Reversal of roles


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LET me begin with a factual detail: accounts of modern Kannada theatre invariably begin their narratives in the 1880s. Around this time not just Sanskrit plays but also a number of Shakespeare’s plays were translated and adapted for Kannada theatre. There is dispute on the nature and authenticity of the Shakespearean imports, but there is general agreement that – as is also the case with most desi theatre in India – these adaptations herald the beginning of the ‘modern’1 in Kannada drama and theatre. Most of these translations/adaptations were neither faithful to the original Shakespearean texts nor did they become significant independent plays in Kannada. The argument, however, is that they mark a period of transition from the ‘traditional’ to the ‘modern’ in the history of Kannada theatre.

Some years ago an unexpected twist was inserted into this narrative. A respected scholar on 19th century Kannada culture published a short article in a periodical,2 revealing that decades before these mainstream Shakespeare adaptations appeared, a traditional Yakshagana troupe had already created a prasanga based on the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’! This seemingly insignificant example from the early history of modern Kannada drama, in my view, inverts the linearity of the narrative of modernity in Kannada theatre. By implication, it is a clear case of ‘modernity’ entering the high abodes of Kannada theatre from the back door. Moreover, what is conventionally perceived as ‘traditional’ was quicker in acquiring its share of the ‘modern’ than what is generally regarded as the ‘modern’!

How do we account for these contradictory instances of ‘modernity’ in our history of modern Kannada theatre today? It is generally accepted by critics today, in Karnataka and elsewhere, that the term ‘modern’ denotes not only different things in different contexts, but is also defined by the particular context it emerges from. Today, we are also aware that the articulation of this concept (of modernity) – especially in the desi languages/cultures in India – is an intricately woven multifaceted narrative.

While on the one hand it reflects a fascination with western modernity (as it was perceived), it is also part of the various attempts to adapt, alter, and even parody it, consciously or unconsciously. But what we have still not been able to do is to develop a nuanced narrative that captures the contradictions, ambivalences, multiplicities within the Kannada theatre traditions without resorting to simplistic stereotypes. This paper attempts to capture some fragments of the contradictory career of Kannada modernity gathered from different moments of Kannada theatre across the 20th century, on one theme – the role of women in theatre.


In modern Kannada drama, especially in its formative phase between 1880 and 1920, all plays were invariably focused around issues of widow-hood, remarriage, child marriage, dowry and women’s education; the general agenda was to enable women to have equal rights in society. But on the question of women participation in theatre, one finds a strange ambivalence as well as an anxiety. It is also interesting to note that the same strata of society which was advocating women’s rights in their plays was most prone to this anxiety.

Let me cite a fairly representative opinion on this issue by a noted theatre practitioner and scholar of the time, Kolachalam Srinivasa Rao. A pleader and a non-professional theatre practitioner from Bellary, Srinivasa Rao wrote an ambitious book called Dramatic History of the World as early as 1908, that too in English. In the preface, he points to the decadence that had set into Indian language theatres at that point in time, in part because of the decline in morality in the practice of theatre. Finally, after surveying theatre traditions from Japan to the Americas, he provided an exclusive appendix, a list of ‘rules’ like by-laws for contemporary theatre practitioners. Among his recommendations: ‘Till Hindu society is fully developed physically, greatly reformed morally, and vastly improved intellectually, do not allow a woman to become an actress. Hindu customs and manners do not allow such a course being taken…3


What was the source of anxiety which at that point in time presupposed that with the entry of women the moral and ethical base of Indian theatre would be in danger? Though socio-cultural discussion on this question is beyond the scope of the present paper, its worth mentioning that such an anxiety was not merely reflective of early modern Kannada theatre; in fact, many studies analyse the basis of such an attitude elsewhere too.4 However, what is interesting for the present discussion is that the anxiety about women ‘polluting’ the ethics of theatre did not arise out of a ‘traditional’ mindset, but was probably an indirect result of the impact of modernity. The available historical evidence clearly points to the fact that the resistance to accept women as actors was more prominent in ‘amateur’ than in ‘traditional’ theatres, especially those that had more lokadharmi leanings. There were several traditional forms of theatre where women took part much before the advent of modernity, and they continued to do so without any anxiety even subsequently. The Kannada company, Nataka, included women as actors in the early years of the 20th century for mainly commercial reasons. But in amateur theatre the resistance continued long after, until almost the late 1970s, and changed only after institutional training had become more widespread and professional choices had widened.


