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Theatre and Women’s Visibility in Nineteenth Century India

by Khadija Azhar

Colonial subjugation forced a multitude of ideological changes in the Indian subcontinent—and amongst them many are not as hotly contested as the rights of Indian women. Debates surrounding these rights surfaced repeatedly and invited deeply polarizing opinions. While the British supported the advancement of women's living conditions as a 'natural step' in India's path to progress under colonial rule, Inidian locals criticised it as an attack on their cultural and religious autonomy. Amid this contention, theatre became a popular attraction for the native population as both a recreational and political space—one where these debates could be dissected under the guise of entertainment. With women's rights occupying an important role in political discourse at the time, theatre helped transplant women's experiences from the privacy of their homes and broadcast them publicly. This essay explores how theatre in the nineteenth century Indian subcontinent allowed safe passage for women's experiences to proliferate public spaces,[1] but argues that the resulting visibility was undermined by mechanisms divesting women of control over these narratives. Hindu women's relationship with the public sphere will first be contextualized, followed by a discussion on how theatre helped them access it. This will then be problematised based on women's inability to control the discourse and performances of their narratives, and question the representations produced on stage. Tanika Sarkar's book Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism will be used to supplement the essay, in tandem with archival sources that document the workings of theatre in nineteenth century India.

Hindu women had a complicated relationship with public space, characterized largely by their devotion to chastity and domesticity pushing them away. The traditional upper-caste Hindu woman was married as a child and expected to cohabit with her husband as soon as she attained puberty.[2] If her husband died, she was either burnt on the pyre or was not allowed to remarry.[3] Following her marriage, she was placed into a life of seclusion that kept her away from all modes of institutional education.[4] Restricted from the public in forced conjugality, women turned to a life of domesticity and the zenana—the private space within the home—became their only domain. Indian nationalists justified infant marriages by positing that 'a lifetime of togetherness beginning with infancy guaranteed a superior ... compatibility' and 'was also kinder to women since it ensured ... a hold on the husband's affection [and] an integration with the family.'[5] This compatibility was emphasized as a lifelong commitment, one that would continue even after the husband died. The zenana on the other hand, was 'not a dungeon as it was represented by some' but 'a place of social union and purity' in the nationalist mind.[6] Consequently, chastity and domesticity became forced virtues on women for a society that framed infant marriages and restrictions on widow remarriage as a labour of love, functioning to exclude many women from the public space.

Nonetheless, with the adoption of theatre into native circles, many Indian women were allowed newfound access to public sphere.[7] They began appearing on stage as professional actors, a development initially championed in 1859 by writer Madhusudan Dutt of the Bengali theatre.[8] In fact, actors of the time such as Binodini Dasi and Tara Sundari received much acclaim for their abilities, with Sundari paralleled to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt.[9] Initially, most of these women were once sex workers, but subsequently the stage also attracted 'women abandoned by husbands or lovers, or widows' who were looking for employment. Moreover, women began appearing in theatre audiences when the Bengali theatre began initiations to reframe the art form as 'family entertainment' by creating designated viewing spaces for women.[10] As a result, it not only became a source of economic empowerment for women, but seemingly provided a mediated public space where women of differing backgrounds and hierarchies were able to somewhat shed the restrictions of a purely domesticated private life.

Arguably the most important development in theatrical tradition was the focus on domestic spheres. Women's lives had largely been restricted to the zenana before theatre gave them a place to appear in public, and their narratives began to proliferate into public consciousness. At times, these narratives revolved around the injustices experienced by women, allowing potential for greater progressive discourse. For example, in 1873, Bengal's first native pantomime shed some light on 'the sorrows of the Hindu widow' in an impassioned speech, addressing the controversies regarding widow remarriage:

How absurd ... of the English to abolish widow burning, which at least afforded a speedy end to a life of misery, since they did not at the same time abolish the law against the remarriage of widows.[11]

Although women were not given physical representation in the play (all actors were men, with women's parts assigned to boys), it amplified women's voices and shed light on their grievances. This visibility was further compounded in the performance reviews published in newspapers, extending the discourse propagated by the play to even the people who did not attend the shows. Consequently, European-originating theatre seemed to offer more opportunities for empowerment to the Indian woman by providing a public space where her narrative could be explored freely.

However, delving deeper into the role of theatre in women's empowerment reveals impositions that weakened any initial visibility. It may be argued that in the realm of theatre, the actor is merely a vessel; she accepts the narratives imposed upon her by the audience and the plot without being able to project her own. Expounding upon the former, theatre in the nineteenth century was frequented largely by the predominantly male ruling class, who condemned public appearance as the ultimate transgression for Hindu women.[12] They believed that these actors were 'fallen women'[13] and anxiety prevailed that they posed a threat to the purity of young male actors,[14] echoing sentiments used to dictate perceptions of nautch girls.[15] With no way for them to contest this imposition, women's access to public spaces continued to validate patriarchal associations between visibility and shame—to be seen was to be shameful.

