‘Acting Up’ Chronicles Women’s Intellectual and Personal Relationships with Theatre

A. Mangai’s book, Acting Up, throws light on the subversive moments in the history of women doing theatre and also brings together Mangai’s many sides – the individual, the scholar and the artist.


Women dancing, accompanied by Rabindra Sangeet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Acting Up, a book on women in theatre, was released at a low-key event in Chennai sometime last year. The author, who writes under the pseudonym of A. Mangai, was my professor at Stella Maris college and had a tremendous impact on me during those impressionable years. It was therefore inevitable that I attended the event. When Mangai teaches her undergraduate students, she mixes teaching gender with her passion for theatre, constantly using both to reflect on her feminist convictions. To her, one naturally feeds into the other. Her pedagogy is particularly effective because of how organically snippets from her life find their way into lessons.

The feminist movement began with the now-trite phrase, ‘the personal is political’. For those contextually divorced from its genesis, as many of us (her undergraduate students), were then, Mangai was an embodiment of it. She wore her politics on her sleeve – unafraid and always challenging.

One such bold move of hers was staging the play Aanmai o Aanmai (Macho o Macho), which critiqued the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu from a feminist perspective. The notion of ‘Dravidianism’ is very dear to Mangai and other women of her generation. Yet she only found it reasonable to critique the concept because of the shape it took on in political practice – specifically, its paternalism and the discourse surrounding it, which frequently couched the issue of language in gendered terms. For instance the language Hindi was projected as the woman, Draupadi, ready to be disrobed or compared to a prostitute. Mangai employed Commedia’ dell arte in the presentation of the play – a practice where actors wear masks on stage – because the actors were risking a lot by participating in a play that presented a strong critique of the political party which was in power at the time.

Her book, Acting Up, throws light on many such subversive moments in the history of women doing theatre, and brings together Mangai’s many sides – the individual, the scholar and the artist. The canvas of Acting Up is expansive. Mangai charts the beginnings of a visibly strong women’s theatre in the late 70s and 80s and traces its evolution up until today. It is clear that women’s engagement with theatre had an important functional character in the beginning, drawing directly from issues that the women’s movement sought to address. Burning social problems such as dowry, sexual violence and female infanticide led to the formation of autonomous or affiliated women’s groups. Subsequently, the strength of these organised women’s movements led to a search for expression through cultural forms such as theatre.

This kind of theatre works towards political empowerment and aims to deeply stimulate public consciousness. It was influenced in some ways by Badal Sircar’s idea of a ‘third theatre’ – plays were performed in the open, for free and were mobile in nature. Such feminist street theatre was characterised by its optimism for collective mobilisation and action, writes Mangai. This optimism represents a sentiment that has receded in the social media-fuelled activism of today.

Jyoti Mhapsekar’s Mulgi Zali Ho (A Girl is Born) was one of the first plays to bring in a women’s theatre engaged with urgent contemporary issues. Mhapsekar was a founding member of the Stree Mukti Sanghatana in Mumbai, an autonomous women’s advocacy. Even as Mangai emphasises the work of a particular playwright, actor or director, she sketches out details of their lives beyond the stage. In other words, she views them as subjects in themselves by going beyond their work. In the case of Mhapsekar, for instance, she mentions that as the daughter of a poet and musician who actively participated in trade union politics, theatre and politics were familiar territory for her.

Other personal circumstances were less favourable. Bengali actor and dancer Chitra Sen, who worked with her husband Shyamlal in the Theatre Guild, had to accommodate his whimsical working style and a joint family and children, apart from occasionally mortgaging jewellery in order to put together plays. The negotiations that women had to make in order to sustain a career in theatre coalesce under a whole chapter in Acting Up – ‘Female Performers.’ These annotations of life are significant as they suggest that the stage and society could be similarly patriarchal, presenting the same challenges to women.

Mangai’s tone, in the parts where she explores life off-stage, is always empathetic, which perhaps comes from the many negotiations she herself has made. She once told me that her mother used to call her koothadi, a derogatory term in Tamil for women who loved being on the stage. The term’s derogation comes from the belief that women essentially belong in the private sphere and that a woman who transgresses these moral boundaries to present her body and mind on stage is to be shamed and shunned.

This admission on her part led me to wonder if some of us today still face such challenges. In my case, my mother encouraged me to pursue theatre and as I went through phases of introversion and extroversion, I never thought of being on stage as a transgressive act. In fact, theatre was perceived to be more esoteric than cinema and hence more noble. Perhaps I only have generations of preceding feminists to thank for this easy perception.