To get a better appreciation of the degree to which the question of women’s role in theatre obsessed amateur theatre at that time, one must browse through the pages of the journal Rangabhoomi, published as the mouthpiece of amateur theatre in Karnataka between 1922 and 1937. In the letter’s column of that journal, the one single question which came up repeatedly for discussion, was whether women playing female characters was essential for the healthy growth of theatre. The discussion was evenly divided between two camps. Even as the conservatives asserted that this would lead to further decadence and thus status of theatre in society, the progressives maintained that without the involvement of women theatre could never attain maturity. At one particular juncture, when the ‘conservatives’ had nearly overwhelmed their opposition, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya intervened to say that if women have equal rights in society, they must also have the freedom to choose whether they can be actors or not.


What interests me today is not the moral aspect, but an interesting turn in the debate that happened around the 1930s, extending the question of women playing female characters to the aesthetics of naturalism. The first available articulation of such a viewpoint can be traced to Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sharma, a musicologist and drama critic, in a conference on theatre in Bellary (1934).

In that lecture, later published as an independent essay, he notes that naturalism implies and implores that ‘…the way characters act and speak on stage, the way they dress must be natural. And by the same logic it implies that things like music and prosody that we do not use in our daily lives are not of use on stage. Similarly, it is evident that however much men may try to imitate women it cannot claim naturalness, because they are made biologically differently; in their physique, voice and behaviour. Therefore, it is suggested that the female characters must be played by women.’5

But, behind this perfectly logical discourse of naturalness and authenticity, Sharma focuses on what he calls a hidden agenda of employing women’s bodies as the focal attraction of a theatrical spectacle. Sharma argues that what comes in the guise of naturalism is in fact, not an exercise in empowering women as is professed but a blatant commercial exploitation of women. He also connects this debate to the larger question on the aesthetics of representation:

‘ If we look at this question from an aesthetic perspective, one cannot argue that the art of acting has improved simply because women have come on stage. Because, as it is known, art is a product of an individual and not of a particular gender. Can anybody venture to argue that (merely) because one is born a woman, she can act women’s roles better? I have seen many women acting, but I feel that most of them are women not by their choice, and therefore, in the craft of acting they are neither feminine nor masculine. Similarly, it is also excruciatingly obvious to all of us that all men cannot act men’s roles well. It is thus clear that whether man or woman; only some are bestowed with the gift of acting. Moreover, the craft of acting is fundamentally an impersonation. In that case, a talented person, man or woman, need not be restricted to play the roles of only the male and the female respectively…’6


To complicate matters further, Ananthakrishna Sharma, in the same essay, argues that this question has equally an ethical and moral implication. His arguments then begin to resemble those of Kolachalam Srinivasa Rao, cited earlier. Interestingly, unlike Kolachalam Srinivasa Rao, Ananthakrishna Sharma does not advocate a ban on women acting in theatre, but instead proposes that separate women’s theatre companies be formed where women play both male and female roles. ‘So far no one seems to have allowed women to do that,’ he exclaims at one point in that essay and concludes by saying, ‘I am sure, if they are given a chance to do that, their portrayal of men would in no way be inferior to the way men portray men!’

Later, in the history of Kannada theatre, we notice how both these propositions were realized – with women playing women’s roles in regular theatre companies, as well as all-women theatre companies operating independently, though the latter remained more of an exception.


It is, however, interesting to note that Ananthakrishna Sharma’s exceptional views on the ‘aesthetics’ of naturalism did not entirely remain exceptional, nor was his view – as we might pass our ‘informed’ verdict today – just an ‘aesthetic’ mask of a conservative Brahmin to cover his resistance to women gaining equal access to the performing arts, because his contention on the aesthetics of representing women in theatre was later endorsed at least by some theatre practitioners. Let me cite two such instances in the debates on Kannada drama where a similar argument was advanced, but in completely different contexts.

