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Reviewed by:
  • Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity
  • Kathy Foley
Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity. By Bishnupriya Dutt and Urimala Sarkar Munsi. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2010. Cloth $25.00.

This book is a notable endeavor that seeks to reunite the dancing body and spoken word in Indian performance in the context of a cultural critique of [End Page 595] patriarchy and its economic burden on the female dancer and actress. Those who research the intersection of gender and performance, especially in an Asian context, will want to read the text, which can be useful for a graduate seminar on gender issues or for undergraduates who are already versed in Indian performance. That said, the diction is sometimes convoluted and Western theories are often strong filters through which Indian dance and theatre models are read. The Victorian English actress or contemporary Western dance in feminist readings sometimes serve as the introductions to a section. This adds an extra remove from the Indian material for the reader who is not already fully conversant in the Indian forms, personalities, and histories. Nonetheless it is a volume that will be of use to those looking for substantive research on areas that have not been addressed in the history of Bengali women in theater; the information on jatra actresses, for example, is new and rich.

The attempt to include both theatre and dance as a unified field is noble, but requires two different authors to accomplish. Though the actress and the dancer are definitely related (as is clarified in the text), the genesis of each is, of course, somewhat different. The dancer is historically and ideologically related to devadasi (temple dancer) traditions, while the actress in spoken drama, which is the major concern here, traces her history to the development of theatre influenced by Western models with the European theatre practice of gender straight representation in the nineteenth century. While both of these trajectories, temple dance and Western-influenced theatre, have links to late nineteenth- and twentieth-century urban red-light districts, the movement of these women toward performance was diverse. One was within a formerly indigenous network, and this devadasi group has received a reasonable amount of research and debate in dance literature. The theatre connection has been, by contrast, less highlighted until recently.

This makes the theatre section a more notable contribution. The dance section has some new material and attempts a more geographically diverse discussion than is the norm, but theoretically revisits known terrain. Another thing that should be noted is that while the title implies that all of India will covered, the actual material is often focused on Bengal.

Four chapters (Dutt) deal with theatre. The first sets the stage by discussing the European women who created a precedent by appearing on the Calcutta stage from 1789 to 1842. The material is discussed in detail: We learn the particulars from the pale and fragile British Mrs. Leach to the more voluptuous Frenchwomen who took the stage. We are introduced to the theatre spaces they inhabited, the scenic designs used, and the actresses’ relation to the social life of the Raj. This chapter links to the history of women on the European stage of the period, but with colonial twists.

Chapter 2 details the arrival of the first ethnically Indian actresses on the stage between 1872 and 1910, noting that this group had a complex job as they were “commodified but indispensable in the public sphere, they were the only visible women in society” (50). The author considers Girish Chandra Gosh’s transformation of the actress (from fallen woman to someone who could portray mythic characters of nationalist resonance). Next she discusses [End Page 596] Amarendranath Dutta’s portraits of the wife-actress-husband triangles in his novels. Dutta had an ongoing affair with the actress Taraundari. Both Gosh and Dutta were journal editors and actress groomers. Dutt critiques both men and questions their motives: “The Bengali colonial public could still deceive itself into thinking that it went to the theatre out of the nationalist motive. In reality it went with the craving of a sexually repressed society to enjoy the actresses...