A woman has always been put to question whenever she has tried something new, something out of the box, something that the social norms does not allow her to do. But, she has always found her way to achievement as she is indomitable. Don’t we women believe so? Aren’t we invincible?We have surely outdone men in every sphere if we look around and judge with proper rational thinking. Bengali theatre is also not an exception – a few years after its inception, this cultural domain has witnessed rise of women who ignored all the taboos.
The educated Bengalees started patronising public theatre at first to impress the British overlords, and that was in the 19th century, when public theatre was introduced to Bengali culture. Later, as time passed, theatre got larger audience and became an essential part of communication for the Bengali intellectuals.
Initially, both male and female characters were represented by male artists, but, later, to make the theatrical performances more attractive as well as realistic, female artists were brought into the realm of Bengali theatre. And, the introduction of females to the stage became, very much expectedly, a contested matter of discussion among the upper and middle class social activists of Bengal.
The male enthusiasts of Bengali theatre felt the necessity of bringing female artists to the stage because without them, the roles were not turning out convincing or realistic to the audience any more. But, for the upper-class and educated Bengali females, it was totally out of question to be standing in front of male gaze. They were not even allowed to come out to the public at that time. Therefore, the only option left was to recruit the prostitutes, yes, the women lingering in the red-light areas of Bengal, to act in stage drama.
Everyone at that time, I mean those who were interested in Bengali theatre and also was a part of it, admitted that the stage of Bengal needed this reform – the reform that was brought by the introduction of females on the stage. Yes, it’s true that almost all of those artists were from the forbidden lanes of Kolkata and other cities, but there were no alternatives left. Unless the educated and cultured families allowed their women to come forward and showcase their talent, what could the stage do, except from welcoming the prostitutes who were ready to leave their ancient profession and join the world of culture. And we must admit, they were exceptionally talented, rather gifted.
Doors were also opened to the working class women, who came to the stage in order to find a healthy regular income, and also find an escape route from the suppression and torture they encountered daily. Many women came to theatre in search of earning as they were left by their husbands. Some left their abusive husbands themselves to lead a life of freedom and respect, though unfortunately, theatre could not offer them that much respect they looked for.
Why couldn’t they achieve what they dreamt of? Well, 19th century society, specially the reformers and the press, linked all women artists with prostitution. They pointed out that the theatre of Bengal was being polluted, yes, because of the women actors. Funny isn’t it? The ones who helped making the execution of the plays realistic and aesthetic, were questioned, were suspected to be morally degraded! And not only in theatre but also in other cultural fields such as dance and music, if women were to be seen performing, they were tagged as prostitutes.
According to the elite, these women were the reason for which the culture of Bengal became debased and uncivilised. I mean, really? But, such was the society at that time, and today also, the society has not changed very much. Till date, women who venture out to the spheres that are different from the normally accepted territories, are indicated to be sinners, wicked, and sometimes insipid. So, if this modern time society can display their mean mind, why wouldn’t the 19th century people reveal their inner-self?
The actresses of the first generation were mainly recruited by the upper and middle class theatre enthusiasts. Those female artists were Golap Sundari, Elokeshi, Jagattarini, Shyama, and later, the famous Binodini Dasi, Teenkori, Basanta Kumari, Sushilabala, and many others. And we must note that all of them were filtered out from the old and traditional world of business dominated by women – prostitution. Theatre of Bengal undeniably presented to them at least some sort of respect and livelihood.
Binodini Dasi’s Aamar Katha and Aamar Abhinetri Jiban are two pieces of writing that depicts the grim reality supressed under the apparent appraisals and praise received by the women artists at the then time of Bengali theatre.
Today, even though we have reached a better level in terms of art and culture, women still lack recognition, in spite of being gifted with exceptional expertise. This article must have helped you learn what you might have not known previously.
We will be back with another one that will picture the life and struggles, as well as achievements of Binodini Dasi in our next article. Stay with us!