The first one is an anecdote about the multifarious cultural giant of Kannada literature and theatre, Shivarama Karanth. Between the 1920s and 1980s, Karanth worked in various ways to ‘refine’ the traditional form of Yakshagana by setting up a training institute and a repertory unit where he created his own version of the traditional form and its performances, which was quite a departure. For instance, he completely dropped the vaachika part, and introduced ‘alien’ musical instruments such as the saxophone into the Yakshagana ensemble. However, except for a brief period, he did not try to include women performers to play the female characters in that form.

Sometime during the 1970s, in a question and answer session in a seminar on Yakshagana, somebody in the audience asked: ‘Dr. Karanth, why didn’t you get women to play the female roles in Yakshagana?’ ‘In that case, we will also have to bring Rakshasas to play the Rakshasa roles!’ he is supposed to have said in his characteristic witty-sardonic style. 7 This exchange endorses a deep conceptual position held by many important theatre practitioners in Kannada theatre: that the question of women playing female character does not hold water as an aesthetic norm; if at all it can only be a matter of social equity.


The second example takes this position a step further into the politics and the ethics of representing women in the mainstream, new mass media. Vaidehi,8 one of our prominent woman writers in an essay called ‘Streevesha’ contemplates the question of authenticity in female representation. Written in the mid 1990s, the essay begins with her personal experience of watching girls acting in television serials. On seeing the clichéd renderings of women she says, ‘If women represent women so awfully, then there is no hope left.’ The essay soon turns into a flashback mode where she remembers the way men used to act out the role of women, especially in folk performances that she had watched in her childhood. She then narrates how a particular young man, Ganapa, who used to play the milk vendor’s role, would neither change his masculine voice nor his gait. Instead, with specific gestures of the hand and neck movements, he ‘represented’ women so convincingly that people would temporarily forget that he was a man. But in the very next moment he would come back to be his natural manly self, as if to break the illusion of his own representation.


The concluding lines of the essay talk of not only on the aesthetics of female representation but also on its ethics: ‘When we portray ourselves, how do we make sure that what we represent is completely us [and not stereotypes of ourselves]? Perhaps, we can represent ourselves faithfully only when we drop our own illusions about ourselves. Until then, we will continue to be misrepresented not just by sensitive men, but even by sensitive women. And, a woman breaking away from her illusions can also be as insensitive as a woman nurturing her illusions…’

With Vaidehi’s essay, the Kannada debate on women playing women characters comes about a full circle, virtually reaching the same point where it had been picked up by Ananthakrishna Sharma some 60 years ago. The debate, interestingly, does not prove or disprove any particular point, but what it achieves is the richness of perspectives, defying simple categorization of the traditional and the modern, and what is perceived as conservative or progressive. It also marks a multiplicity of viewpoints within a single framework. What was realized in the actual practice of theatre is now contested by possibilities that strictly remained in the realm of ideas. Unfortunately, however, our narratives of theatre have so far been unable to include these contradictory strands without resorting to stereotyping.


* This is a shorter version of my paper, ‘More Exceptions than Rules: The Contradictory Career of the "Modern" in the Kannada Theatre’. I am indebted to Manu Chakravarthy, Deepa Ganesh and M.R. Rakshith for their help in preparing this paper.


1. Each time that I use the term modern in the essay, it refers to the concept that was construed without much interrogation from notions received from the West. Later in the essay, I have attempted to show that there are in fact, several variations of modernity within the Kannada context, and they are neither a simple appropriation, nor a linear-chronological category.

2. Srinivasa Havanura, ‘Yakshagaanadalli Shakespeare’, in Taranga, 21 May 1995, p. 28.

3. Kolachalam Srinivasa Rao, The Dramatic History of the World, Vanivilasa Press, Bellary, 1908. Appendix, p. 20.

4. See for example, Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1989.

5. Rallapalli Ananthakrishna Sharma, Sahitya mattu Jeevanakale, Kavyalaya, Mysore, 1954, pp. 22-23.

6. Ibid., pp. 36-37.

7. As narrated by my father K.V. Subbanna, which I have also recorded in one of my essays in Kannada. Akshara K.V., Sammukhadalli Swagata, Akshara Prakashana, Heggodu, 2002, pp. 44-46.

8. Vaidehi, Mallinathana Dhyana, Christ College Kannada Sangha, Bangalore, 1996, pp. 26-29.