Thursday, October 21, 2010
Breaking the silence on women stage artists-Reema Narendran
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Where did all the women stage artists of over a century disappear, was a question that haunted theatre artist Sajitha Madathil. She meandered through the labyrinths of written and unwritten Malayalam theatre history, upturned every possible ‘milestone’ looking for little clues that may help her get a bigger picture of the theatre movement, especially the women’s role in it. The outcome has been an extensive book, ‘Malayalanatakasthricharithram’ being published by Mathrubhoomi.
‘‘Theatre is my passion and I always loved history. Together with this was the absolute eerie silence on women in Malayalam theatre history. Quite naturally this disturbed me and I knew I had to find the truth,’’ said Sajitha, deputy director (programmes), Chalachitra Academy.
And in her quest, Sajitha did not forget the professional theatres and the large chunk of women who were part of it. ‘‘Just as popular cinema was little discussed in academic circles, theatre history was not serious about commercial theatres. I consider women in commercial theatre as a strong part of my history and I felt that without narrating their experiences, the story would be incomplete,’’ she said.
Note that Sajitha used the words ‘my history’. You could almost feel in her the excitement as anyone tracking their roots would exude. The bits of information that Sajitha gathered over many years helped her put the quaint pieces of the puzzle together.
The pictures that eventually took shape led her to reason that the non-visibility of the women artists was mostly because of a careless or twisted narration of history, by a male-dominated society and at a time when women had no right to public space.
‘‘You won’t believe the kind of mistakes that’s doing the rounds on theatre history. In many books, the first contribution by a woman to theatre is said to be Thottakatt Madhaviamma’s ‘Subadradhananjayam’, but what they are actually talking about is Thottakkatt Ikkavamma’s ‘Subradarjunam’,’’ pointed out Sajitha, who felt that there was an urgent need to have a relook at the total history.
She started from the 1880s, placing the theatre movement and women’s role against the social backdrop of women’s identity in the society, level of education, costumes, utilisation of public space and so on. The book also takes a comprehensive look at the construction of women characters in political dramas, ‘Ningalenne Communistakki’ for example, that played a major role in the Communist movement, and the actual life of the women who portrayed these roles.
Sajitha, who loves to chat with women from the theatre world, discovered to her horror that there were times when women who took to stage were hunted out, both on the stage as well as backstage.
Many women artists recalled instances when trouble-makers among the audience would air nasty comments at them to distract and how they were hunted in the green rooms. ‘‘What is more, even female impersoniser like Velukkutty Asan were subjected to the same harassment as women artists,’’ observed Sajitha.
When Ikkavamma, one of the first woman artists to take stage in Malayalam theatre, decided to don the male role of Nalan, was she trying to protect herself? ‘‘For a woman stage artist, her feminine body can be a major barrier with the audience viewing the character secondary to the female body in front of them. This, even in the 21st century. Is there any wonder that Ikkavamma chose to depict male characters?’’ asked Sajitha.
The book also takes a long look at the first phase of women’s movement when Anna Chandy tried to define public space. With Anna Chandy’s arrival, a lot of women took to theatre and the book has interesting list of women artists whose names go J Madhaviamma BA, LT; L Omanakumari BA BL; K Anandavalliamma MA, Susy Mathew BSc Honours and so on.
‘‘But comb through theatre history and you will find that there were incidents like a group of Brahmin women who collectively wrote and staged the drama ‘Thozhilkendrathilekku’ as early as 1948 and Lalithambika Antharjanam who never published a work on a topic as revolutionary as widow remarriage,’’ Sajitha recalled.
Once she started her search, details and anecdotes kept pouring in on as many as a thousand women artists. ‘‘But I have to put a stop somewhere,’’ she laughed. The book is due for release in August.