Click here for all links

Social media links

Drama Queens: Women who dared to succeed in a man's world
- Leela Venkataraman
Images courtesy: Roli Books

May 18, 2017

Drama Queens, by Veejay Sai, is about women who created history in the theatre world between 1850-1950 when art traditions were being reinterpreted to usher in a new age, amidst a rigidly patriarchal Indian society where women regarded as lesser beings, in the entertainment world, were considered lowest of the low, confined to the edges of society. Staggering in the sheer range of material pertaining to interwoven threads of history, of politics, of social attitudes, of literature and performing arts like theatre, dance, music and film, the book indeed traverses many worlds - showing the interconnectedness in art streams. To unearth biographical details on unsung Bais, devadasis, kalavantulu, sanis and tawaifs, whose contributions so enriched our art world, is not easy. And one applauds this herculean research effort where source material comprised picking up shards of "a random passing gesture, a miniscule citation in a newspaper clipping", bits of material in defunct Urdu chronicles, old Tamil and Bengali journals, Marathi scripts, vernacular press clippings and not least, bits of information provided by the occasional surviving friend or relative - to make narratives out of.

The choice of these ten heroines has been prompted by available material covering different regions of India and parts of the book are in comparison sketchy. But for such endeavours, the contribution of these rebellious, brave women who fought to transform an unjust society and many of whom were actively involved in the Nationalistic struggle like Nagaratnamma and Kashmir's first superstar Shyama Zutshi who gave up acting to fight for the nation, would be part of unknown history, their achievements interred with their bones. Some among them, in a man's world managed their own theatre companies and many donated generously to worthy causes. As a people, our sense of history is skewed. For instance, Odisha's most active theatre movement during the early twenties has little codified information on the legendary Annapoorna A and B Theatre activity, out of which emerged the priceless contribution of Odissi dance, which today has spread to all parts of the world. There is little material on the theatre heroines of whom Laxmipriya became the wife of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra though the author has managed to get a picture of the three very young gurus who became striding colossuses of the Odissi world - Guru Pankajcharan Das, Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Guru Debaprasad Das.

From the Tamil region, the searchlight is on Balamani (Balamoni) born in Sasanallur near Kumbakonam, "the good Bayadere" according to a French travelogue "L'inde Sans Le Anglais" by Juilen Viaud (in chapter on 'In the land of the great palms'). Trained in Carnatic music and classical dance she sang Sanskrit songs, her ambition being to revive Sanskrit drama. One of the best chapters in the book uncovering little known details about this heroine, we come to know that this rage in her time, who set up, in Kumbakonam her own all female company (barring one male comedian compared to Charlie Chaplin, Jagannath Iyer) commanded a mammoth fan following, compelling the railways to introduce a special Kumbakonam Balamani Express running daily from Chennai to Kumbakonam and back ferrying audiences to and from her shows! Apart from the Travancore royal family, her admirers included Dharmapuri Subbaraya Iyer (1864-1927), the Javali composer who composed the Javali in praise of her "Emantune muddu Balamani emani vinna vintune o cheli" in Saindhavi.

Tara Sundari in Durgeshnandini
At the turn of the century when female impersonators held sway in other parts of the country, Bengali theatre, despite freedom fighters like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar protesting and cutting themselves off from theatre, introduced female actors, till then only associated with Jatras and nautches. Braving the societal backlash making even Goshtabehari Dutta, she was married to by a do-gooder, to escape to England, Golap Sundari became a superstar. In the same red light locality was born Tara Sundari (1879) who from acting as a little boy when barely six years old, graduated, to play (ironically) the heroine of Bilap written by Amritlal Basu to commemorate the same Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. After an infamous relationship with Amarendranath Dutta, Tara in 1904 married a young actor Aparesh Chandra Mukhopadhyay and the couple worked together. A towering star in 1933, Tara Sundari's acting as Rezia was rated one of the best acting efforts in the Hindu review column, comparable with any in the western world, by Bipin Chandra Pal, the Brahmo Samaj leader and Nationalist. Tara's compelling spiritual side as a devotee of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, has its own spinoffs with her also looking after Sharada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in her final days. This first lady and tragedienne of Bengali theatre, after a famous career, died unsung in Calcutta.

There is much on Parsi theatre influencing all India theatre activity from the early 1850s with companies like Grant Road Theatre Company and Victoria Theatrical Company, with Madan in the early 1900s, owning 135 of the 2000 theatres in India, Ceylon and Burma! After women in 1872 were introduced, Miss Fenton, the daughter of an Irish soldier cast as the Jogin in Harishchandra, marries her protégé Kavasji Palanji Khatau (1857-1916) of Alfred Theatre Company, to become fulltime wife, the Parsi circles embracing her as Mehr Bibi. But for exceptional men, Munni Bai would never have adorned the Parsi theatre. Brought up by her grandmother Husseini Bi, doing small roles in theatre, Munni in 1911 in her early teens, was catapulted into the heroine's role in Harishchandra by Baliwala, coping with the impending Indian visit of Queen Victoria and King Alfred with the heroine of Victoria Theatre Company's production falling ill. So impressed with her sangfroid was Baliwala that regardless of Munni's heritage, he married her to his nephew Dorabji who took over the Company on his death! Travelling to south, South-east Asia, to Lahore, Munni by 1920 rose to be the Sangeet Rani, acting in Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Parsi - even as Parsis like Sohrab Ogra of New Alfred Company stoutly opposed women being inducted into theatre. By 1937 Munni had as many medals as the great Faiyaz Khan!

