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  • Making Women Visible: Gender and Race Cross-Dressing in the Parsi Theatre*
  • Kathryn Hansen (bio)

Over the last century the once-spurned female performer has been transformed into a ubiquitous emblem of Indian national culture. The voice of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar fills home, vehicle, and marketplace. The dancer in her Bharata Natyam costume has become a transnational icon of Indianness. Bombay films have so elevated the actress that painter M. F. Husain finds his eternal feminine in superstar Madhuri Dixit. These representations carefully balance glamor with propriety, rendering the publicly displayed woman acceptable and reversing earlier attitudes of disquiet and avoidance. They result from a lengthy process of negotiation, wherein the performer’s status and image have been reworked to incorporate the signs of Indian womanhood. Of the many performance sites at which this transformation occurred, the Parsi theatre had the greatest impact on the evolution of modern and regional drama as well as popular cinema in South Asia. It was also the most intriguing for its use of gender and race cross-dressing. Here the female impersonator played a critical role in the construction of new norms of Indian womanhood. S/he was complemented by Anglo-Indian and Jewish actresses who masqueraded as Hindu and Parsi heroines. Hence by the apparent anomaly of Indian males passing as females and foreign women passing as Indian, the Parsi stage established a paradigm for female performance even before Indian women themselves had become visible.

Female impersonators structured the space into which female performers were to insert themselves, effecting the transition from stigmatized older practices to the [End Page 127] newly consolidated Indian Woman (bharatiya nari) of the nationalists. This historical evolution is most transparent in the theatres of western India, where cross-dressing persisted through the colonial period and can be researched from written records such as journals, memoirs, and biographies. This is also the location in which female impersonation is most overtly linked to the fashioning of a widely circulated standard for female appearance and a modified code of feminine conduct. More is at stake, then, than the simple notion that impersonators and outsider actresses served as expedient surrogates when the presence of Indian actresses on stage would have endangered the urban theatre’s reputation. Masquerades of gender and race were productive of new ways of looking upon the female form. Practices of gender and race impersonation enlarged the performative possibilities within which theatre managers, dramatists, and publics could experiment with the unfamiliar procedures of imagining and viewing women.

Central to this process was the redefined position of the spectator within the urban entertainment economy. The prior orientation of spectators towards theatrical transvestism and its characteristic modes of encoding erotic ambiguity to some extent structured the reception of cross-dressed actors on the urban stage. The modes of response to female performance similarly had been shaped within the environment of the court and salon, wherein elite male patrons exercised exclusive control over courtesan singers and dancers. With the rise of the middle-class theatregoing public and the increasing size of the female audience, however, impersonation and other aspects of theatrical practice began to address the spectator as a gendered subject. Not only were male viewers catered to in more complex ways as the longstanding culture of homosociality was contested by notions of companionate marriage. Women were more and more the audience whose presence required accommodation within the theatre house and whose desires and enjoyment influenced the enactment of gender difference.

For both men and women, performances of feminine identity opened up an arena in which gender norms could be articulated and debated. In consequence, theatrical cross-dressing in this period went beyond the reification of existing gender boundaries, or the transgression of those boundaries for the purpose of generating laughter. 1 This was a two-fold process that had far-reaching implications. On the one hand, impersonators and actresses transformed the visual construct of womanhood into an image of bourgeois respectability. The regulation of the external look through emphasis on fashion and feminine accoutrements was a key ingredient in this semiotic makeover. Yet, by subsuming the overt sexuality of the traditional female impersonator or courtesan performer within norms of modesty...