Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity


Bishnupriya Dutt & Urmimala Sarkar Munsi

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    For Aditya, Manasi, Namrata, Noel, Ahvana and Debashish

    List of Photographs


    Performance Studies in India have come to a stage where there is a need to make more micro-level studies of artiste-performers, forms, movements, techniques, practices and traditions in their local-regional-cultural contexts. Macro-level generalizations have too often erased those rich particularities that actually create the meaning that is shared by the performer and his/her community. An outsider with the best intentions too often falls back upon methodologies and readings that evolved in investigations in entirely different cultures; in the process they tend to depend on informants who take their mediatorial obligations more seriously than demands of in-depth knowledge and objectivity. A Western readership is generally more interested in a generalization about the Indian performative experience and the Indian commentator addressing that readership falls into that trap, and before he/she knows, turns into the glib informant of the foreign reader/investigator. Publishers, too, feel safe with such works with the assurance of a safe, readily identifiable readership.

    Engendering Performance, in its very fragmentariness, offers an alternative mode of scholarship. Bishnupriya Dutt, a scholar with a background as an actress-director of politically radical and non-commercial theatre, and Urmimala Sarkar Munsi, an anthropologist, choreographer, and dance scholar, together offer a collection of micro-level studies on rather short histories of tendencies and movements in Indian theatre and dance. They also identify some of the problems that come to be defined in the process, with the women performer in the center. Close readings of the archival material, field surveys, and extensive interviews have brought up a substantial body of new information and fresh insights that already suggest a continuity that needs to be scripted theoretically at the next stage. Meanwhile, the present text as it stands should spawn new works that could read and explore hidden links. The authors have wisely refrained from tying together a grand history of Indian women performers and have created a unique space for further research towards that goal.



    This book takes you on a journey of revisiting history and contemporary practice. We have tried to focus on key areas of performance history and practice to make interventions and create ruptures. The critique could actually apply to other areas of Indian theatre and dance history; the paradigms applied to certain focus areas are actually all pervasive. The critique came up while creating a critical history and designing a curriculum for the study of the performing arts. We hope the reader will look at the critical framework and feminist reading as crucial entry points in revisiting performing art history, theory and practice.

    The establishment of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in the year 2000 is the reason for the work. The need to look critically at history and trends to create a historiography with theoretical links was the principal objective. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) gave its full support and encouragement to develop a new discourse around the arts. We are allowed to develop courses relevant to our research focus. We would like to extend our thanks to those who played an important role in setting up the much-needed department for the study of arts in India, ex-and present Vice Chancellor, Professor Ashish Dutta, Professor B.B. Bhattacharya, Professor Aswini Ray, and our ex-Dean, Professor Anil Bhatti.

    We would like to thank the Charles Wallace India Trust for sponsoring our short stay in the UK in 2008 to look at the archives of English actresses.

    We are grateful to our students at the School of Arts and Aesthetics (SAA), who patiently listened to our ideas, asked questions, and often critiqued our positions. Their enthusiasm and joie de vivre helped us balance our positions as well look at each topic with the potential of multifarious approaches. Professor Shivaprakash and Dr Soumyabrat Choudhury, coming from two different perspectives, supported our critical thought processes with unlimited indulgence and advice.

    The greatest intellectual support has been provided by the two most important theatre historians and scholars of India. To Samik Bandyopadhyay, we owe a great deal. His tutoring and mentoring started a long time ago. Extremely generous with his resources, he has always encouraged us to affirm our positions without compromise. He has guided us through the development of complex thought processes and ideas related to theatre historiography and theoretical abstraction. Rustom Bharucha has always encouraged us and spared us time to critically analyze our ideas and arguments.

    We are deeply indebted to our families. Our parents have been our greatest source of inspiration; their work in political and cultural spheres has influenced us the most. Their studies and work in modern Bengali cultural politics and strongly held (though controversial) views have prompted us to further their critical ideas and ideology through our work. We thank our present family-Aditya, Manasi, Namrata, Noel, Ahvana, and Debashish-for their support and encouragement. Through their selfless love and belief in us, they gave us strength to do the kind of work in which we greatly believed, and to the cause for which our families, past and present, have dedicated their lives.


    The intention behind writing and stringing together a number of essays discussing several aspects of the actress and women dancer stories stemmed from the necessity to address ‘missing links’ in these stories, while looking at the actress and woman dancer as framed by the fragmented narratives already present in the various references. There was also the need to connect different trajectories of research on the said area, not necessarily to create an uninterrupted narrative, but to work toward a comprehensive critical history of the presence of women in Indian theatre and dance during the colonial and post-colonial periods. While the performance-story required continuity, some aspects gave the narrative a new direction, creating an overall critical framework. In the course of the research, the actress-dancer-performer emerged as the key central figure that challenged the simple historical narratives. The subjects demanded gender-sensitized research. The major critical entry point in the study of the actress-dancer story, instead of narrowing the focus, manages to broaden out to be inclusive and far more comprehensive than envisaged. In trying to balance a historical narrative with isolated emphasis on crucial individual topics, the book explores the crucial theme of identity and body politics, moving towards an ideological critique. It demands a pluralistic approach combining history, economics, cultural studies, popular culture, anthropology, ethnography, and feminist criticism. The central question it raises is: Despite her ambivalent positions, what roles did the actress-dancer-performer play in shaping the colonial and subsequently the nation's culture?

    In its historical, social, and cultural contexts, the project tries to analyze the crucial though problematic area of performance, which has never been the premise of any of the aforementioned disciplines. The actress's and woman dancer's performance styles, vocabulary, and language reveal a startling commonality and deliberate differences when closely monitored through hegemonic means, negotiated with European colonial paradigms, and its legacies while shaping new canons and interventions. The book will try to reconstruct the actual performative language to explore the meanings of the performative gestures, the aesthetic historical codes and vocabularies, which remain hidden and ignored; a methodological approach taking the study out of the premises of all the conventional discipline boundaries, however, interacting with each of them.

    The book intends to use the rupture between the dancer and the actress within the colonial context as its starting point. The construction of the identity of an ‘actress’ mapped out a hierarchical system within a strictly graded category from which no performer could be excluded. To look at the dancer and actress histories together, as well as in a parallel, in that sense, is critiquing the colonial knowledge system and its arbitrary genre separations. Drawing on the overall historical construct, both the dancer and actress historically follow independent courses, yet with pertinent contact points and commonality of issues. To exclude the marginalized performer would be to deny the gradations and the hegemonic cultural structures emerging out of colonial discourses. Hence, the seemingly divergent subject areas and performers actually come together to construct a coherent history of performance politics, social identity and the marginalized. The marginal, small performances and their shifts challenge the binaries of dramatic texts (the actress domain) vis-à-vis the body text (the dancer domain). The contact points come mainly through the social identity issue and only through such a strategy a meaningful social cultural history can be constructed. The intention is to create the crucial shift from a rigidly quantitative, mostly biographical, and often anti-theoretical position of such area studies into contemporary paradigms, which links dance, theatre, and performance with intellectual traditions and theoretical perspectives.

    Inherent in a historiography of texts is male dominance to the point of exclusion of the feminine presence. Connected to it is the construction of the dichotomy between the voice and the body with the male actor being the voice, and the actress verging on the margins. In case of the dancer, the inherent uneasy relationship with her body–the principal tool–overshadows any contemporary need to engage with it directly. The dependence on text remains, therefore, a historiography overwhelmed by the language, voice and male stars is studied, which takes the actress and dancer to the point of exclusion, whose ‘body’ is discredited yet not so easily discarded. The woman performer is coerced into becoming the supplementary voice to the male star at the cost of catharsizing her body. Yet her body is transformed into the object of commodification. The social tension as a result of the dancer and the actress being made to part ways with each other, and positioning the actress vis-à-vis the nautch girl syndrome remains a contentious issue and comes up at various turns of cultural-historical discourses. The rules, norms, and canons formed to shape the issues of propriety, modesty, and respectability translated into the premises of the controversial body versus the voice-textual canons within the colonial and post-colonial Indian performance context is what the book intends to explore and probe.

    The book is divided into two sections; the first is about the actress, and the second is about the woman dancer. Linked by the common trajectory of having been a part of the same history, society, and culture, they emerge as performers who evolved in different ways as they encountered some common and many unique situations.

