Sarvani Gooptu’s book The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta is a slim compendium on the history and life of theatre actresses of Bengal who had graced the stage as early as the 1870s. These actresses were pioneers in their own right and had paved the way for theatre and film actresses of today, breaking through many social stigmas and cultural barriers of their times. The book traverses a period of 60-odd years of public theatre in Calcutta when these actresses appeared on public stage for the first time. Sarvani Gooptu narrates their life of courage, perseverance, romance and relationships with mentors and patrons, which these actresses juggled and mastered to create magic on stage for their audience.
When Susmita Dasgupta (a friend) shared her views on The Actresses in the Public Theatres of Calcutta with me recently, I took an immediate interest in the book and its subject matter; and, with Susmita’s help, was able to connect with and interview Sarvani Gooptu.
Congratulations on publishing your first book. Although the title of the book ‘The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta’ is clear enough, could you tell us something more about the book – for instance, the period of Bengali theatre the book traces.
Thank you. My focus in this book has been on the actresses who came into theatre in 1873. There had been women performing in female roles in 1832 but it was fleeting. Then for a prolonged period theatre in Calcutta was vibrant yet where young men or boys performed in female roles. But gradually there was dissatisfaction aesthetically regarding this and some like the writer-dramatist, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, made a strong case for introducing actresses. So my book starts in this period when in the contemporary journals there is a growing demand for bringing in women into theatre- then continues to explore the entry of the actresses, their struggle to establish themselves and the reaction of the Bengali society towards the actress. Throughout I have tried to also locate the growth of an artistic identity through fragmentary scattered evidence in the contemporary literature. I have wound up my discussion in the 1930s when Sisir Bhaduri was reigning in theatre since qualitatively that was a different phase for theatre and the actress and needs a much more in-depth study.
How did the idea for the book originate? How much research has gone into it?
It originated out of the blue so to speak. While doing my doctoral research on Dwijendralal Roy I used to constantly hunt for references to him in the Bengali periodicals and journals where I came across references to the different actresses. I was intrigued. I must confess this curiosity was more sociological than artistic and because I’m not from theatre background, every little titbit I read was new to me. My training in gender was there because of my stint as Research Officer in the Women’s Studies Research Centre in Calcutta University so I naturally used that lens to look at these women who I noticed were battling tremendous odds to maintain their position in theatre and the society. I got hooked. I then applied for a minor research project in UGC and set on this journey. It was a two year project during which I travelled to Delhi and other parts of the country to research as well as present papers in conferences. It was the tremendous appreciation and encouragement from my well-wishers that convinced me that this could be a book. All this took around 5 years.
Was Bengal leading the movement in terms of introducing actresses on stage? Were there similar movements in other parts of India at the time?
This question haunted me too and I was tempted to make a comparative analysis of entry of actresses in theatres of other states of India as well as other countries. But that was too ambitious a project and would mean too much investment of time and travel. So I tried to bring in Parsi theatre where women performed in female roles from mid -19th c. even before Bengali theatre. Parsi theatres’ impact was also there in theatrical styles as well and I have tried to bring that in too. But the problem everywhere is the same; the focus is not on the actress in the contemporary writing so there references are very fleeting. Interestingly the reasons for this are different in different cases. The entry of women in theatre took place at different times in India and other than Parsi theatre all took place after Bengal. To me the crux of the matter is whether the theatre is public or not. I have a theory that in public theatre women acting in female roles was inevitable sooner than later.
Women in theatre and films are commonplace today, but the actresses you mention in your book would have experienced far different situations than the actresses of today. Can you talk about a few of their experiences?
This is my entire book – their experience at various levels. An actress who came in at a young age faced first of all the most difficult task of grasping a literary language to perform. They were more adept in singing and dancing but the dialogues delivery must have been a challenge. Here the training by the Director who was in most cases the leading actor became crucial and they mentored these young girls so well that they blossomed into accomplished and powerful performers. No wonder then these girls also began to be controlled by their mentors and patrons in all aspects of their lives. I have also discussed their experiences in the context of the social stigma that existed against these girls who were mostly from poor and uneducated backgrounds and most were daughters of prostitutes. In the meagre written documentation that is available by these women it is this stigma and social ostracism that pained them the most. Their desire for social acceptance and fear of isolation led them to take both empowering as well as self- destructive steps. What I wanted to reverse through my discussion of their troubles and travails is a general acceptance by the society of their doomed fate simply because of the accident of their birth in complete callous disregard of their superlative efforts.
