Book: Drama Queens- Women who created history on stage
Author: Veejay Sai
Publisher: Roli Books
In the first chapter of the ancient text- Natya Shastra, Brahma entrusted Bharata with the task of creation of the Art of Drama (Natyotpatti) in the universe. He also provided Bharata with a hundred sons for the same, but when a demand for graceful movements arose, Brahma created celestial maidens wearing beautiful costumes and capable of beautiful music. The politics of Drama ensues with this dichotomy, where the craft is entrusted to the Man and the sensuous elements of performance are delegated to women. These women are not wives, nor the daughters of affluent people, but they are ‘professional’ women. As Girish Karnad introduces the world of these ‘professional’ women in a foreword to the book ‘Drama Queens- Women who created history on stage’, the reader is intrigued by what was the role women played in performance? Veejay Sai answers this question through the lives of ten women who broke these barriers by living on stage. These women were Balamani, Tara Sundari Devi, Munni Bai, Mukhtar Begum, Hirabai, Malavalli Sundaramma, Jahanara Kajjan, Moti Bai, Rushyendramani, and Thambalangoubi Devi.
The title of ‘Drama Queens’ was chosen by Veejay Sai for a reason. The primary one being that it was used as a derogatory term, it was used to signify a woman with dubious character, whose success was looked down upon and who was considered difficult to handle. Sai’s use of the title was to return home and to use it in all the ways apart from their intended meaning. He wanted to reinstate the fact and acknowledge their lives and success.
The stories in ‘Drama Queens’ take one to the time where female impersonators were a common norm, films were a new medium and India was in a stage of political and social change. In this time, a woman to set foot on stage was an act of rebellion and the ten women that are a part of this narrative were rebels in their own right. Their stories reach out to tell the reader about the world they inhabited. For instance, Thambalangoubi Devi had to face humiliation where she was termed as ‘Jagoi Shabi’ (Dancing Girl), ‘Afoobi’ (notoriously famous) or ‘Tou-ngambi’ (Prostitute). When she left for play rehearsals, men and women emerged from their house and spat at her face. Despite these atrocities, Thambalangoubi Devi did not give up. Hirabai barodekar on the other hand stepped on stage against the wish of her father, who thought it was an immoral activity. In her life and struggles as an artist, it was always her endeavour to prove that ‘No art could ever be immoral or a taboo as all of it was a creation of God.’
But the stories of these women are not lone battles, they did achieve immense fame and appreciation for their art with some help. The stories are as much as of playwright Aga Hashr Kashmiri as of Mukhtar Begum. For these men inhabit the stage with these women and bring about that social change together. What enhances the reading experience are the vivid pictures that go along with it. The journey is a visual one where the pictures open windows into the past. The journey is made accessible through Veejay Sai’s effortless language.
The discussion of women in theatre is a relevant one, and especially of these women who have been lost in archives. Their achievements were no mean feat. Today the stage is held by many women, the likes of Arundhati Nag, Sanjana Kapoor, Kalki Koechlin, Geetanjali Kulkarni, Faezeh Jalali, Yuki Ellias, Shernaz Patel, to name a few have made a distinct identity for themselves, making theatre a space for a political voice, an entertaining space, and a learning space altogether. There is a rich legacy of performers in post independent India which made the stage their own. But Veejay Sai’s Drama Queens is that bit of document that, as Girish Karnad puts it, ‘Long Overdue’. For it takes us into that long-lost past, into the lives, where women broke into the stage to stay there fore