    The first section, ‘The Story of the Actress’, deals with issues related to the colonial and post-colonial history of the actress and her world. The first chapter, Actresses of the Colonial Space: English Actresses in India (1789—1842), looks at English actresses who are regarded as pioneers of the Indian theatrical culture and the entertainment space against which they were presented. This history has emphasized the concepts of space and the actresses, and the essay takes these two key precincts to look at the coming of theatre in India. Within the new geography of the colonial city, the actresses played out their roles as femme fatales of the larger theatricality of the colonial self-exhibitory space. Their history is one of a socio-cultural lifestyle imbibed in the club culture, balls, outdoor and indoor entertainment, and the theatre. Hence, hidden in that history of what they called ‘fun, games, and hobbies’ lie their real stories. The actress’ presence within the new urban topography semiotically constructed a vocabulary of a colonial gender discourse. In the project of Orientalism, the colonial actresses would contribute to the stereotypes and embodiment of a hegemonic system. The essay tries to go beyond the valorization of theatre space, and the roles the actresses played to a more sociological analysis within the larger history and the entertainer's role. The regular newspaper with (drama) news, and reviews is the vital contact point of the actress and the outsider who also is an insider, in more than one sense.

    The second chapter, Locating a New Space and Identity: Coming of the Indian Actresses (1872–1910), looks at the first generation of Indian actresses and their role in shaping the new public sphere within the historical framework of the actress-prostitute debate, centering on issues of morality, respectability, and the nation. Often representing the patriarchical voice and echoing its text, their very presence created an ambivalent position. Without even trying to see it as an intervention, their very presence at the center of the discourses creates a need to look at gender representation and its replication on the public stage. The reality of their presence disturbs simplistic binaries of historical constructions. Though they had no say in the theatre-making process, the actresses are given the sole responsibility of translating the key texts of domestic conjugality, portrayal of the Hindu nation and wife, and the nationalist iconography into a real presence. Theatre journals originating with the theatre and its public face are closely analyzed to reveal far more violent negotiations between the theatre industry, its male stars and patriarchs, the actress protégés, and reader audience participation. The insider in this case posits himself as the outsider-insider mediator. It paves the way for an actress-gender discourse, which affects a number of crucial colonial-nationalist issues.

    The third chapter, The People's Actress: A Journey to Modernity, explores a very crucial phase of Indian cultural history, and traces the transition from a colonial to a post-colonial modernism. The career trajectory of the actresses of the age begins with the political cultural movement of the Indian People's Theatre Association, through the political turmoil of independence and famine, to a post-Independence scenario of a self-nomenclature of the ‘group theatre’ or a progressive amateur theatre movement. The actresses contribute toward its meticulous construction, while embodying a new role for the Indian women, both on stage and outside. The respectability issue had reached an acceptable point in the public mindset. Constantly negotiating with colonial-Orientalist gender roles and codes, Tagore's texts, at a very crucial time in their careers allow them to portray a new subversive femininity while enhancing an aura of middle class respectability. The essay tries to compare and contrast their portrayal in light of the Viswabharati style where Tagore himself is present in the play-making process, and analyze within the larger perspective of post-Independence modernity, the visions of a new nation and its representation of women.

    The contemporary actress scenario is represented in the fourth chapter, Actresses in the Jatra Space. The jatra in that sense links the past to its present through the continuity of its cultural capital and the actress being seen as a commodity in context of the high profit motive. The romanticism, which accompanies the jatra as a folk form is repudiated in the focus on the actress. The jatra, as a genre, emerges as the most ruthless professional theatre set up in that context. The Divas of the jatra or those whose names and visuals are circulated, with the overdressed, over-made-up faces, have become mnemonics of the jatra system, both in its exploitation and commodification of the actress. On the other hand, the jatra space has allowed the actress to demand highly lucrative commercial contracts and exist as a professional, probably for the first time in Indian theatre history and particularly, in contrast to the impoverished group theatre and its ‘respectable’ actresses. Supporting the Divas, the actress population of the jatra industry is a considerable number with a strong hierarchical system which places all of them, including the Divas, at specific levels of a non-negotiable graded hierarchy. The essay assesses salaries, data related to economics, as well as, social issues of identity. The problems of the actress, the exploitative work space, the social stigma as a historical problem culminate in the contemporary jatra.

    The second section, ‘Of The Woman Dancer’, begins with the fifth chapter, Natyasastra: Emerging (Gender) Codes and the Woman Dancer. A critical and analytical study of the Natyasastra, the treatise on Indian performance, throws light on a range of guidelines for the actors—male as well as female. The essay is an investigation of those clearly drawn images of the different characters in performance, extracted from the existing socio-political world of the time. The analysis is based on the assumption that this book, described as the fifth Veda, was accessible to women performers and the lower caste groups, unlike the other Vedas, and was used as an incomparable rule book for building and maintaining gender norms in society. The essay would go on to analyze how those rules informed and shaped post-colonial cultural practices, building and reshaping the norms and values attached to gender orientation in dance in contemporary India.

    The sixth chapter, The Body and the Woman Dancer: What She is, or What She is Expected to be, deals with the concerns of the dancer and her body. A body in performance creates and upholds several unwritten rules of the social milieu it is born in. The do's and don'ts of body language are not born in the dancing world, but are reflections of normative attitudes towards the body in a particular society. The body itself has been seen as the lived-in book of experiences, which constantly translates in performances in daily lives—as enacted roles, as goal-oriented behaviour or achievement or as stylized performance in art practice of any form. The book, therefore, becomes written, over-written and re-written as the experiences constantly incorporate new images built along on-going negotiations with the process of living. Hence, develop the change in the vocabulary, and the non-static evolving process of performance. The essay is a socio-historical reconstruction of the changing notions of the body in Indian dance, starting with the colonial construct of the body of a dancer, looking at the Victorian value judgement of the colonizers, whose attitude actually shaped the whole anti-nautch movement on the ground of moral issues raised about Indian dancing women.

    The seventh chapter, Emergence of the Contemporary Woman Dancer: Contribution of Tagore, Shankar, and IPTA deals with the contributions of Uday Shankar, Rabindranath Tagore, and the IPTA towards Indian dance, which remains largely unacknowledged. The post-Independence cultural policies and the clear recognition of two categories of dance forms—folk and classical—pushed Uday's effort at creating a third alternative—the contemporary language of Indian dance—more or less to the back seat. To this day he remains a greatly admired individual, a charismatic dancing legend, remembered by those who saw him dance or who were his close associates as students or troupe members. As the female dancer in India emerges from the classical and folk mould more distinctively every day, it is essential to investigate the role Uday played in opening the avenue of undertaking dance as a hobby or profession for women, by creating and using narratives to accommodate a substantial platform for the women dancers in his creative efforts. The essay also intends to explore the role of women who accompanied Uday in the different stages of his dance explorations.

    The last chapter, Tale of the Professional Woman Dancer in Folk Traditions in India: Commodification of Dance and the Traditional Dancing Women, deals with issues emerging out of the scenario as the nation got separated into two distinct rural and urban identities. The dance and dancers also followed the same pattern. As dance became a high art, projected as the cultural face of the newly independent nation, Indian women dancers became categorized on the basis of their forms into practitioners of high art, and practitioners of the localized forms of ‘entertainment’. The commodification of dance also brought many changes to the life of dancing women. A fairly good record of Indian dance traditions has been preserved by the traditional women performers—who were and even today in certain parts of India are, the most wronged against and maligned. These women have been voluntarily or involuntarily trained as dancers, musicians and singers and have played a big role in the flourishing and preservation of folk and classical performance traditions. The task assigned to such performers—sanctioned by the social hierarchy—was to perform and entertain. But in real life they were, and sometimes still are, forced into life-long servitude of specific male patrons or multiple unknown customers. The essay discusses the multiple levels of marginalization of these performers in the Indian society—one kind of marginalization occurs when they exist and yet do not exist for their own social group, the second occurs when their own society defines them as fallen women and their male partners as artistes, and the third is when their performances are not granted recognition as part of mainstream cultural activities in the Indian nation.

    As scholars coming from two independent subjectivities and methodological backgrounds, we intentionally decided to come together in order to create a meaningful text for the study of women in India's performance scenario, creating a base for further scope and incentive for research, as well as an inclusive narrative on the women performers.