Jeunes élèves de lécole de Karikal by Exposition universelle et internationale (1905: Liège, Belgiumis) is in the Public Domain

In addition to the audience, the drama itself eclipsed the actor's personhood. Even though women were allowed to act, they possessed no control over their acting on stage, and so their personal narratives remained outside of public view. At times, this resulted in women endorsing the same patriarchal views that kept them disenfranchised. Perhaps the best example of this stark incongruency would be a play staged by famous Marathi writer, Krushnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar, in 1907, titled A Women's Revolt. This play was 'performed by a company composed so largely of women that not only all the heroines but some of the heroes also were represented by members of the fairer sex,'[16] subverting the longstanding tradition of boys performing the roles of women. At the outset, it seemed to be providing women with unprecedented visibility in the theatrical space. Yet, analysing the plot reveals the painful limitations of patriarchally mediated representations of Indian women in the theatre. Using Tennyson's "Princess" as the basis of his drama, Khadilkar wrote a gripping epic on imperial India.[17]

The plot centres around an all-female kingdom that bars men from even stepping foot inside its boundaries. Its illusory independence falls apart when the Princess agrees to enter a 'marriage of equality'[18] with a man, restoring the family and domesticity as sacrosanct institutions for the women of the kingdom. The disintegration of this kingdom followed by the restoration of peace embodies an inherent conflict between women's independence and conjugality. Thus, it can be seen that women's laboured acceptance into colonial Indian theatre only functioned to further their subjugation and use their bodies and identities to justify and defend their subjugation to domesticity and chastity. Early twentieth-century India was rife with debates on women's remarriage, infant marriage, and women's education—all of which grappled with cultural and religious restrictions on female autonomy. With playwrights as influential as Khadilkar broadcasting their independence as a disruption to the 'natural order'—the sociocultural status quo of the time, women's appearance on this stage ended up only validating doctrines that supported restrictions on their agency and visibility. As a result, women on stage were still as helpless in subverting the dominant patriarchal narrative as those restricted to the zenana.[19]

Furthermore, there were times when theatre aimed a spotlight at the injustices that plagued women's lives but framed them in ways that were inherently patriarchal. While such performances did not necessarily involve female actors, they seemed to bring women's narratives into the open, only to manipulate them to conform to prevailing public perceptions. For instance, in 1873, the Guru of a wealthy Saivite temple was accused of seducing a young girl named Elokeshi and then raping her.[20] Her husband initially forgave her for what he believed was her transgression, but when accosted by the Guru's men, he slit Elokeshi's throat in a fit of rage. Sarkar explains the theatrical adoption of this incident: 'Theatre at the time provided more publicity to this event than would have been given initially. Certainly, the largest corpus among nineteenth century farces related to a single contemporary event.'[21]

At the outset, this visibility seems unprecedented, but it is to be noted that these performances were largely farces that did little to evoke public sympathy for Elokeshi. Many focused on the punishment and humiliation faced by the Guru, while some showed him as a repentant figure, decentring the narrative from Elokeshi's death.[22] In addition, unable to deny the facts of the rape and murder, some framed her stepmother as the culprit who forced her husband to sell Elokeshi to the Guru for material gain.[23] Not only did this help reconcile the incident with 'a more familiar ... register of misogyny,' but also helped justify people's fears of 'a wife's prolonged sojourn at her natal home.'[24] As a result, an incident that reflected one of the gravest injustices perpetrated against women was manipulated in narrativisation to validate the stigma associated with women's actions, or the actions of the women around her.

'Nautch girls, Bombay,' by Taurines is in the Public Domain

Historical accounts where women have been able to voice their own experiences dismantle the illusion that their commitment to chastity and domesticity was a labour of love, as Indian nationalists would rhetoricise. In fact, their accounts painted an entirely different picture. One of the most celebrated actors of the time, Binodini Dasi, wrote an autobiography which she prefaced with a summary of her misfortune:

There is no one in this world before whom I can lay bare my pain, for the world sees me as a sinner—a fallen woman ... I am a social outcast—a despicable prostitute. Why should people feel compassion for me?[25]

In the normative Indian sociocultural perspective of the time, the misery she endured was justified given her previous profession, and her acclaim as an actor was merely ancillary. Despite the public visibility that theatre provided, her suffering echoes that of the women who spent their lives in domestic seclusion. As Sarkar notes:

