Ravinder Kaul[1]


The male and the female are not seen as exclusive entities, separated into watertight compartments, in Indian metaphysical thought. If feminism can be described as an aspect of humanism to sensitise both men and women to come out of the orientations resting on exploitative forms of existence, then Ardhanarishwara (the lord who is half woman and half man) is its finest manifestation. Early Indian history has been a period of equality of sexes and celebration of femininity. However, 1,000 years of Muslim and later British rule changed this position drastically, and women were hidden behind a repressive purdah, or veil,and their freedom and rights were curtailed. Later, the participation of many woman leaders of great stature in India’s struggle for independence were reflected in the theatre that evolved in the post-independence India. The contrast in modern Indian theatre as against western theatre is manifest in the manner in which the powerful and highly individualistic female characters in Indian plays are comfortable with their femininity while in western plays woman characters are compelled to attain male characteristics in order to exert their influence in the society. Modern theatre in India is in some ways craving to restore the ages old position of women in Indian society where they could not only enjoy but also celebrate their femininity and not feel compelled to be apologetic about it.

Sexuality and spirituality are treated in Indian philosophy as complementing factors of existence responsible for the physical and metaphysical growth of the human race. These paradigms are the parameters within which the relationship between the sexes functions. The image and the concept of Ardhanarishwara (the lord who is half woman and half man) is central to the understanding of gender in the Indian concept. It not only functions as a perfect symbol of man and woman in union but also represents the male and female aspects of the self in harmony and consonance with one another. The fact is that in Indian metaphysical thought the male and the female are not seen as exclusive entities separated into watertight compartments. Consequently, they are not perceived as conflicting or antagonistic aspects of the self but as natural cohabitants within the self. In the icon of Ardhanarishwara, one can find half Shiva and half Parvati. Shiva symbolising the male energy in us while Parvati representing the female energy—the Yin and the Yang. If feminism can be described as an aspect of humanism to sensitise both men and women to come out of the orientations resting on exploitative forms of existence, then Ardhanarishwara is its finest manifestation.


Before we come to the modern times, it would be appropriate to briefly visit the history of Indian civilization. The people of India have had a continuous civilization since 2500 CCE. Culturally, this period can be divided into two broad segments: the pre-Islamic, pre-British period and the post Islamic, post British period. While the hallmark of the earlier period was the equality of sexes and the celebration, rather than the worship, of femininity in all its manifestations, the latter period can be characterized as a period of exploitation of women and subjugation of everyone and everything that lacked masculine characteristics.

Nilmat Purana, which was composed in the 6th or 7th century CE in Kashmir, tells us that women of the time had the social sanction to join the men folk in enjoying the dramatic performances. Not only this, Kashmiri poet Bilhana (11th century CE) applauded the ladies of his native land for the excellent dramatic performances and particularly praised the acting of heavenly damsels Rambha, Chitralekha and Urvashi. Kshemendra, who lived in the 10th century CE, has been called the father of social satire, and in him we find the true traces of a people’s playwright. His Samaya Matrika is a play in eight acts narrating the story of wanderings of a courtesan in the Kashmir valley. I quote an extract from the play to give an example of the style and content of his writings. In this extract an older courtesan is narrating an incident of her younger days to a colleague:

When I was a young girl and very busy, an unmarried Brahmin, who was strong and well-built, came to me. I had already serviced several customers that evening and was afraid that this vigorous young man would wear me out. So I put him off by telling him that I had a migraine. He sympathized with me and started giving me a massage and this went on for some time. Finally, I realized that I had better give him his money’s worth or I would lose his custom. But when he had mounted my love machine, he said, ‘You have a headache. Maybe I shouldn’t do this.’ I answered with false flattery, ‘I have heard of the magic of touching the body of a strong man like you, but before today I never had any direct experience. The touch of your organ is like magic and has taken away all my suffering.

The fool immediately let out a cry of distress. ‘If only I had known of my own powers before!’ ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘My mother died from the pain of constant migraine! Had I known of my organ’s ability to relieve women of their pain, I would not be separated from her today.'”

This extract clearly elucidates the point that the women of the time not only had full control over their bodies and souls and possessed an ability and opportunity to celebrate their femininity in a manner they felt like, but they also felt free to ridicule the false masculine pride that many among us suffer from even today.
This is not to suggest that even at that time there were no male chauvinists with their own notions of the subservient role that women ought to play in the society. Writers like Manu and his followers constantly kept propounding their ideas of male and Brahmin superiority, but what has reached us in the form of religious and historical texts—plays and poetry of the period and temple sculptures of Khajuraho and Konark—provide ample evidence that such reactionary thinkers were largely ignored by the society of the day.