  • Conclusion: In Conversation with Samik Bandyopadhyay

    The book is an end result of an ongoing conversation between both of us, as we critically pursued research in our particular areas of specialization. Our decision was to consciously engage in contemplating an alternate history of the woman performer. While being focused on writing our portions, it was important to forge links constantly, which the segments allow us to explore. Samik Bandyopadhyay, the noted scholar and critic was our first reader as well as one who has directed our research questions at every difficult and controversial stage and his inclusion in the conversation was an attempt to bring in the objective outsider. His interventions and summing up gave it the overall perspective which we thought the work required. It provides the unifying thematic. More important it brings the varied research methodological approaches which each chapter demanded into a multifarious potential model for looking at performance studies within an interdisciplinary Indian context. (In the context our voices have often become ‘us’ and Samik's as ‘Bandyopadhyay’. Where we had different perspectives or points to make we retain our names.)

    US: The book brings together crucial phases of theatre-dance-performance history and critique which we hoped would weave an alternate history. The attempt is to disturb the dominant narrative. For example, when we look at the dancer-actress split within the colonial cultural politics, often we take the dancer as totally absent or eliminated. Similarly the actress too, because of her innate connection to body as a performance medium is also confined to the margins. Interpreted thus, the process of elimination is still an ongoing process and can be traced directly to the post-colonial phase of projecting the dancer vis-à-vis the actress. What dominant narratives ignore is the actual experience and more important the presence of the performer, particularly the female performer. More important than creating an alternate dancer-actress narrative as another history, our intention is to create disruptions and bring back performance history with its underlying complexity. Yet the segments to the reader may seem fragmented and require weaving it within an overall critical perspective.

    We wanted to ask you, how you see this publication as a kind of unified project between theatre and dance as you glanced through the writings. What do you find are the unifying points and where are the disjunctures?

    BANDYOPADHYAY: What I found basically is the recognition of the need for a restoration of the cleavage, the cleavage between theatre, music and dance which came in with the colonial knowledge system. This is alien to the Indian experience as a whole and as a result, so unnatural and such an imposition that all the different structures, whether for theatre or dance or for music, that we have tried ever since to formulate or manufacture, have somehow fallen flat. There have been some sort of aggressive, inclusive attempts to create a structure and fit in certain forms of theatre, traditional or modern, the same for dance and music, though it is impossible to have any really viable neat structure. In the process, such a lot about the performative experience has just been thrown out and marginalized, virtually even going into a certain kind of erasure. You can't mend this historical act, so maybe even in a kind of methodology it is important to take up the segments, the segments which have been thrown out and try to treat the segments as segments, but with that larger vision of incorporating them into a new performance history. For a general reader who would not have this theoretical, ideological background, it could appear fragmented. In this desire, however, for an imaginative reconstruction of this lost and spoilt space, if that comes into play as a framework in which someone tries to read these chapters, then the segments do not coalesce, but they link and the next step would open up how these links can be developed and nurtured to find the ultimate critical space.

    US: Recent work in theatre studies related to pre-independence and post-independence phase, though very crucial in this hitherto untrammelled path, tends to keep the dominant framework of colonial-nationalist-post-colonial intact. Their methodological approach has been to modify within the accepted framework which allows little space for disruptions but inevitably follow the dominant trajectory as a stable model. Though the marginal trends are never complete due to historical erasures, even the fragments can manage to tell another story. On the other hand, dance research as a discourse, is a very new area in India, with many similar problems as in the area of theatre studies, but often also biographical.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: There is the other problem in theatre studies, dance studies, music studies, and post-independence studies of choosing an easy way out to link the areas while the body of the experience is itself left out and historicize it. In the process also depoliticizes it. It is almost looking for connections mechanically looking more for the chronology and connections and in the process, the same kind of erasure happens. Experiences cannot accommodate a straight continuity. US: While we discuss a dominant historical trajectory, we acknowledge the presence and inevitability of an all-India perspective or a pan-genre experience, but at the same time assert the necessity of subjectivizing the crucial regional experiences. In this connection if we look at the major works which we have referred to in our discussions before, we see that while they concentrate on specific areas and bring extraordinary revelations, there is an attempt sometimes to arbitrarily connect it to other regional experiences which reinforces rather than challenges, the hegemonic framework. We felt that the regional, particularly the Bengal experience as a region, and specific and the theoretical and phenomenological aspects like body conceptions and are-read of Natyasastra are both important in an all pervasive critical frameworks. In that case, in reading do you find a clash in its frequent moving from the regional to more phenomenological ideas?

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Not at all, for the simple reason that when you study the Bengal experience it is not the conventional reading of the Bengali Theatre History that has been done so long. You bring in the very important segment of colonial theatre, the theatre of the Raj which has never been studied independently. You bring in the experience of the jatra which has never been connected to the history of Bengali theatre and you see the virtual repetition of the actor-manager and actress relationship in the Bengali professional theatre in the jatra. The history that we have inherited, worked only through a hegemonic process, an inbuilt erasure, which has been idealized. If you idealize Girish Chandra Ghosh, and idealize Binodini in the same bracket, we never get any indication anywhere of their creative relationship and its politics. For example, that remarkable little piece of poetry by Amritalal never features in any history. Binodini is the mistress of certain men, but Girish Chandra Ghosh is the guru, master, the shudh guru who can advise, instruct, tell her what to write, what not to write and the resentment that Binodini expresses on that issue of erasure or why she refuses to print Girish's introduction in the first place remains unanswered. All that history which we can't really access now, is repeated in the jatra, where we have direct access. These people who speak out, where I would even appreciate at one point Swapan Kumar's1 scandals; otherwise we wouldn't have known; so that we have a report, a statement made officially in his lifetime. He is showing off, etc., at one level, but at another level, we have access to it and we are grateful for it. Whatever he intended the other text is there. Would the great Girish Chandra Ghosh ever write this? The jatra story becomes an essential supplement to the history of the actress and the theatre, the entire professional theatre experience, where the aesthetics or organization of the jatra has been a conscious replication of the traditional professional theatre even in terms of acting style. Whatever we have read of the acting of Girish and Binodini we can measure against the acting of the great figures of the jatra. The jatra when it was being re-institutionalized in the 1960s, was given a different kind of official status and it becomes a part of the same politics through which Ashutosh Bhat-tacharya2 recreates or reconstructs the Chhau, simultaneously with that which is the reconstruction of the jatra as a folk theatre. The neat pigeon holing of the Akademi project could include jatra as folk theatre. Around that time the Akademi installed the first award for the jatra. It could now be accommodated in the official charting out of the professional scene. How the jatra becomes part of the folk elements, how it comes from the villages, the roots, etc., which is utter nonsense. When Utpalda (Utpal Dutt) and I went to interview Choto Phanibaboo, the straight simple honesty, when he said people called Bora Phani,3 the Ahindra Chowdhury of jatra and called me the Durgadas of the jatra. He was very happy with this.

    Here the connection was directly between professional theatre and the professional jatra and the two different styles, ‘the classical style’ of Ahindra Chowdhury4 and the modern style of Durgadas.5 These were represented by Choto Phani and Boro Phani in the jatra and they were very happily and consciously taking it up. The new jatra which begins in the 1920s with Prabhat Kumar Bose6 and that generation is the fall out of the two factors that actually cut off the movement of the Calcutta professional theatre to the smaller towns, districts and natmandaps of the zamindars. The first was the increasing terrorist activities which made tours of the countryside risky, the other was this horror of Satu Sen's7 lighting—you need the entire darkened auditoriums and revolving discs, so theatre was losing its actorial freedom, expression; and this is the empty space in which the jatra becomes the mediator between the Calcutta professional theatre and its audiences in the whole of the state. The legacy they had to bear was of the Calcutta Theatre over there. Thus we read the description of Ahindra Chowdhury, Sisir Kumar Bhaduri8 or whatever descriptions or accounts we have read and we can immediately relate to those actors, the first generation of Prabhat Bose, Boro Phani and Choto Phani, Panchu Sen and the next generation of Bijon Mukherjee, Panna Chakravarty.9 These links and connections of the jatra had nothing to do with the folk.

