Over 150 shows and still charming the audiences. Not a mean feat for a contemporary play, particularly when it deals with a theme as niche as men playing women on stage, and then being replaced by actual women. But perhaps this is a rich and resonant theme to explore in our country as we have a long tradition of female impersonators. Tripurari Sharma’s Roop Aroop tells the story of how a theatre company that used to cast men in its main female roles is challenged by a young woman who ‘displaces’ the main actor.
All traditional societies across the world frowned on women appearing on stage. Right from the time of Greek drama, the female roles in all plays were always played by men, often by young men with unbroken voices. Even Shakespeare’s plays were mounted with a male Juliet! Folk traditions in our own country, till today, do not cast women at all. And on the Kabuki stage of Japan, an onnogato, a male actor who only played female roles, lived their personal lives, dressing and behaving like women.
In the 100 years of the Parsi theatre in India (1850-1950), this remained a strong tradition. The Parsi theatre had emerged out of India’s contact with colonialism. Performing in over elaborate proscenium theatres, this genre was closely based on Victorian melodrama with live songs and special effects. They became immensely popular with troupes travelling across India, and even as far as East Africa and Indonesia.
Right till the early 20th century, leading Parsi and Gujarati companies regularly hired men to perform female roles.The New Alfred Theatre of Bombay, a major Parsi Theatre company, often drew its performers from the Nayak or Bholak community of Gujarat. This was a hereditary group that specialised in music and dance. In the late 19th century, urban theatre companies began to send agents to villages in Gujarat to recruit Nayak boys. When these boys arrived in Bombay or Calcutta, they were trained to become professional dancers and sing in chorus lines dressed as females. The most outstanding from their ranks matured into the leading female impersonators of the day. Jayashankar, whose stage name was ‘Sundari’, was one among them.
Sundari’s autobiography recently translated into English has left an insightful account of the process of transformation of an on-stage actor from a man to a woman. He created prototypes for the ideal Indian woman of the early 20th century. By embodying feminine sensibility and decorum, his persona exemplified the compassionate heroine. Sundari’s art was such that spectators insisted he could surpass any woman in his representation of the beauty of womanly suffering.
So what does a man feel when he plays a woman on stage? Particularly in traditional patriarchal societies. Is it a giving up of the ‘power’ of being a man? A ‘caricaturised’ woman or an ‘idealised’ woman he portrays? And now does it affect personal life? Is he seen as being effeminate, even homosexual, or is he lusted after by women? All these and more questions would be in the audiences’ mind while watching Roop Aroop.
The writer is a Delhi-based theatre director firstname.lastname@example.org