Women on stage still suffer bias: Amal Allana (Interview)

Last Updated: Thu, Mar 11, 2010 05:20 hrs

The stigma surrounding stage actresses still persists in middle class Indian society, 147 years after the birth of Nati Binodini, the first woman icon of Bengali stage, says National School of Drama (NSD) president Amal Allana.

She staged her multi-lingual play, 'Nati Binodini', as part of the ongoing South Asian Women's Theatre Festival here.

'I don't think the basic mindset will change. If I went to a prostitute and brought her to play Nati Binodini on stage, people would not accept it even today,' Allana, 63, told IANS in an interview.

'After all, we belong to the middle class and are still unable to digest the idea. Hence it was difficult for 19th century Bengal to accept Binodini in society. The stigma, in a way, still persists even after 147 years.'

Binodini, born in one of Kolkata's red light areas in 1863, was sent to courtesan Gangabai to learn music as a child. At 12, she joined the Great National Theatre and was tutored by Girish Ghosh. Her career ended after 12 years in 1887 at the Star Theatre. She enacted 90 characters in 80 plays. Binodini wrote two accounts of her life and died in Kolkata in 1941.

Allana said Binodini felt betrayed because the 'chief patron of the theatre with whom she lived refused to name it after her'.

Binodini had sacrificed much and drained her personal resources for the project. 'Her life was one of suffering and discrimination. She was constantly hounded by the pain that she was not part of respectable society and thoughts of death,' Allana said.

'Look at the way Binodini's mentor Girish Ghosh treated her. She became the muse of his dream to build the National Theatre. But he refused to write the foreword to her autobiography because it contained controversial details about the patrons - who forced her to sell her body,' Allana said pointing out the 'bias against professional actresses'.

'Ghosh, ironically, paid glowing tribute to her in her account of her professional life - 'My Life As An Actress'. Ghosh, on whom Binodini became dependent, left her abruptly after she played Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and was blessed by Ramakrishna Paramhans. Binodini was barred from attending Ghosh's funeral.'

'Writing the autobiography 'Amar Katha' (The Story of My Life) must have been difficult for her because it is so intense. It is so hard to tell the truth. Binodini came to the stage at 12 and by 23, she was out,' the NSD president said.

Allana's play looks at the life of the actress in a mood of stylised self-introspection. An old Binodini, who awaits death alone along the banks of the Ganges in Kolkata after having given up the stage - steps out of her 1913 controversial autobiography.

Binodini splits into her five alter egos - like the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth - to analyse different aspects of her life: her aspirations to be the 'moon of Kolkata's star theatre', the different characters she brought to life, her trauma of being denied a berth in the genteel women society, her sexual exploitation at the hands of her patrons - who kept professional group theatre going - and her relationship with mentor Girish Ghosh.

The tri-lingual play in Hindi, Bengali and English is operatic and somewhat larger than life.

'I have used components from Shakespeare because Shakespeare was coming to Calcutta stage for the first time in the 19th century. Girish Ghosh was influenced by Shakespeare and I wanted to keep the ethos through the music and culture of 'babus' (rich men), Binodini's patrons. Most of the 'babus' were very English in nature,' Allana said.

Allana, who used a blend of Western classical music and Bengali songs for the play, said she 'retained some of the original original score'.

'I read 'Amar Katha' in English 15 years ago. It was a long story and lay latent in my mind. I asked Swaroopa Ghosh, a member of my cast, to translate the original into English. I am not a Bengali, but I wanted to know about her life as an actress.

'Devising and scripting the play took one and a half years. There was so much of Kalighat happening in the play. So I tried to infuse it with Krishna consciousness in the end, giving Binodini a detachment with which she could question the events in her life,' Allana said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)