    DUTT: It took me a long time to decide that I wanted to end my section with the jatra actresses. During the course of research, however, I realized that the decline and eradication of the professional theatre scene has for all purposes destroyed a very key space of the actress. This is the space which allowed her a professional freedom, power to negotiate, an audience appeal transferred into box office value. The material I collected mainly from actresses I interviewed from contemporary theatre were not subversive enough to push the trajectory to a logical conclusion. The initial stage of the progressive theatre movement however succeeds in providing an alternate space for actresses, but in its post-1990 phase, the actress space and status is too diminished to be explored beyond a point. The jatra logic became the automatic chapter which the direction of the research was taking me to. Moreover I felt it was the apt contrast point to the performers of like Nachni and Jogamma, which Urmimala studies. It brings back the issues raised as to ‘folk’ performances in today's contexts.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: The line of development of the Bengal professional theatre showed that even with the actor-manager domination, the actress had her space, her space of assertion and she was fighting and struggling for her space. This continued through the IPTA, through the first phase of Bohurupee and the Little Theatre Group and that was the model for the so-called group theatre maybe till the end of the 1970s. People like Maya Ghosh, Mamata Chatterjee,10 and Keya Chakravarthy,11 are the three who for a while up to a point, post-Triptidi and Sovadi, fought for that and managed for a while to keep their space. For example, when Theatre Workshop breaks out of Nandikar, Theatre Workshop does not have a single male actor for whom the audience would come and whom the audience would appreciate. The only real big male actor in Nandikar was Ajitesh,12 so they centred on Maya Ghosh for building an audience base. If you read her interviews, she says so clearly of the Theatre Workshop phase, the way she was made the president of the group and also the way she was used. Her image was of the strong actress being offered a great range of roles. The other important thing that what was happening with Maya right from the beginning is that unlike the decent roles that Triptidi was playing, she was the strong vulgar woman. She plays upto Ajitesh in Manjari amer Manjari (Cherry Orchard in its Bengali adaptation) as the servant girl. She comes to do one of the first plays Theatre workshop does, Sartre's La P, where she plays the prostitute, who goes against the establishment, the power system to give shelter to a black man. She is not the decent heroine. With all that strength she plays out her role. In the early Nakshatra plays, particularly Mohit's (Chatterjee)13 plays, Mamata in all the roles she plays are roles in which the woman goes out of her neighbourhood, the social circle to side with an outsider and one whom society would like to drive away as a pest. She sides with them and the relationships are not a romantic relationship, it is a kind of comradeship with an outsider, she is the other self of the man a project of defiance and rebellion in which she becomes identified with that kind of presence. Keya, a lesser actress than both of them, has to play roles such as Polly in Three Penny Opera. It is a very very vulgar Polly, and those early stereotypes are being critiqued and questioned very seriously by the actresses, post-Sovadi and Triptidi. One point you have made is their education and the supposedly stronger academic power that is wielded by Sombhubabu and Utpalda. They are the readers, they are the thinkers and these are the players. Keya in that sense was an exception, she taught at Scottish Church College was a serious caring practising teacher, not using it as a source of income or means of living but taking teaching very very seriously. She had therefore a constituency of her students who start coming to the theatre. Keya was not brilliant as an actress, nowhere in the region of Sovadi or Triptidi, not at all. What gives her then her position? Someone has recently done a play on her. This is an NSD graduate Adrija Dasgupta. It is a play about Keya; it is again a very bad play, very bad theatre. The point comes from a point which I was trying to make, that youngsters still want to relate to her, they would like to find her from her writings.

    DUTT: The enactment of actress stories is a very important area in our research focus as it allows a text which can confuse and level out the actress voices by trying out a dramatic narration. Yet it can work in the reverse for the actress voice, though never fully developed, except perhaps in Amal's (Allana) version of Binodini.14 Actresses are allowed and encouraged to find a voice through a role or character of another actress. Till now such portrayals have promoted stereotypes and levelled out their rebellion and transformed their defiance into that of a victim. What has happened so rampantly with Binodini story we hope will not happen to Keya's story. There needs to be an intention to subvert. Coming from a different background does this production explore the departures in such narrations?

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Not at all and that's a point I made when I talked to the director, Adrija, that you have just tried to bring her down to your level and raise issues like, if she is so much of a rebel why does she marry. Questions like these are asked. DUTT: If you remember the interview of Keya's close circle of friends who discuss her life in an interview with you, you realize the relationship that is her marriage is no more than a cycle of torture, masochism and sadism, there is a strong sexual politics which is being played out and it is crucial to have faith in an actress like Keya that she will negotiate her rights and space and power even within the terrifying experiences.15

    BANDYOPADHYAY: It is never a submission or surrender. Surprisingly the director has not listened to the interviews which are accessible. They followed the text of Keyar Boi (Chakravarthy 1981) and spoke to their Nandikar friends and depended on whatever they fed her.

    DUTT: In this context I think the source Keyar Boi is also an volume edited by the male members of her group with intended omissions and inclusions and require a critical starting point. Maybe some of her other papers need to be included. BANDYOPADHYAY: Someone should do a new collection of her writings. It becomes easy to blame her and in the process justify ourselves, she compromised, and we compromised, fair enough. By the 1970s, actresses such as them had disappeared, Maya went under, Mamata went under, thrown out of all the groups, and Keya died under mysterious circumstances. There was this project which came out of Triptidi, Sovadi's work, which you documented and analyzed, but beyond that there was another space.

    SARKAR: I thought a lot about developing a single narrative on the body of the woman dancer from a phenomenological perspective, and decided consciously to take the body and the discourse around it in performance as a result of a national gaze. The gaze developed out of deliberately achieved ‘sameness’ in the perspective about dance and dancers across region, with the help of centralized policies of choosing representative forms from different regional cultures in India. Therefore, the representative forms, while having a definitely regional history on one basic level, have ended up playing into the hands of the cultural bureaucracy by becoming one more dance in the list of the Indian classical dances. Thus a degree of ‘sameness’ lies in the check list of all the criteria that a form needs to have, in order to be a part of that list. Do you think this deliberate choice works as a challenge in questioning the existing history?

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Precisely what you said just now is the reason for questioning the history, where each form has been given a specific history, but the hegemonic pattern of creating that history has not been pondered upon.

    SARKAR: Looking at the history of work on dance in India, my concern has been the divide created between the classical forms and everything else, when all of us know that many of the classical styles are evolved and deliberately structured from the ‘other’ now lesser important genres. As I read the available material and look at the functional perspective of dance as a tool for communication especially from the woman performer's point of view, I have been concerned about the choices made by mainstream history of dance in independent India, wherein the performer and her art were graded and stratified according to some categorization which has evolved out of the hegemonic cultural policies based on the voices of the ‘seen and heard’. The issue of the categories like ‘classical’ or ‘folk’, do not also stay limited to the enlisting process itself, but gets translated and reflected in funds, availability of opportunities, recognition and many other vitally important things. As I revisit these women performers in villages of different parts of India over the last 20 years, I see that the burden of viability and survival has created a situation of desperation, especially among the women performers, where the performance is fighting to exist in here and now, rather than think of a long term survival. So I also question the method of choosing the patronizable and presentable art by a set of ‘others’ that is the bureaucracy and the new genre of patrons.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: The deliberate focus on the communities of women performers in the so-called ‘Folk’ traditions, widens the area of dance research and addresses the necessity to look at dance as a communicative tool and not leave it to being an extremely stylized ‘high art’. Besides relevance and functionality of the form and its performers, and the position accorded to them is reviewed as one looks at the efforts from within and outside the community to achieve the much desired status of the ‘presentable’ and ‘acceptable’. Often these ruptures are invisible and start as a slow process from within the community concerned, where the change goes unnoticed till a huge change has already taken place.

    DUTT: If we need to continue research from actress-performer perspective, go back to each of our segment focus areas, as you suggested, who is our next subject then? Where do we still find the fighting negotiating actress community, actresses and director's texts wanting to create interventions? Where do we look at the identity politics and negotiations? We feel a dangerous vacuum emerging in this context and a reflection in potential areas to look at actress agencies. I connect it to a far wider climate of what you once termed as an erosion of a ‘democratic criticality’ a negotiation with social and political forces at play which provides theatre with its rationale sustenance. Political adhocism is taking away that inspirational source from such progressive political theatre and with it the progressive spaces for actresses to reopen negotiations.

    SARKAR: The seriousness of engagement with gender politics and the woman's question in dance is still not very common. I see a tendency amongst many dancers and their presentations a deliberate trivialization of gender issues. Some narratives of dancers build on such tropes. It is as if such superficial gender reference is created solely for recognition by governmental and non-governmental agencies. DUTT: This in turns lead to mediocre performance skills and ultimately trying to make up for creativity.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: One woman autobiographical performances for actresses are also becoming increasingly popular and are similarly an easy way out. It is linked to annual funding and taking advantage of a special women constituency. They don't need to do anything, if I can enter that I am safe, a safe way to exclude all negotiation space.