[Women] wrote about the trauma ... of infant marriage, the deprivations of the widow, the absence of love in the lives of wives ... All varieties of women's writings unanimously identified and condemned two problem spots within the Hindu woman's existence—the pain of patrilocality and the longing for knowledge.[26]

The unanimity of the suffering expressed across multiple accounts penned by women in the nineteenth century confirms that the theatrical proliferation of their narratives was inauthentic, to say the least. At times, theatre even ended up bolstering patriarchal impositions while rendering female actors' complicit in these sociocultural structures and practices. Consequently, the technical 'visibility' and entryway to the public sphere theatre seemed to provide to nineteenth century Indian women and their narratives became merely illusory.

Theatre in the nineteenth century subcontinent may have reconfigured women's relationship with the public sphere, insofar as they were allowed their first step out of the private domain. However, this loosening of corporeal constraints did not culminate into an ideological emancipation; women were still judged within the same patriarchal frameworks that forced their seclusion. Most importantly, they could not subvert these ideas due to their highly constricted roles and presence in theatre. Instead of engendering an exodus of Indian women from the limited confines of their homes to the public space, nineteenth century colonial Indian theatre continued to exclude women's self-narratives from public discourse. Any promise of progress and women's rights through the limited allowance of women to outings at the theatres and precarious employment proved to be mostly fictional, much like the plays they acted in and watched.


[1] This essay does not seek to extrapolate its conclusions to all women in nineteenth century India but attempts to illuminate some of the patriarchal impositions that complicated their lives, using the dominant religious and cultural doctrines of the time. [2] Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 124. [3] Ibid, 41. [4] ‘Editorial Article 1 -- no Title,’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 16 June 1885, [5] Sarkar, 40. [6] THE IMPROVEMENT OF WOMEN,’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 18 December 1877, [7] It would be inaccurate to claim that women were not afforded any visibility before the import of Western theatre. In the nineteenth century, the nautch as a cultural form seemed to provide some women a similar window into the public domain where they were seen on stage, under the proverbial spotlight. However, the visibility it provided was not only restricted to a certain caste, but also came with its own patriarchal impositions. The nautch girls’ presence in public was framed as evidence of their misfortune, and associations between immorality and the nautch were solidified; it became a stage only for lower-caste women. Moreover, the nautch may have been as restricting as the zenana in women’s ability to control how people viewed them, as it existed purely for the male gaze and did not provide room for individual expression. [8] Rimli Bhattacharya, ‘Introduction: Binodini Dasi and the Public Theatre in Nineteenth century Bengal,’ in My Story and My Life as an Actress, trans. Rimli Bhattacharya (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998), 3. [9] ‘DRAMA OF BENGAL,’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 22 July 1931, [10] Sarkar, 89. [11] ‘Theatre in Bengal,’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 17 February 1873. [12] Bhattacharya, 6. [13] Ibid, 26. [14] Anu Bandyopadhyaya, ‘Look Back with Pride.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 17 December 1972, [15] Winter's Tale, ‘Literature: THE DANCING GIRL,’ The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce (1838-1859), 19 April 1845, [16] C, N. K., ‘A MARATHI COMEDY: A WOMEN'S REVOLT,’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 15 May 1908, [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid. [19] Sarkar, 113: Rashsundari, an upper-caste woman who wrote the first autobiography written in Bengali in 1876, echoes these ideas by describing herself as an actor who is 'blindly manipulated' in a play 'scripted and the directed' by God. Just like Rashsundari in the domestic domain, the actors on stage were unable to contest the narratives imposed upon them by men, despite their apparent agency. [20] Sarkar, 57. [21] Ibid, 60. [22] Ibid, 79. [23] Ibid, 85. [24] Ibid, 86. [25] Dasi, 49. [26] Sarkar, 45.


Bandyopadhyaya, Anu. ‘Look Back with Pride.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 17 December 1972.

Bhattacharya, Rimli. ‘Introduction: Binodini Dasi and the Public Theatre in Nineteenth century Bengal.’ In My Story and My Life as an Actress, translated by Rimli Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998.

C, N. K. ‘A MARATHI COMEDY: A WOMEN'S REVOLT.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 15 May 1908.

‘Editorial Article 1 -- no Title.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 26 June 1885.

‘THE IMPROVEMENT OF WOMEN.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 18 December 1877.

‘THE THEATRE IN BENGAL.’ The Times of India (1861-Current), 17 February 1873.

Winter's Tale. ‘Literature: THE DANCING GIRL.’ The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce (1838-1859), Apr 19, 1845.

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