Against a vivid backdrop of Katras of Amritsar and Lahore, bustling centres of trade and artistic activity Mukhtar is born to an Amritsar dancing girl and Ghulam Mohammad, a music loving migrant from Kashmir. Trained under Patiala gharana ustads Miya Meherbaan and later Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, her proficiency as singer attracts great playwright Agha Hashr Kashmiri of Madan Theatres touring the country (looking for a beautiful singing/dancing star). The art bonding with the smitten Agha writing plays for Mukhtar had far reaching consequences, and makes for a riveting narrative. With innumerable honours including from the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Usman Ali Khan among others, Mukhtar's later days were spent in Pakistan looking after her Patiala gharana Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, getting to know the next generation too - Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, his brother and sons. Shifting to Rawalpindi and Lahore, Mukhtar died in Karachi in 1982.

The involvement of Hindustani Ustads with traditional women in the art world was common. Kirana gharana specialists Abdul Karim Khan and brother Abdul Haq, were with the Baroda court - (the royal family princess Lakshmi Bai marrying into a Thanjavur royal family introducing Bharatanatyam into Baroda, under Sayajirao Gaekwad III (1863-1939) and his Kalawant karkhana. Abdul Karim's training of Tara, born to Marutirao Mane, a Sardar in the Baroda court and young singer Hirabai, led to the couple eloping to Bombay, their lived-in relationship concluding in marriage - with Tara becoming j. After seven children (five of them living), rifts appeared, with Abdul Karim's roving eyes settling on disciple Bannubai Latkar. Angry Tahira (who became Champutai) escaped with the children to Baroda, gave children Hindu names with oldest daughter Champakali becoming Hirabai Barodekar (of Baroda). Nothing less than a relative of Abdul Karim Khan, Abdul Wahid Khan would do for training and grooming daughter Hirabai and son Suresh Babu! From 1923, Hirabai with Suresh as harmonium accompanist became famous with Hirabai delivering about 200 recordings, becoming star broadcaster for AIR, opening the door to women on Marathi stage. Sadhvi Mirabai with some of the erotic Gita Govindam songs had Hirabai as heroine. Film prints of Pratibha (1937), Sant Janabai (38), Municipality (1941), Hirabai acted in, are not available though a few of the several gramophone records may be available as archival material with great collectors. Hirabai, post-independent, became just classical musician that people remember her as, being awarded the SNA award and a Padma Bhushan.

From mid-1850s, touring Parsi and Marathi theatre influenced Karnataka theatre. The Gubbi Chinnabasaveshwara Nataka Sangha, started in 1884 grew from a rural amateur group to heights under Gubbi Veeranna. From earthy folk idioms to Shakespeare plays like Ramavarma Lilavati (Romeo and Juliet), Sadashiva Rao's plays (mythology and history) had only female impersonators. Malavalli Subanna, a successful music director in 1911 introduced his daughter Sundaramma through Mysore Lakshmidevamma, to Kannada drama. Trained in Carnatic music and also in Jetti Tayamma school of Mysore style Bharatanatyam, Sundaramma's parts were specially designed for one adept in dance and music, like a half hour musical dialogue between Arjuna and Subhadra, with Sundaramma exploring ragams . She was applauded by legends like Veena Seshanna, Bidaram Krishnappa and the King Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar who rewarded her 500 rupees! Madras Music Academy featured her in Soundarya Mahal. She even sang for society weddings. Her acting career remained secondary to music which stayed the long term interest. By 1940s women were acting regularly in theatre and Nagarathnamma in a reverse process acted male roles! Her age of music related all- night theatre pertains to another age. She passed away in 1995.

Benares with its rich musical heritage of Thumri, Dadra through the Bais and tawaifs was the home of Jahanara, daughter of Nawab Chammi Saheb and Suggan Bai, forced to shift from Benares to Bhagalpur where Jahanara was trained under Patna's Husnu Khan. Learning Urdu, she later became a poet writing under the pen name Ada. Dhrupad, Khayal and thumri singers Mangu Bai, Moti Bai among others were nurtured by princely States in Bihar. In 1876, Patna's Natak Mandali had singers like Jahanara, entertaining between scenes. Suggan's shifting to Calcutta resulted in Agra singer Malka Jaan, taking Jahanara under her wing, with Kathak training under Bachwajaan of the famous Awadh court and soon Jahanara's knife dance became a big draw. Known as Kajjan, Jahanara became a big star, first cast in the musical theatre of Agha Hashr Kashmiri's drama productions as Bulbul-e-Bihar, with the talkie era starting in 1931 with Agha's Shirin Farhad. Living in pomp and style with rich lovers accommodating her eccentricities, Kajjan acted in a few plays and several films- Zehri Saanp, Turki Huur, Pati Bhakti, Miss Manorama, Mera Pyara.