    The contradictions which both of you explore in the IPTA phase, reaching out to the people, responding to the people through texts, performing body and dance there is a conscious concern of that end of it, it's a people's theatre, etc., but reaching out to the women, getting to the women's body and women's voice is not part of the agenda. If it comes in a long term it is okay, they are treated at par, there is no distinction, but not a part of the agenda and this has been a limitation of the entire Marxist programme, right from the beginning. That at a time when in Germany under the impact of Socialism, in Russia also with Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollontai, the women's agenda had come into the Marxist vision but that has not affected us in India at all. It should have been in terms of different themes that have been addressed; whatever be the quality of dance and theatre after that it has never been present even superficially as a theme. It has not been touched; the area remained shrouded by issues of labour, machinery, but never gender. It is really as you rightly say that Tagore provides a text at least in theatre and in his philosophy of dance. He provides a space for the women to come in and it is quite conscious because when you are talking of theatre you are talking of Raktakarabi. Raktakarabi has its connection with his stories and novels and all his major novels are about women, they are women centric. In Streer Patra, the women bond and she leaves the house not because of her own humiliation but that of another woman's—Nastaneer, Ghare baire, Chaturanga, that whole mode of thinking, with which he comes to Chitrangada and Chandalika.

    SARKAR: Assessing Shankar's engagement with new content in his stage work and his film Kalpana raises questions about the ‘political’ in his work. While consciously raising important questions about education, equality, dowry, national identity, linguistic and religious diversity, the film remains a document of many thoughts brought together under one umbrella, with no specific or in-depth commitment to any one of them. Thus the film fleetingly touches upon several issues of famine, exploitation of labouring class and rise of capitalism, social evils like dowry, the importance of national identity and language, and at the same time does not stop from showcasing dance of the gods and other celestial beings in dances like Kartikeya, and the dance of Shiva and Parvati.

    Uday Shankar's work is a landmark in the Indian dance history, however marginalized and criticized because that was the first time the Western as well as the Indian audience was presented with a holistic vision of performance with regional representations, but at the same time had a pan-Indian character.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: One notices that whenever a dancer is using supposedly political issues in the dance, the inability and refusal to go into its abstraction superficializes the entire genre. Dance usually cannot use articulation and if you are using dance as a substitute for articulation and if you have a clearly defined message, a dance made out of political issue is never clear or probing enough. Tagore in his capable ways was trying to do exactly the same with Chitrangada. The issue of identity, feminine power, goes so deep because of the quality of thinking and not making it a translation of a verbal articulation was something that categorized his involvement with modern art in every sense of the word. And this is where the later generation of people who took up the responsibility to carry on with his thoughts and institution in Shantiniketan. They were not able to deal with the text, the text which Tagore wrote, so they left the text out and went on illustrating it. The great resistance of the Shantiniketan dancers and the dance scholars to Manjusree's (Chaki Sarkar)16 work is a case in point which reinstates the same thing. Manjusree was the first who went into the text of Tagore and created a dance text, a text beyond the song text was what she wanted to create, and that became her point of departure, her approach. The way she developed something like Tomari Matir Kanya (an adaptation from Tagore's Chandalika), from the first version of the production to the last, was a huge innovation. The resistance was clear from the enormous and often nasty criticism by the critics from Shantiniketan—calling it obscene and in bad taste and even riding on a high horse commenting on the deliberate disengagement with Shantiniketan aesthetics.

    The other important thing we should try to bring in at one point is that at Shantiniketan when he thought of dance and music, Tagore was not thinking so much of performance as an expression of freedom. One needs to follow chronologically, his development starting from the first phase of his work in Shantiniketan and going upto the 1930s and 1940s. Initially one of the first of the performances, the Parrot's Story, which is a valuable seminal text, has grave socio-cultural implications. In Achalayatan there is nature outside but nature not in the Wordsworthian nature. The Shonpanghsus operate with joy in taking out the iron by tearing open the earth. They literally open up the earth to access its wealth. This nature is not the same as portrayed in the French impressionistic mode, it is live nature and you cannot translate this nature into your verbal language, it's an experience much richer than that, so Panchak who escapes out of the bounds of the Achalayatan comes back and sings. The masters find his singing a nuisance. This negation of the experience and reality of nature has to be nature as a living force working into and with human life, outside the bounds of a mechanized institutionalized space. Hence he implies opening out to music and dance, bringing the body out, rather than holding it in within the confines of the shastras. Again and again he brings in the word ‘shastra’ and critiques it. So in a way he also justifies the importance of music, song and dance coming together. Tagore strengthened his vision with the help of the likes of Ramkinkar Baij. He brought him to Visvabharati. Baij did not belong to the Abanindranath Tagore art school gharana but a different body of experience. Locating, tracking down and bringing down Kshitimohun Sen from Benaras where he was collecting Bhakti songs in Hindi, was another such effort. In Tagore's understanding travelling bhakti singers, not just poet singers, belonged to a whole cultural movement through nature, movement through human ties, through humanities. Bringing all this into Visvabharati and its post-World War I culture was a very serious phase of politicization for Tagore. Immediately before and after the War, he produced his great text of nationalism. His visit to Japan, has been read as an outcome of his anxiety over nationalism as a form of imperialism, and the development of a power system which was no longer an economic power game in isolation but which could accompany the national incorporation into an imperial ideology. A new cultural study begins at this stage for Tagore and gender becomes a major factor in his entire approach to life. This is also the period when he takes up painting, 1923–1924, and it coincides with the dates of the Raktakarabi manuscript and his first images. The images in the Raktakarabi manuscripts are images of power, grotesque, monstrous images of power and the text throws up Nandini who challenges and opposes the power system. In fact two years ago I had done my rethinking of Raktakarabi and discovered a different reading. I explain the raja not as a ruler but interpret the raja as a scientist in his laboratory. The laboratory is the central image there and when he comes out he realizes what is always happening. It gives an illusion of power to make him a tool in the manipulation of power. He is the scientist who thinks he has power. In the climax, he realizes the power game and says ‘I didn't know they have done all this’. Throughout the play you don't have a single point to see the manifestation of the Raja's power. Ranjan is brought, he is arrested and killed, the raja doesn't have a role to play, he becomes a tool in the hands of power to science and technology.

    US: Such reinterpretation of dramatic texts compels one to look at another historical text beyond the accepted norms of understanding. Even the presence of such texts intervenes within the nationalist ideology as Partha Chatterjee calls it ‘a derivative discourse’ (Chatterjee 1993) and the inner and outer domain where he asserts that there was never any doubt that the Indian nationalists looked at science as premises of outer domain, hence not worked out within the public cultural space which was preoccupied with the inner domain. This bears out that deviations existed and binaries were never simplistic. Looking at theatre and dramatic culture opens up other areas of such challenges.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: That's why Raktakarabi becomes so central. This is one text which Tagore wrote 10 times and 10 different manuscripts survive. They are not corrected ones with changes here and there. The main version only emerges in the last and final version, the opening, where this young boy brings the Raktakarabis to Nandini that is only in the final version. In other versions there is no reference to the Raktakarabi. Initially it is called Yakshapuri and then two versions Nandini. I would say he was exploring deeper and deeper through his various versions into an abstraction; Nandini as the woman and force against it and that is the level of abstraction. Raktakarabi is the image of the binding force between Nandini who is more spirit and Kishore who is the body, the youth and that linking is the height of abstraction. Then Nandini has to relate to Kishore and who is associated with Raktakarabi, he dies for the Raktakarabi, Ami pran dite pari’. That is his assertion of freedom. They will stop me but I will do it and this is the ultimate act of desire. If you compare all these shifts, they are all documented in the new edition. This is Tagore in 1924. This means fascism is already on its way, things are moving towards the World War II and all these wars; the Sino-Japanese war, are simmering already and nationalism is now incorporated within the imperialist agenda and therefore if you fight against imperialism it has to be culturally, and woman for Tagore is a very major figure in culture.

    You would know better but whatever I know, the word Rabindra Sangeet (songs) comes in but there is no term Rabindra Nritya (dance). It is much much later in the 1950s. Shantidev was the person who started bringing in a canonized Rabindra Nritya.