And then Islam entered the Indian subcontinent in the 7th century CE with its own notions about the role of women in society. Women, who had enjoyed equal status and rights during the Vedic period, were hidden behind a repressive purdah (or veil) and their freedom and rights were curtailed. Their role was merely confined to pleasuring men and procreating, giving birth, preferably to male progeny, without assuming any participatory role in the entire process. Other religions of the subcontinent, too, could not remain unaffected by the colossal and rapid changes that were taking place in the society and followed the path of degradation of the feminine form and suppression of femininity.

Muslims were followed by Europeans, mainly the British. Instead of bringing out Indian women from the pathetic state that they had by that time slipped into, the British imposed their own sets of do’s and don’ts on a society that was already suffocating because of the overbearing Islamic onslaught. They had their own notions about how a woman was expected to behave in her public and private life. Although the British did take an active role in abolishing the abominable practice of Sati, in which the wife was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her husband, their ideas about women were marked by a preconceived notion about what is right and what is wrong for a woman to do in the society. These notions are amply evident in the manner they perceived the sculptures of Khajuraho and Konark. In these sculptures—artworks that actually deal with the elevation of our primal needs into something holy and luminous, rather than repressing the lower human functions as most religions do—pleasure is depicted as a vehicle to self-realisation and finally godliness – a transcendental state where after having savoured earthly delights, we finally let go of cravings, attachments and worldly things. However, as portrayed in the film based on E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India, these sculptures disturbed the British sense of propriety when they first arrived in the country, for they completely contradicted the Victorian notion of women as submissive, non-sensual beings.

Rani Lakshmi Bai
Rani Lakshmi Bai

We will now skip the developments of the 19th and the early 20th century CE in the role of women in society as depicted in theatre of the time. How women again entered the domain that was denied to them during the many centuries of Muslim rule, is a story that has to be told separately. Women re-entered the Indian theatre scene in the early 20th century CE in a gradual, and (in the initial years) rather disrespectful, manner. India gained independence in the year 1947. The participation of many woman leaders of great stature in India’s struggle for independence gave a new confidence to our women folk who moved forward in the process of nation-building as equal partners of their male colleagues. All these leaders, be it Rani Lakshmi Bai, Sarojini Naidu or Vijay Laxmi Pandit, were women of extreme grace and poise who fought a bitter battle against the British rule while retaining all their feminine traits. The picture of Rani Laxmi Bai that is embedded in the Indian psyche is the one in which she is riding a horse with a sword in her hand while her son is strapped onto her back with the help of a cloth band.

All this had been reflected in the theatre that evolved in the post-independence India. Examples from three very significant Indian plays will show as to how these plays are different from their western counterparts (where the women are compelled to attain male characteristics in order to exert their influence in the society). While generalizations of any kind can prove to be mere rhetoric and at times meaningless, it is important to emphasise that the centuries-old tradition of equal and participatory role for women in all walks of life is in many ways reflected in the modern Indian theatre. If this tradition is not a reality today, at least our theatre certainly craves for it and is striving to attain this goal.

A poster of the play 'Adhe Adhure'
A poster of the play ‘Adhe Adhure’

The examples in this analysis include the powerful woman characters from Indian plays like Savitri in Mohan Rakesh’s play Aadhe Adhure (Halfway House), Benare in Vijay Tendulkar’s play Khamosh! Adalat Jari Hai (Silence, the court is in session) and Padmini in Girish Karnad’s playHayavadana (The Horse faced). These characters, in their battle against the man or in their search to complete themselves by finding an ideal partner, are not characterized as having become more manly. These women characters are in complete contrast to their western counterparts—Bernarda Alba in Federico García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba, Mother Courage in Brecht’s play Mother Courage and her Children, and Shen Te in another Brecht’s play Good Woman of Setzuan—who are compelled to acquire male characteristics in order assert their individuality.

Shen Te as Shui Ta in the play 'The Good Woman of Setzuan'
Shen Te as Shui Ta in the play ‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’

The character of Savitri in Mohan Rakesh’s play Adhe Adhure is so gripping that one is never sure whether to admire her rage to get a grip on her life, or to think that she has, in the manner of a Greek heroine, devoured her family, one by one. Is Savitri an early feminist icon or does she belong to the pantheon of women who are feared by the patriarchy as being too filled with a lust for life? Savitri, the central protagonist of Aadhe Adhure is the modern housewife. Not only does this restless and dissatisfied middle-aged mother of three grown-up children break out of the confines of the family home to enter the public space, she also becomes the breadwinner, reducing her unemployed husband to a redundant cipher. And as if this were not enough, she is also shown to have a past of extra-marital relationship. With this one play Mohan Rakesh exploded the myth of the idealised and hallowed institution of the Indian marriage, as well as shattered the image of the ideal Indian woman and mother as pure and self-sacrificing, perpetuated endlessly in earlier novels, paintings and on stage. Savitri is one of the most powerful and emancipated characters ever created for Indian stage. The popularity of the play, which has been in production for the past more than 40 years now, is a clear indicator that she has found a receptive and supportive audience among the people who live in modern urban India.

