mukhtar you see a person like Agha Hashr. Otherwise most of the others were fiercely independent. Kajjan was mentored by her mother Suggan Bai who was a well known tawaif of her times. Balamani was a superstar, far bigger than anyone else can imagine now. She set example for many to do the same.

"I don’t think religion mattered much to the actors, theatre owners or audiences. It was made to matter later. Like when a paper editor demanded a free pass for a show and didn’t get it, he went back and wrote a nasty editorial saying how a Muslim woman (Gauhar Bano) was playing the roles of Sita and Draupadi. And this led to riots breaking out in Lahore. So these odd incidences aside, I think they believed in keeping religion private and not letting it interfere into their work."

Bachchasani in Karnataka, who is mentioned in the book, established an all women’s drama troupe. Decades later Bangalore Nagaratnamma, again in the book, who was famous for donning male roles on stage had an all women's drama company. Empowered women artistes empowered other women. In that sense they were certainly very feminist and way ahead of their times.

Images: In spite of being looked down upon, these ladies went on to marry, have children and lead successful careers, some even attaining such heights of success consisting of riches and palatial homes. Is it not a huge loss then that theatre is still frowned upon, singing and dancing seen as immoral and most importantly so many of these ladies are completely forgotten?

Veejay: This comes from a premise that women who entertained via their art forms were of a loose character. Yet another construct of patriarchy. A successful, woman achiever can easily be bogged down by questioning her morals and her character. This led a lot of them to succumb to the pressures of the society around. Many took to marriage and gave up their active careers. Many others didn’t.

All performing arts were frowned upon at one time. Music, dance, drama, later even cinema was also looked down upon by genteel society. But that didn’t stop any of these artistes from pursuing their passion. They lived for their art. Not for the society.

Tarasunder Devi
Tarasunder Devi

I don’t know how it is outside, but here in India we have some of the finest actors who have come from theatre background. Several leading actresses like Shaukat Kaifi, Dina Pathak, Zohra Segal and many more came from years of experience in theatre. The progressive IPTA movement encouraged a lot of women actors.

Yes, it is a pity that many of the earliest stars have been forgotten. For example we only know of Madame Noorjehan as a singer. Prior to that she grew up in Calcutta amidst drama companies. How come we have lost out on that history? We basically take performing arts, arts history, artistes’ lives and especially women for granted in our society. We also have the problem of excess and documentation becomes extremely difficult and challenging.

Images: Quite a few went on to retire from acting, preferring to focus more on dancing and singing. Why is that?

Veejay: It was considered ‘respectable’ to be having a family and settling down. So many of these artistes gave up. The burden of the cross of taboo on their shoulders all their professional acting life must have also weighed heavy.

Once again, all this comes from a premise that the profession was ‘dirty’ and only certain kind of women, who came from traditional backgrounds of performance practitioners, like tawaifs, baijis, jaans and so forth took to it. They were compared to prostitutes, even if they really didn’t indulge in any of that. Singing and dancing was still okay. But acting in front of so many people, and in public was looked down upon.

Despite all these social pressures to give up, many women who came from aristocratic families also pursued their passion for acting. Durga Khote was one of the pioneers.

Images: You document the socio-political history of Manipur and the impact it had on performers like Thambal. What do you feel conducted the most damage to the performing arts – colonisation, WW2 or Partition and how?

Veejay: Manipur has a fascinating social, political and cultural history. It was bombed in the WW2. It became a ghost town overnight. Thousands of lives and so much property was lost. In all the political mess, to see what was happening to artistes was heart wrenching.

Thambal was only one person I managed to write about. Luckily I tracked her house down and met her family members. They had preserved some of her last images in their family albums. In my research I found women artistes before her, who I was told were great actors, of whom today only blurry images remain in the dilapidated buildings of the MDA Manipuri Dramatic Association. We don’t know how their lives were before the war. No trace of any documentation exists.

War-ridden Manipur still picked up and moved ahead keeping that pain in the heart. I met some of the actors who were in their nineties, they told me their stories of war and courage. One actress Randhoni Devi whose image is in the book told me how she fled with a copy of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala and her make-up kit and saw her house come down in flames behind her. She had to start life all over again. All that would make for another book by itself. The politics of every era always affects the arts and lives of artistes indirectly. One wishes arts and politics could be kept apart strictly. But that is only a utopian thought.