    SARKAR: In Tagore's search for means of developing tools of communicating through the arts, he started consciously, to use dance, theatre, music and songs. For his work with the students and also in his work with theatre, dance and music, Tagore's strength lay in text and music and which he took charge of. He left the dance representation to others in which he would give ideas of abstraction as advice but not take it beyond a point.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Another area in which he was expressing his ideas was his paintings, and the majority of his paintings are there from the nudes to the dark ladies, infinite numbers. Somebody should study these and within that larger vision of the older cultural response to reality and expression. Culturally, his painting was becoming more and more of a strength in his hands, it is natural and that's also the period, if you see from the European dancers and their links with him. Dance and the dancing bodies became an important theme in his paintings of dancers, mostly women, baul performances, and his own work showing himself while dancing throw light on his vision of dance and the dancing body.

    At the end of this year, the first time ever, the largest collection of Tagore's paintings from the Visvabharati archive are being documented in a master catalogue with an introduction, the final editing of the text will be done by me. I would like to explore whether there was any impact or intervention from the dancers who came to Shantiniketan, I am sure there are paintings of them, it will be an invaluable source for further research on Tagore's engagement with dance. SARKAR: One interesting reference I wanted to mention is Amita Sen's memoirs where she writes that when Tagore gave up his control over the dance classes they felt orphaned from his protection and nurturing of the form. That was when he deliberately shifted the responsibility of teaching dance to professional dance teachers. He had a clear idea of the curriculum he wanted, and this was just another step towards achieving it. The shift was more traumatic for students than we imagine, but Tagore successfully crystallized the method he wanted for his institution.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: The possibility and vision he had in the case of dance, he did not want to ultimately handle it. He knew what he wanted but did not know how to achieve it.

    He wanted abstraction from different dance styles, not absolute representations of what would be the dance style but a thematic abstraction that was very clear in his work.

    SARKAR: There is one thing I wanted to bring up. Was there a conscious connection in the dance world (as you are both discussing in theatre scenario) particularly where the intellects are attributed to the males and emotions to the women? The woman dancers who are majority in this sphere, both in the so-called ‘folk’ forms and also in the mainstream, who create their pieces, who perform and manage their programme, are forced to share their achievements with some male, who may be sharing the income, or fame, or credit as patron, coordinator, manager, critic, or presenter, etc. The patriarchal society instils insecurities in women performers, especially dancers, in the matter of dealing directly with the outside world. Moreover the male here, many a times has nothing to do with the actual performance but are outsiders, unlike the theatre. Take the example of Nachni women. Many a times the rasik nowadays is not a performer (though originally the concept was that only the poets and singers and such artistically inclined males would ‘keep’ a Nachni). He hires a group of musicians and accompanists for the Nachni, and is not even present on stage during performance. But still the income from the performance is principally his, and for him to distribute and spend. Also in the case of accomplished dancers in the world of classical dance, it is seen that the market control is not in their hands, but lies in the hands of a middle man/woman, the presenter, critic, patron (now the officer in the funding body), etc.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Indian dance revival in post independence bears out this point. Let me give an example as we are talking of a system. We need to analyze who writes dance till now. When Sangeet Natak Akademi instituted its yearly awards programme, the first two personalities who received awards in non performer categories were Charles Fabri and Sunil Kothari, both dance reviewers and critics. The critics became presenters and promoters and almost automatically took over the task of writing dance history in the absence of trained dance historians and expert specialized academicians in dance and performance studies. No one mentions Fabri today in writing a history of Indian dance. He was a reviewer who promoted dancers, good English. Naturally their contribution to Indian dance is not an academic intervention in either perceptions or theory, yet in the world of dance they have been feared as they have the power to promote a dance or run him/her down. Their awards were followed by Nemichand Jain's, who was the first theatre critic to get it.

    DUTT: While we talk of the post-colonial intention of bringing the dancer and actress together, for all practical purposes they have drifted away. There never emerged the actress, who is comfortable with her body and push autonomously the paradigms of modern acting styles into exploring through a body intervention. I am not talking of the women performers on stage who are reduced to only dancers and singers depriving them of their actress roles. I am talking of a far more organic negotiation. According to my argument the actress with her past links to the nautch always knew and did use her body. It is important in the contemporary sense to see that being worked out in practice.

    SARKAR: I have seen dancers who have gone into acting and vice versa. There is a lack of consciousness and approach to such interactions where dance can provide the actress with a new vocabulary and also the other way round. The main connection seems to be the physical attribute, the beautiful dancer and her graceful body makes an attractive actress. Increasingly, in Bollywood and as a result in the television reality shows, competitions, etc., the actress dancer binary is being erased with all film actresses wanting to increase their marketability by being able to do the medley of movements that is defined as dance in the world of cinema. Meanwhile, in the so-called serious world of Classical dance, the territory is clearly chalked out, allotting space to gestures, body movements and expressions, and is hardly ready to accommodate anything that is not a part of the convention.

    DUTT: In this connection I would like to ask about the IPTA actresses who supposedly moved more comfortably between dance and theatre.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: I have seen Dina Pathak17 on stage when she was in the total realistic acting mode with no dancer intervention. The texts were probably the greatest obstacle and deliberately designed to conform and prevent any disturbance of the actress roles.

    SARKAR: Zohra Sehgal18 takes her acting to dance and her dance to acting in a very inherent way. I feel working with Uday Shankar had helped her in this. With him there was an emphasis on the ease of the body, a freedom to explore. Shankar's emphasis on freedom of choosing one's movements in dance has been criticized as plagiarism of the existing styles. One needs to then analyze how to assess any body of dance work where the dancer exercises any freedom of choosing to explore and create basing their techniques on one, two or more dance grammars and styles. There may be different ways of doing it in case of the more contemporary dancers, but the seeking to expand the sense of freedom of choice remains the same as Shankar!

    US: The title of a book often explains the scope of the content and highlights its critical slant. In the course of the discussion we changed the title from Engendering Performance: Linking Past and Present in Indian Theatre and Dance to Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: If you ask me that, it is not really linking the past with the present, when you are talking of the past you are not dealing with the past, you are dealing with the colonial but that is not the past. Natyasastra the way you have included in the book is in its relevance to the present, why bring in at all the past? DUTT: Let us discuss the other books which use the words engendering or engendered. There are books in dance studies that use this term with a nuance. Do you see a difference in their reference point and ours?

    SARKAR: There are two kinds of approaches where, seeing gender as a social development and in the other more a kind of insider's view looking at development, movements and the body politics. In our case, I think we have affirmed our commitment to doing a thorough investigation of the existing history using the issue of gender to become a tool for the same. We are both not necessarily making any feminist statement in the book. We are both using gender as a point of constant reference to understand the absence of ‘her’ story in the historical narrative. Linking the past with the present is not our agenda.

    DUTT: Moreover for us, history is a historiography, a critique of history. I like the word identity, it brings me to the book which played an important role in directing my research interests, Tracy Davis's Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Culture (1991).

    SARKAR: Identity is the basic issue in case of the dancers. There are several levels of identity being negotiated at the same time—that of the individual, that of the ‘ideal’ female in Indian tradition, that of a strong woman/entrepreneur, that of the image of Indian aesthetic and culture. It is a huge burden which is passed on from generation to generation, and in a very latent way, continues to control the choices that the dancers make.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: One of your chapter names can be modified ‘Women Performers on her Journey to Identity’ to The Indian Woman Performer on Approaching/Searching for Identity.

    SARKAR: My intention was to highlight the often ignored take-off points in the history of the journey of the woman in the world of Indian dance. Keeping aside the whole issue of subjective value judgement on the critical nodal points and interventions like that of Tagore or Shankar, or IPTA, one must acknowledge and engage analytically on the push such interventions gave to the presence of the woman dancer in today's mainstream society. Which is why, this journey seems more like an emergence than search to me.

    DUTT: In this context as gender is only important to us in challenging the male history and brings in an all inclusive history I want to use the word woman performer…it is the story of the women performer. ‘The Indian Women Performers’ Journey to Identity’.

    SARKAR: In case of some of our chapters, photographs have been a part of our methodological approach. In one chapter Bishnupriya even reads the actress poses as part of actress authorship.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: I think the photographs have to be chosen particularly for dance. In theatre there is no choice for you, in dance there is availability and that can be dangerous as there is a false glamorization which is a misrepresentation. On the other side if you use a good photograph and in the caption underscore this construction and misrepresentation process it will be another insightful part of the book. In our country this is an issue as dance critique or discussion has been the major source of dance writing in print with numerous coffee table books. All dancers aspire to sponsor a book—a biography or autobiography of sorts, sometimes without being mentioned as such. Theatre does not have such a market, cinema has it, not theatre, but dance has gone there and the entire politics gets distorted through photography, of the choice of representation and imagery.