In terms of form and content Khamosh! Adalat Jari Hai is a complex work of art. Structurally, it is a drama-within-the-drama, which reveals the agonised world of a young schoolteacher who is humiliated and insulted. Deceived by two lovers with whom she has had brief but passionate affairs, she is desperate to lead a respectable life. The play indicts a male-dominated society, reflecting a feminist viewpoint. Its intricate artistry is reflected in the dialectical unity between its form and content. At another level it deals with the mask and the real face and the relationship of art to life. The play unravels the tormented existence of a woman who is abandoned in love and castigated by the society. Physically exploited and betrayed by her maternal uncle and then by a married colleague, she struggles to live a happy and upright life. Benare, the protagonist of the play, eventually emerges as a strong character in search of fulfilment, who, despite being battered by an insensitive society, is full of hope that she can live her life on her own terms without compromising on her intrinsic feminine characteristics.

A Poster of the Play 'Hayavadana'
A Poster of the Play ‘Hayavadana’

In Hayavadana the sexuality of a woman has been put forth in a very unassuming way by Girish Karnad, one of the most important playwrights of our country. Padmini, the lead character of the play, though married to Devadatta, is attracted to Kapila, her ascetic husband Devadatta’s best friend. The play is a surreal love story underscored by urgent, driving questions of postcolonial politics and identity. Karnad’s play concerns Padmini, a young woman who falls in love with the robust Kapila. When Padmini switches her paramours’ heads in a tragicomic accident, Karnad confronts the audience with a dilemma: which man is Padmini’s husband, the one bearing his head, or the one possessing his body? Both Devadatta and Kapila contend with feelings of incompleteness. The switch seems, at first, ideal for Padmini. However, conflicts arise as the two mismatched individuals try to reconcile the disconnect between their minds and their bodies. The play takes a philosophical turn as the audience is asked to consider whether it is the physical or the intellectual components that create identity. However, the very fact that Padmini is shown in the play as married to one person and unapologetically craving for another person takes this play back into the domain of Indian thought that was lost 1,000 years ago due to external intervention.

A scene from the play 'The House of Bernarda Alba'
A scene from the play ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’

As regards to the three western plays mentioned above, one does not really need to delve too much into the essential features of these plays as these are quite well known. Bernarda’s name is the Spanish version of the Teutonic name Bernard meaning “having the force of a bear.” Bernarda, an elderly widow who exerts excessive will over her daughters, is the symbol of all that is associated in our society with masculinity. She is preoccupied with ideas of honour and tradition, and her walking stick is a symbol of the power she holds over the household. She is a vicious and manipulative person who keeps a mental record of every scandal that involves her neighbours so that she can use the information as a weapon against them. In the end Bernarda seems unmoved by her daughter Adela’s death, more concerned about the perceptions of her neighbours as she orders her daughters to uphold the lie that her daughter died a virgin.

Mother Courage in the play 'Mother Courage and her Children'
Mother Courage in the play ‘Mother Courage and her Children’

Similarly, in the play Mother Courage and her Children, the main character is one of the very few unsympathetic major female characters in modern drama. The fact that when the play was produced in India under the title Himmat Mai, the character was played by Manohar Singh, one of the finest male actors of Indian stage, is a clear indicator that most directors have perceived Mother Courage as essentially possessing masculine rather than feminine traits. In one of the scenes, when the wounded body of her son Swiss Cheese is shown to her, she denies knowing him, thus negating the notions of motherly instincts associated with females of all species of the animal world. At the end, Mother Courage leaves the body of her daughter Kattrin to be buried and sets off pulling her wagon alone to conduct her business. A woman, and more particularly a mother, would possibly never behave in such a manner.

In the The Good Person of Szechwan the poor young prostitute Shen Teh is compelled to wear male clothing, a mask to take on the role of Shui Ta, and a forceful voice. While Shen Teh was soft, compassionate, and vulnerable, Shui Ta is unemotional and pragmatic, even vicious. The playwright seems to suggest that one has to become a Shui Ta to survive in this world while all the Shen Tes are bound to perish.

Indian society is full of contradictions. One can by no stretch of imagination assume that the position of women in India is exemplary if it is set as against their western counterparts. What is actually sought to be emphasized here is that the modern theatre in India does in some ways crave to restore the ages-old position of women in our society where they could not only enjoy but also celebrate their femininity and not feel compelled to be apologetic about it.

[1] Ravinder Kaul turned to theatre criticism after a long stint as an award winning actor and director. He is the theatre critic for a daily newspaper and his articles have been published in a number of national and international journals. He currently lives in Mumbai in India.

Copyright © 2010 Ravinder Kaul
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Redefining Femininity in Modern Indian Theatre