Mangai continued to tell me that even after she got married, an institution which supposedly bestows women with respectability, coming home late after rehearsals always made the walls talk. But she never did feel dissuaded by this animosity. “Liberal is not something that just happens overnight, you build it up, slowly, over years of negotiations.” Her framing of that unsupportive environment and its unfairness moved me. It profoundly contrasts the entitled rhetoric and caustic vocabulary characteristic of some feminist activism today.

Navigating ideological differences

The book is also exceptional in its palpable respect for ideological differences. Mangai attempts to capture the diversity of women’s engagement with theatre. For instance, Bharatnatyam dancer Chandralekha – who is credited with developing new forms of communication in classical dance that bring women’s concerns to the foreground of the art form – had an extended tiff with left-leaning feminists. The latter had criticised her for relying excessively on images of a Hindu genesis, however progressive her message might have been. The danseuse’s response to this criticism merely said that they can’t always turn to the suffragettes for inspiration. Chandralekha’s contribution to feminist knowledge is unique, Mangai writes, despite whatever ideological differences they might have had.

Acting Up, Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards A. Mangai LeftWord Books, 2015

Acting Up, Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards
A. Mangai
LeftWord Books, 2015

While Mangai herself moved to theatre from an activist background, her theatre is very much defined by her politics. Thus her treatment of her contemporaries who pursued different expressions speaks of a wonderful professionalism. It is easy to be blinded by one’s own politics in such an endeavour but Mangai’s restraint is noteworthy. The word ‘feminist’ conveys a deceptive unity –sometimes by reducing nuance and difference to mere equality between the sexes; though in real life women associate with the term in many diverse ways.

And as the diversity of expression in women’s theatre rightly became a site for activism and debate, the recognition of its aesthetics took a backseat. Productions were often ‘considered offshoots of their [playwrights’] politics,’ and critics restricted themselves to this view. Mangai also observes that going forward, theatre ceased to be as urgent as it had seemed in the eighties.

She wrote, “In many instances, it turned out instrumental or it became a ‘tool’ to reflect ideas that were already in place. Theatre was not constitutive of the process of evolving meaning. It is not surprising then that the various attempts at thinking through women’s theatre have not really produced iconic texts akin to the pathbreaking Women’s Writing in India volumes.”

There is a hint of a lament there, perhaps even envy for feminist literary predominance. It also reveals, however, that Acting Up is a book that stems from passion as much as it does from the need to remedy a lack of it. Political movements of the time did provide a certain thrust to theatre, leading to impressive experimentation and thrilling moments of vitality in the field. But such links also disintegrate as easily as they fall into place, difficult as it is to sustain the momentum. I do feel an intuitive optimism though, that political movements will continue to challenge a lopsided status quo in subtler ways.

Reinterpreting myths, for instance, and placing women at the centre of these familiar narratives changed the largely patriarchal language of mythology. Saoli Mitra’s Nathabati Anathbad (Five Lords Yet None a Protector) is one the earliest texts retelling the Mahabharata – it aimed at foregrounding Draupadi’s feelings of hurt, anguish and insecurity. Mitra wrote that her intention was to “gauge the era through her smallest likes and dislikes.” The changing modes of narration – agitated, ironic, song and dance – conveying Draupadi’s shifting perception of the world with awareness, intelligence and empathy lent the play a contemporaneity, validating the ‘feminine’ mode of perception. It is interesting that Mitra herself refused to label this text as feminist, choosing instead a more sentimental premise – foregrounding the cruelty and injustice suffered by women. Mitra was no exception, many women practitioners continue to reject the label of feminist for a variety of reasons. Mangai told me she understands the reasons for this reluctance. “Being called a ‘woman director’, or someone who deals with feminist concerns, some feel, is to place them in a ghetto, reducing the yardstick. For others, it is precarious to assert feminism while being in an industry that is yet to mature to it,” says Mangai. Still, there is so much to be said of women, of art and life.

Acting Up is an honest exploration of such intersections and their myriad outcomes. Despite being a largely scholarly endeavour, there’s a sensitivity of description and a personal involvement from Mangai, both as a teller and participant in the world of theatre, that makes the book relatable and provoking. Women came to theatre inspired by so many different things – politics, literature, language, traditional theatre and enriched it in their own unique ways. They reconstituted theatre, as much as theatre offered them, and this book along with its writer is an example of that reciprocity.


A. Mangai is the pseudonym of Dr. V. Padma, who teaches English at Stella Maris College, Chennai. She has been actively engaged in theatre for close to three decades. She writes bilingually in Tamil and English, and is also a translator.

Niharika is a freelance writer based out of Mumbai. She writes on books, gender and occasionally, sport.