Published:  01:04 AM, 09 July 2019

Where is the female gaze in Indian theatre?

Where is the female gaze in Indian theatre? Images from Sarah Kane's Cleansed, of the National Theatre production

Vikram Phukan

One easy afternoon perusing the shelves at Prithvi Theatre's snug and compact bookshop - Paperback Prithvi Bookshop - I was struck by how few titles there were present of women playwrights.

If you searched persistently enough, you could find the odd Gowri Ramnarayan or Manjula Padmanabhan tucked away in the corner, but even international names seemed to be missing from the store's otherwise enviable roster of theatre-related titles.

I was purchasing a dozen-odd scripts for a theatre class I teach, and wanted a diverse mix of titles. And it couldn't really be said that I was spoiled for choice, since the selection could only include one each from the troika of Tendulkar, Karnad and Sarkar, whose plays line the shelves, sometimes in multiple editions.

Dramatis lacuna

Of course, the bookstore has always given off the vibe of an eclectically curated space with its share of the offbeat and the antiquarian, so it wasn't likely that it would subscribe to the old 'there is no demand' line, since it does set the agenda in many other ways - doggedly persisting when most other bookstores have been made defunct or pushed online.

Indeed, a conversation with the lady behind the counter led to a commitment to procure a batch of new books, all by female playwrights.

We even chalked up a list - Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Yasmina Reza, Lynn Nottage among them. Several working Indian female playwrights we could name without thinking twice - Purva Naresh, Irawati Karnik, Faezeh Jalali, Sneh Sapru, for instance - haven't yet had their plays brought out by any imprint.

Nine Dots Prize-winner Annie Zaidi's Three Plays: Untitled 1, Jam and Name, Place, Animal, Thing was recently released by Dhauli Books, and hopefully we will see her other works surface. The past year has also seen the resurgence of Shanta Gokhale as playwright - with Menghaobi - The Fair Onenow available in print (but not as yet indexed by a search engine, it would seem).

This brings to mind another chance encounter in the languorous open-air environs of Chennai's Amethyst Cafe, this time with the American academic, Shirley Huston-Findley, in India on a Fulbright-Nehru grant to study the oral histories of modern female playwrights in India. Some of the 'leads' we discussed led her to visit Mumbai later that year, in 2014.

Since 1999, Huston-Findley has been teaching at the College of Wooster, a private liberal arts college in Ohio. Her project sought to examine the relationship between, "how the work of contemporary female playwrights in India is gendered and the ways in which they have conformed to and/or resisted culturally inscribed gender identities."

The study was slated to culminate in a book-length manuscript consisting of 32 oral histories of playwrights throughout India as well as Huston-Findley's observations of theatre performances and rehearsals. This upcoming monograph is tentatively titled, Indian Women Dramatists Speak Out!

Essential reading

Interestingly, included within the ambit of 'female playwright' were those who devise plays either themselves or in collaborative set-ups. The latter might include the likes of Jalali (7/7/07), Aagaaz Theatre Trust (Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan) and the Patchworks Ensemble (Ila, among others).

There are also a slew of intrepid performers like Maya Krishna Rao, Jyoti Dogra or Amruta Mapuskar who create works using movement, expressions and improvised text on the floor rather than using preconceived scripts. These kind of performance texts are albeit harder to find in published form, but what a treat it would be to hold such a manuscript in one's hand, complete with notations and movement scores.

Back at one of my classes, students took on characters from classic plays in order to research playwrights and the ethos in which they worked. One striking presentation was that of Tinker, the drug dealer from Sarah Kane's Cleansed. Kane took her own life in 1999 (she was just 28), but left behind a body of work that was powerful and provocative, and she is considered an exponent of what came to be known as "In-Yer-Face theatre".

Cleansed especially includes grisly sequences involving electrocution, rape and forced (and botched) genital reassignment surgery, which led to "five faints and 40 walk-outs" during a 2016 run. The violence wasn't gratuitous in a Tarantino sense, but it was certainly a work that rebelled against what our expectations of a 'female gaze' might be.Kane described herself as a 'gender-neutral' writer, but her works still are a minefield of gender-inflected insights and observations.


The writer is a playwright and
stage critic

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