    SARKAR: A politics of representation and misrepresentation. BANDYOPADHYAY: It is the issue of a constituted deliberate eroticization, there is a strong pornographic charge in dance photography.

    SARKAR: The audience eye, photographic image are related issues. The image of Incredible India is built on images of dance along with some beautiful sceneries. Images have played a huge part in passing the burden of the ‘correct’ and the ‘acceptable’ from one generation to another of Indian women performers. DUTT: In selecting photographs for the book, I am keen to compel the reader to look at photographs in which the actress plays an actress or looks at herself, the mirror image or making up image. It at once takes on a layered meaning. There is a marked difference how actresses photograph themselves and according to theatre traditions the actress has an advantage there. The patriarchs of the theatre also like to promote for various reasons the actress photographs and, by default within our theatre history, visuals of the star actresses have become mnemonical sources of landmark performances.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Uday Shankar had learnt the art of representation abroad. His photograph collection included spontaneous as well as choreographed photos.

    On the other hand, when I was working on the text of Nemai's (Ghosh)19 album, I had asked him why the entire stage configuration is photographed not in any single picture. We see Tripti Mitra and Sombhu Mitra isolated and almost devoid of a stage, why is that? Ghosh had the advantage of working in the theatre, he had the knowledge but ultimately in his pictures it is the same. His answer was what could I do? It is the lighting and illumination. The space is never adequately illuminated and that was the style of creating an artificial performing space. If they illuminated the stage in the course of the play I would have captured the actors in their space but here deliberately the space is eliminated. Even for photographs, they did not allow artificial lighting.

    SARKAR: A selective process is at work and the basic attitude is woven into the photograph.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: Inherent in photography's selection is a glamorization unless the photographer deliberately subverts it: they are the exceptional photographers. DUTT: In a recent book by Christopher Pinney on The Coming of Photography in India,20 Pinney is not very comfortable with the actress photographs and in the process, while he talks a great deal of contemporary photographs, he passes over this very important material. I think he does not know where to place them in the overall subversion-egalitarian hypothesis he has built around colonial photography related to photography's innate power to erase class or colonial differences. There is a basic problem, as Malvika Karlekar pointed out, in an understanding of the subject of these photographs. Yet he is constructing a history with popular culture and this would mean an erasure of actress histories.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: In such readings that is, there is a very conscious erasure of Indian culture, the moment they come, they decide they have to create the Indian middle class as the comprador. It is part of that politics to erase any other identity of the Indian subject, almost eliminate it. As an extension of the criticism, from the 1970s, with the first contact and exchange with the American and British theatre directors and critics, we faced a strong resistance from them, because they felt that we had no right to deal with Indian reality? Realism was considered their idiom; analysis of realism was their philosophy, so we Indians remain stuck. I had the conversation with the legendary Ellen Stewart of Café Lamama, where I was asked to speak on contemporary Indian theatre. I had spoken about eight minutes and came to Nabanna and the famine when this black anti-establishment woman stood up and shouted: can you remove poverty with theatre, you have the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Kathakali, that is your culture. She shouted and barked at me. In the US she is the patron saint of off Broadway. She tells you, has the arrogance to tell you: You don't have any business to do modern theatre, stick to your epics and classical dance. I believe this is erasure; we don't have space in modern performance, it is an European space. Naturally, for many Western authors like Pinney, it is the popular culture that is given to us, the rest is their space, modernism is Western. And unfortunately in performance, especially dance we have not challenged those assertions enough.

    SARKAR: Now that we are almost at the end of our book and the conversation what do you think are the loose ends that need to be tied up or talked about? BANDYOPADHYAY: The book is a journey revealed in segments. Let us assert the segments. There are links but there is no reason that we have to establish all the links, that is not our job. There may be parallel links as you have looked at Bengal which has one of the major histories, if there is another regional story which follows, let someone work on it and then the final linking can happen.

    SARKAR: The Indian experience is a very irregular one which looks at segments for the regional experience, rather than use them as reference points for standardization. We will not have a real understanding of history, the colonial intervention or the survival of local culture, if we try to capture an all inclusive picture. These dynamics here are very different from region to region; obviously the colonial intervention in Bengal and the South is very different. In the south, the survival of several forms was possible like even within the institutional intervention of the 1930s in Bharatanatyam politics.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: This was not possible in Bengal. Why does the Gurusaday Dutta21 project fail, he had a research mindset, had the bureaucratic clout, was trying to create an institutional base for dance and craft and very consciously moving away from the construction of Western art that had been circulated from the government art schools. It was a project absolutely outside the colonial domain and in his ‘bratachari’ movement men and women were trained to dance to the same text, same songs. The reason the colonial presence, authority and structure did not allow it was because of the Bengal situation. In Tamil politics, the brahmanical domination, caste politics is very rooted and survived the colonial interventions. The terms of reference are so different. In the end even when you bring the Uday Shankar project, the IPTA in its dance sphere, you cannot take an all-India example though the all-India vision is at the core. Yet the IPTA dance project does not ever become an all-India phenomenon and there is a variance in each region. The IPTA project was not uniform in the rest of India. We can hence look at regional experiences with the women at the centre; it will remain incomplete unless other scholars carry on investigation in what happened in Andhra where only songs became popular. No theatre or dance came to be absorbed. The politics of militancy, the quality of militancy within the left movement might have made those conscious choices. In midst of such a militant culture, there is no scope for dance, though there is a role of music in mobilization and poetry. The mixing of these two and the agricultural project create overlaps. There are so many cultural texts which cannot come in even in one history of the IPTA.

    DUTT: The discussion though ensuing from a solely academic space brings me back to activism which is inherent in such a critical overview and a degree of commitment to the performance genres which we represent. I would like to see the work as a possible intervention in performative practices and not divorced from practitioners or practice. For me, personally, being an actress and involved in progressive theatre remains a part of my inspiration for such work. Researching and teaching in this area for five years, writing this book can never allow me, however, to be just an actress anymore—an actress who utters lines designated for her, written by others. There is always a need to challenge, a thing unheard of in the theatre making process. There are, however, texts that I would like to go back to in terms of roles I have never played or have played but want to intercept it with different insights. In fact it would be an excellent exercise if I can play such roles, after writing this book. In plays within a play, where a parallel text, though the actress subtext can be enacted, is exactly what I am looking for. Nati,22 based on five actress autobiographies was an interesting journey for me. In this context, what prevents me from transforming it into performance and will continue to stop me is my audience. Believing in a large audience, I, of course, wonder who is going to be the audience for such analytical, on stage exercises.

    SARKAR: For me, my engagement with dance has been almost a full-time commitment since 1987 when over and above being a senior member of the performing troupe, I took on the additional responsibility of teaching, choreographing and helping in the administrative work at the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre. With my training in Kathakali, Manipuri, Kathak and Uday Shankar's own creative dance in the six year diploma course at the Centre and the further specialized training in improvisation, and creative process in dance, side by side with my extensive research as an anthropologist looking at traditional performers in their socio-cultural context has enhanced my awareness towards the responsibility we have towards each of the indigenous forms and their practitioners with women as the principle careers of such traditions. For me, therefore, acknowledgement of source and resisting appropriation by one and all, be it urban performers in search of new and attractive vocabulary of movements, or presenters and promoters like Ashutosh Bhattacharya, who somehow assumed that he had the right and duty to play god with the performers in choosing some over others, becomes my engagement as an activist, in the world of dance. Therefore, without any disrespect for any form, the ongoing classical-contemporary debate—spilling over into academics and university spaces—is frustrating. Extensive documentation and performance as research are the two areas that fascinate me therefore, where the scattered narratives of the fast disappearing breed of traditional women dancers can be gathered and brought to be performed or written about.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: The academic responsibility which you both have taken on have come to a level, when your work on creating a solid academic course on performance needs to be prioritized. This will raise the question as to what the situation is now and what we envisage in the next 6–7 years. As for your interest in performing your research—How will a performance project taken up in isolation, taking time off from work, will make a difference? Where will it take you? Again it will be an experimental experience of this work, it is not going back to performance in any sense of the term, intervention of someone outside the hustle bustle of it and it can produce a temporary impact or having a meaning of course but its intervention will be limited at the end of the day.