Were these actresses welcomed by the existing all-male theatre troupes and the audience? Apart from the novelty of having women amidst them on stage and seeing women on stage, what were some specific responses of the male actors and the audience?
First of all one must acknowledge the great effort and sacrifices that some men – dramatists, actors, managers, patrons made which made the entry of the women in to theatre possible. Having brought these young and vulnerable teenagers these men performed the Herculean task of justifying their claims that these women would deliver the goods so to speak. So it is definitely true that without stalwarts like Girish Ghosh, Amritalal Bose, Ardhendusekhar Mustafi, Amarendra Nath Dutta and many others this tremendous step may have been another flash in the pan. But once the success came every little effort of the actress at independence was nipped in the bud. The logic was always that it was necessary to protect the vulnerable women and safeguard theatre but obviously this was not always true. The battle of the theatres made it too risky to allow any sense of identity to develop in these women. Also there were many different loyalties within a theatre group which always created a sense of insecurity for the management. There was also a similar insecurity of these women whose background experience made them hunger for a financial security through a link with a rich man within or outside the theatre. Once this was done they invariably tried ingratiate into social respectability by distancing themselves from the theatre, the very institution which had brought them closer to the object of their dream, a secure family. So the reaction of the men within theatre and in the society to the actress was a multi-layered one. They couldn’t do without them but resented them all the time.
Until that time, and much later, Indian women were expected to stay indoors. Exhibiting themselves in public must have been a remarkable event. Did women in Bengali society at the time accept the idea of women actresses on stage? Or, did Bengali men encourage the notion of actresses on stage in Calcutta and help bring in social change?
Their impact on the Indian educated women too must have been similar to men though with a difference. There must have been an initial curiosity, an appreciation of their artistic ability, enjoyment of the art and also a need to maintain a distance to retain their own social respectability just like their men. But for educated women there must have also been an appreciation of the difference of the actress with other public women. Unlike prostitutes or baijis who performed publicly as well these actresses were in much closer contact and at the same level as male actors who came from educated middleclass backgrounds. That is why the actresses were cynosure of all eyes – sometimes an appreciative gaze but mostly deliberately condemning so that they were kept in their place like respectable women in society. However the actress begins to feature in the vocabulary of women writers from this period onwards.
There was a strand among the reformists Brahmos who contemplated improvement of condition of women by rehabilitation of prostitutes through marriage. Routing them through theatre was an easy option and Upendranath Das was committed to this. He compelled his protégé Goshtho Behari Dutta to marry Sukumari (Golaap Sundori) with tragic consequences for the couple. Dutta abandoned Sukumari due to social pressure after she had left the theatre leaving her and her baby daughter in dire straits. Sukumari on the contrary showed her mettle in her efforts to make an artistic return becoming the first woman manager and dramatist. The reform to my mind was flawed from the beginning since it looked for a solution, i.e. marriage which would take the women away from the avenues of empowerment, her livelihood and passion, the theatre. In India the concept of linking family and art had not become popular like in contemporary English theatre, so a reform which gave institutional sanction but no social recognition or monetary security while destroying independence was bound to fail. The society was not yet ready for reform which brought empowerment. The mistake that Binodini made of retiring at her artistic peak for ephemeral satisfaction of a ‘family’ without social approval was still considered the height of achievement which is why she was feted over generations and Sukumari’s efforts were lost in oblivion. My book also aims to undo these wrongs.
Sarvani, thank you so much for this interview. We hope ‘The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta’ is a grand success.
[Dr Sarvani Gooptu is Associate Professor and Head, Department of History at Calcutta Girls’ College (Affiliated to the University of Calcutta), Kolkata. Her areas of research are nationalism and culture in the colonial and post-colonial periods.
The Actress in the Public Theatres of Calcutta, Primus Books, 188 pages, Rs.895/- (hardcover).]