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Between Fame and Shame: Performing Women—Women Performers in India (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 241-245 | 10.1353/atj.2013.0007

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The foreword by Heidrun Bruckner, one of the work's three editors, clearly contextualizes the circumstances that led to the publication of twelve articles by thirteen different authors. The publication was born of the Third International Wurzburg Colloquium on Indian Studies, "Changing Roles and Perceptions of Women Performers in Indian Culture," and contributions were also invited from additional scholars in order to widen the publication's scope. All the papers serve to make this a worthy endeavor.

We also learn from the foreword that there is a regional focus on South India, especially Kerala and Karnataka, and that the contributors' disciplines differ widely. Included are anthropologists, folklorists, indologists, and sociologists, as well as theatre scholars, coming from India, Europe, and the United States. We are also advised that readers will encounter different styles of analysis and different subject matter. Indeed, this is an ambitious work that succeeds on many levels.

Readers of Asian Theatre Journal may not find all the articles particularly relevant to their interests, however. Indeed, I will not presume to comment on seven of the articles, simply because they are well beyond my field of expertise (i.e., folk literary criticism, folk narratives, music, dance, possession mediumship, popular religious cults, and spirit possession). I have even refrained from discussing the life and ill treatment of India's first film actress by the Indian government and society. Nevertheless, I found all the articles on these subjects informative, and I suspect readers of this journal will too. Instead, I will comment on an introductory article by Hanne M. de Bruin, another coeditor, and on the articles on kutiyattam and nannyar-kuttu by Diane Daugherty, coeditor Heike Moser, and Virginie Johan, as well the essay on kathakali by Marlene Pitkow. But first a word or two about a unique and significant feature of the book, its reliance on the Internet for access to selective visual and aural material.

Given that all the authors deal with aspects of live performance, it is to their credit and that of the editors and publisher that they chose to develop a dedicated website so that readers may see and hear selected examples from the various genres of performance. I found this aspect particularly appealing, beneficial, and, in some cases, absolutely necessary to an understanding of the written commentary. I started by examining the website before reading each of the articles. A separate page has been reserved for each contributor that contains links to audio clips, film clips, and illustrations. And in the case of one author, there is even a link to useful charts that help explain the arguments in that essay. After references at the end of each article in the book, the written material on the website has been reproduced. This helps jog the memory about that item rather than forcing you to return to the website to review the item again. Not only does the website serve as an extension of the book, it considerably and effectively enlivens the textual discussion.

Still, I must comment on a few problems with the website. Not all the illustrations are uniformly clear or even in focus. Naturally, this is not unexpected given that some of the field research was conducted many years ago when digital technology was not always available. In one of the audio files the ambient noise made it nearly impossible to make out what was being sung.

Fortunately, most of the video files were fairly good, often seeming to be footage recorded by that author and meant primarily to preserve the work for research purposes. Some of the footage on kutiyattam, for example, is of historical importance and serves to illustrate significant older performers, for whom the reader may have little if any visual access. Rather than commenting on individual examples, I will save my responses for the contributions by the individual authors I am reviewing.

Let me begin with the introductory essay by Hanne M. de Bruin, "Contextualizing Women and Performance in India." De Bruin's biography at the end of the book indicates that she "works full-time as the facilitator and principal fund-raiser for the Kattaikkuttu Sangam and Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam in Tamil Nadu, India" in Kanchipuram. Among...

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