    BANDYOPADHYAY: This book may have its limitations and not the last word, yet it will be a landmark, a step through an academic process. Both of you have come to document and theorize actual performance, performative experience and history. There is not a single theatre or dance book which has this. Dance writing is primarily by non-writers and theatre writing by academics is very bad academic in the bad sense of the term. Here you have come with a theory-practice balance from teaching experience, as an ongoing process which would be incorporated into an academic process and lead to further academic courses. It takes you almost to the next step of your academic exploration. It connects the practice you both know so well with your theorizing and prepare a rationale for such a work. This is your contribution to the teaching process and creates potential space for performance studies totally on our terms. It is not borrowed from any international models, it is an original teaching model, and we are creating the groundwork for the new stage of academic progress and then we theorize or conceptually test out a mature laboratory experimental space.


    1. Swapan Kumar (1938–2008), the veteran jatra actor brought in a number of innovations in the jatra genre. A very popular actor he was the highest paid actor in the early 1980s and retained a star status throughout his life.

    2. Ashutosh Bhattacharya (1909–1984) known as a cultural interventionist, he has played an ambivalent role in the post-independence preservationist projects particularly for the chhau. They along with governmental cultural institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi claim a dedication to the cause of protecting and preserving traditional forms.

    3. The two great stalwarts, Phanibhushan Vidyabinod (Boro Phanibabu) and Phanibhushan Motilal (Choto Phanibaboo) represented the two genres of classical and modern acting styles respectively. Popular and powerful actors, they trained a number of actors and actresses who worked in their troupe.

    4. Ahindra Chowdhury (1895–1974) actor manager-director of the professional theatre in Calcutta was well known for the role of Shahjahan which became associated with the new nationalism of the early twentieth century stage.

    5. Durgadas Bandyopadhyay (1893–1943), Ahindra Chowdhury's contemporary a renowned actor on the professional stage.

    6. Prabhat Kumar Bose, the veteran jatra actor-director responsible for the process of modernization in contemporary jatra. He transformed the jatra into its commercial economic set-up and the touring circuit performance in the 1920s.

    7. Satu Sen (1902–1972): Well known for introducing a more refined spectacle and scenographic designs within the Bengali professional stage in the 1940s and 1950s, Satu Sen travelled extensively abroad and interacted with a number of Stanislavski's students in the USA. He was also the first director of the National School of Drama, Delhi.

    8. Sisir Kumar Bhaduri (1889–1959): Actor, director, theatre personality who dominated the Bengali professional stage in the 1930s and 1940s introducing elements of naturalism and ideas of total theatre. He was one of the first in the country to recognize the radical shift that was coming to theatre in Europe in the 1920s.

    9. Bijon Mukherjee and Panna Chakravarty: Both well known jatra actors who dominated the jatra scene in the 1970s and early 1980s. They came to represent the strong actorial traditions jatra would come to signify.

    10. Maya Ghosh and Mamata Chatterjee: Leading actresses of the new progressive theatre movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The new amateur theatre movement allowed a new genre of roles for actresses making considerable departure from the role of the domesticated women.

    11. Keya Chakravarthy (1942–1977) a leading member of the theatre group Nandikar, was popular for her roles in adaptation of Brecht's plays under the direction of Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay. She became well known for her role in Brecht's Good Woman of Szechwan (Bhalomanush). She was also a professor at the Scottish church college and wrote numerous stories, poems and articles on contemporary theatre. She had also known to be one of the key organizers of the Nandikar which depended on its members to build its infrastructure. Keya drowned while shooting for a film.

    12. Ajitesh Banopadhyay (1933–1983): The leading actor director of the popular group Nandikar, Ajitesh was known for his free adaptations of international repertoire. An innovative director, Ajitesh played an important role in working on team work coordination and crowd scenes which would become a symbolic marker of the group theatre aesthetics. Nandikar, under his leadership was one of the three leading groups which laid the foundation of the progressive theatre movement in Calcutta in the 1970s and 1980s.

    13. Mohit Chatterjee (born in 1934) is a famous Bengali Indian playwright, screenplay writer, dramatist and poet. He is a leading figure in modern Indian drama. He is frequently referred to as an exponent of Indian absurd drama. His plays Rajrokto, Guineapig, Totaram are a landmark in modern Indian dramatic repertoire.

    14. Amal Allana's production of Nati Binodini (2007) worked on a totally different mode of presentation based on Binodini's autobiography.

    15. Interview of Keya Chakravarthy's close friends by Samik Bandyopadhyay at Natya Shodh Sansthan.

    16. Manjusree Chaki Sarkar (1934–2000) created a dance idiom which she called Nava Nrityam. With her daughter, Ranjabati Sarkar, and their troupe based in Calcutta she did a great deal of research and codification of the dance style and presented a large number of choreographic productions in the 1980s and early 1990s.

    17. Dina Pathak (originally Gandhi) has worked as one of the principle performers in the central squad of IPTA, and then moved into theatre and cinema.

    18. Zohra Sehgal, originally an important member of Uday Shankar's troupe, the designer of the original syllabus of Shankar's dance Institution in Almora, later moved to cinema and theatre as an actress, and also as a dance director with her husband. Even in recent movies, Zohra has moved smoothly between her dancer and actress self with ease.

    19. Nemai Ghosh, an actor with the Little Theatre Group, in the 1960s became one of the most important photographers to photograph the group theatre productions as well as Satyajit Ray's film stills. His album, Dramatic Moments: Photographs and Memories of Calcutta Theatre from the Sixties to the Nineties, edited by Samik Bandyopadhyay is a Seagull publication, Kolkata (2000).

    20. This is from a presentation, Pinney, made at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts on his forthcoming book The Coming of Photography in India (Cloth: 2008). The intervention of Malvika Karlekar was in the course of the question answer session.

    21. Gurusaday Dutta (1882–1941), folklorist, writer played an important role in reviving interest in folk art, dance and music. Combining nationalist consciousness with an engagement in the local culture, Dutt was keen to look for an alternate nationalist cultural expression.

    22. Nati (2005) was a play based on five actress autobiographies; Binodini's, Tripti Mitra's, Sova Sen's, Keya's autobiographical writings and Ketaki Dutta, produced by the People's Little Theatre, Calcutta. The premiere was held on 15 June 2005 at the Modhusudan Mancha, Kolkata.


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    About the Authors

    Bishnupriya Dutt, daughter of legendary theatre personalities Utpal Dutt and Sova Sen, is currently Associate Professor in Theatre Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was awarded a Ph.D. for her work on ‘Contributions of Theatre Magazines in the Growth and Genesis of Theatre Aesthetics’ from the University of Calcutta. Her recent publications include: ‘Actress Stories: Binodini and Amal Allana’, in Sue Ellen Case and Elaine Aston (eds), Staging International Feminisms (2007).

    She received a DAAD fellowship in Germany to study alternate aesthetic models for the theatre in post-colonial India. Dr Dutt has been an active member of the Feminist Working Group of the International Federation of Theatre Research, and has worked with the People's Little Theatre, the largest repertoire in Calcutta. In 2006, she produced a play based on autobiographies of five actresses, titled Nati. This innovative play had its performance text created through a collaborative effort by the participant actresses.

    Urmimala Sarkar Munsi is a Visiting Faculty at the School of of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she teaches Dance Studies and Visual Ethnography. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology on socio-cultural context of tribal and folk dance from Calcutta University. She has continued her post-doctoral work on issues of dance, gender and politics of performance. In March 2005, she was invited as the Artist-in-Residence by the Centre for World Performance Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has travelled widely for her research and has extensively documented traditional communities of professional women performers (Maibi, Nautanki, Nachni, Jogti) in India as a part of her research project.

    Dr Sarkar Munsi was a senior teacher of Uday Shankar Style at Uday Shankar India Culture Centre, Calcutta from 1987 to 2004, and has completed 30 years as a member of their performing troupe. Her recent choreographic work includes Urban I and II, Lotus Path and a collaborative choreography titled But… on the Box. She is Vice President and Co-chair, South Asia of the Research and Documentation Network of the World Dance Alliance, Asia Pacific. She is also the Secretary of Dance Alliance, India. Important publications by Dr Sarkar Munsi include the edited volume, Dance: Transcending Borders (2008). She has also co-edited a forthcoming publication Traversing Tradition: Celebrating Dance in India with Dr Stephanie Burridge.

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