History of Women in Malayalam Theatre-Introduction!!
To venture into the history of Malayalam theatre which includes the contributions of women theatre artists and other participants was not accidental. The women-sided approach that developed in later 1980; women interventions in media and such activities must have formed the basis for writing this book.
Malayalam theatre has a history of only 128 years. The amount of participation of women in this time in this particular history is the question this book attempts to ask and analyse. Such an analysis is inspired by the silence that resounds in other written histories of Malayalam theatre. The information on participation of women in the earlier plays including their names is missing. After 1980, after the conscious interventions by women in Malayalam theatre, the written history has a section of ‘women theatre’. This part does not cover women’s contributions of that period of time entirely, but that is the only part where women theatre participation finds a mention.
If one attempts to enquire about the women participation in earlier years, the first name found in the history books is of a play ‘Subhadraadhananjayam’ written by Thottakkaattu Maadhaviyamma. When we progress in this line, we understand that our famous historians just too carelessly mentioned about the play named ‘Subhadrarjunam’ written by a famous woman writer, Thattakkaattu Ikkaavamma. In many other history books, we can see that this error is repeated. ‘Why mention women in theatre history?’ is the instinctive question that is being asked and this kind of carelessness can also be seen while mentioning women of modern times.
Why the women part of this history was made invisible? G Sankarappillai states in his book ‘History of Malayalam Theatre Literature,’ about the yardsticks he used for writing Malayalam theatre history.
‘I do not intend to present the names of each and every playwright and his play in a chronological order in the history of Malayalam theatre. The plays which served as the turning points of Malayalam theatre and the talented playwrights who showed the light to new ways are the ones I intend to mention. Along with that, a separate analysis of the trends that changed and influenced as the time progressed is also been presented. ‘
Here, it can be seen that the writer has three main interests in the theatre history. Among the famous plays, talented writers and the trends that changed with time one could not have found much about the women plays.
Due to the lack of confidence that comes from not knowing much about theatre as a medium, there might be many unpublished or unperformed plays written by women. But many famous plays like ‘Akjaathavaasam’ by Kuttikkunju Thangachi, ‘Saavithri Athavaa Vidhavaavivaaham’ by Lalithaambika Antharjanam, ‘Devadoothi’ by B Saraswthiyamma or ‘Madhavivarma’ by Madhavikkutti also did not feature into Malayalam theatre history. When we understand that this silent absence has been brought to light only by a women-sided analysis, it makes the standing yardsticks inefficient for writing a woman-sided history.
This makes to two types of analysis required for the purpose. First, freshly evaluate the written history in a critical perspective. Second, write another history of the hidden participation of women in the same history. This book travels in both these directions.
The first investigation is about the roots of women in performing arts earlier to theatre. Women have been important participants of folk, classical and ritual art forms in diverse forms in Kerala. The women theatre artists hailed from these artists who participated in ritual art forms as a part of their tradition. This is a very important piece of information for the construction of theatre history of women participation. The first chapter of this book elaborates on these points using the available information on these art-forms and participations today. The ways in which women were excluded from these art-forms later and the ways in which the participation of women are still being avoided in many art forms are also discussed in this chapter.
The second chapter attempts to analyse the social situation of women during the starting period of Malayalam theatre history (in 1882), and the ways in which women tried to intervene in theatre in the specific social situation.
The third and the fourth chapters speak about the ‘women -essence’ that was propagated by men playing women parts in Malayalam plays. These chapters also examine the interventions made by women who dared to enter Malayalam theatre.
The renaissance plays are considered as the ones which discuss ‘women agenda’. The fifth chapter re-reads them to reveal their very limited agenda in this concern. The same chapter discusses about two plays written by women contemporaries which were forgotten by the history. It also contains an analysis of one of the most important part of women’s interventions in the public space, performing on stage, done by women like Akkaamma Cheriyan in that period of time.
Political plays are a genre which have invited many discussions later. By that period of time, women were active participants in theatre. What did these plays, which are said to have influenced Kerala’s life-style in a major way, contribute to its ‘idea of women’? The sixth chapter reads this ‘idea of women’ along with the real experiences of women who were culturally or politically active.
Most number of women in Malayalam theatre is seen working with the professional commercial theatre. For them, working with theatre is the way to make a living. But their contributions have never been analysed seriously. In a woman-sided history of Malayalam theatre, their contributions are very important. The seventh chapter has two sections, actor and society and actor and theatre. It elaborates on some major questions namely, how the society viewed the life of an actor, what were the comforts and safety she experienced in theatre as a workspace and how the theatre community viewed this actor.
The Kalari movement in 1960 was an opportunity for women to get closer to theatre as a medium. 1970s revealed new theatre languages for her as political weapons. The theatre initiatives that followed were highly influenced by these two movements. The changes in theatre medium that followed the spreading of women liberation ideas in 1980s is being discussed in the eighth chapter. The women theatre groups that started functioning in various levels, their plan of action, performances and their styles are analysed in this chapter.
During 1990s and later, Malayalam theatre was alive with many interventions and performances by women who had learned the grammar of this medium. The last chapter discusses about the activities each of them performed in different ways to create their own styles and genres of plays.
The studies in this book are a part of studies and researches being carried out for last many years. School of letters, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Kendra Sangeetha Nataka Academy are the institutions which helped in the making of this book.
My only aim was to write a Malayalam theatre history which includes its women participants. But there might be many women experiences that stand outside this book. And hence, I don’t consider this book complete.