Jahanara Kajjan


Baroda, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar in Gujarat patronised regional Bhavai and Garba. Gandhiji's return from South Africa in 1915, made theatre a mouthpiece for themes on national rule, women's freedom, British raj through Vadilal Shivram Nayak's over 500 songs and Agha Hashr's plays. Moti Bai born in 1915 (her father helped in the local Ram Lila productions) joined Kutch Natak Mandali to become writer/actor/director for Dayabhai Jhaveri Company. A fine Gujarati singer, her songs like "Meethe lagye te mane aaj na ujangara" were very popular.

Young Rushyendramani adopted by Venkataratnam from a traditional family, became the big name in Andhra's large drama company with bullock carts, tents and actors performing feats and dancing in between scenes in the play. In her absence a young male substituted, dressed in a saree performing feats - none other than the later god man of Puttaparthi! Hindi plays by Dharwada Nataka Sangam, Hindu Nataka Sangam in Guntur founded by Kondubhotla Subramanya Sastry (1853-97), theatre companies in Rajamundry and Machilipatnam (1882) were all performing and musical plays demanded good singer/actors, with traditional Bhogamvalu and Kalavantulu acting in theatre even in 1905. This chapter is like a biodata of films and plays. Rushyendramani excelled in Chintamani, a play on evils of Nautch! Rangoon Rowdy in 1929 made her famous and she met and married Javvadi Ramakrishna Rao. Her career of touring with two small children and in 1935 acting in silver screen in Krishna Thulabharam, Patni meant negotiating between stage and screen. Rushyendramani always sang her own songs. "Ha vidhi taguna ee parishodhana" becoming very popular. She acted in several films like Malliswari, Gule Bakavali, Maya Bazaar, Vipra Narayana, Gundamma Katha and among her famous heroes was actor N.T. Rama Rao too.

War bruised Manipuris sought diversion in their art forms. The war bonded Meities with Brahmins, respectively representing local and Vaishnavite cultures, and Netrajit's social drama Ningambada in 1943 made Thambalangoubi Devi a star. With occupation army at Kangla fort, local Karta dynasty replaced with the chosen Nar Singh dynasty, the socio/political climate comprised Bengali Bhadralok speaking Bengali and English, with Marwaris running commercial activity. Proscenium theatre in 1902 had female impersonators. But in 1910, Kangbam Maipakji involved in Marbak Jagoi dances came in and she was introduced to Natsankirtan by her father. Other women artists came, but as dancers. Gouramani born in Mayang, Imphal was introduced into play Reziya, translated into Manipuri by Arambam Dorendrajit in 1935. As a Manipuri dancer presenting Marbak Jagoi, Thambalangoubi faced humiliation as a dancing girl. But she never gave up. In 1939 Hiram Angahal looking for a heroine in Ibemma seeing her performing was awestruck and selected her. Thambal became famous as Iberma shabi. After 1947, Thambal quit acting to become full time Manipuri dancer. Despite fame and the SNA award, obituaries when she died in 2012 recognized her as a Manipuri dancer only.

Kirloskar Natak Mandali's production of Khadilkar's play 'Manapman' (1911) in Bombay

Like a good penman the author catches the layers to the characters of these women who were not unidimensional. With visuals comprising archival photographs in black and white full of character, the reasonably priced and aesthetically designed 'Drama Queens' published by Roli Books, with a foreword by Girish Karnad, is a must read for art lovers.

All royalties from the sales of the book have been pledged to a rural girl child education initiative.
Flexibound: 208 pages / Language: English
Publisher: Roli Books (1 April 2017), Price: Rs.695
ISBN-10: 9351941957 / ISBN-13: 978-9351941958

Writing on the dance scene for the last forty years, Leela Venkataraman's incisive comments on performances of all dance forms, participation in dance discussions both in India and abroad, and as a regular contributor to Hindu Friday Review, journals like Sruti and Nartanam, makes her voice respected for its balanced critiquing. She is the author of several books like Indian Classical dance: Tradition in Transition, Classical Dance in India and Indian Classical dance: The Renaissance and Beyond.

Post your comment
Unless you wish to remain anonymous, please provide your name and email id when you use the Anonymous profile in the blog to post a comment. All appropriate comments posted in the blog will also be featured in the site.

Click here for all links
Book Reviews | Home | About | Address Bank | News | Info Centre | Featured Columns