Mapping the Contours of Femininity in Modern India: A Study of Binodini Dar’s my Story and my life as an Actress and Durga Khote’s, Durga Khote

Abstract: An autobiography, read as a transparent staging of existence, fails to accommodate any sense of tension or conflict between consciousness and the environment, people and their surrounding ideological world. The study is intended to theorise the politics and possibilities of women’s self – representation in order to argue fora mode of reading that exposes life writing as a manipulative discourse. The life writing material selected here- Binodini Dasi’s My Story and My Life as an Actress and Durga Khote’s I, Durga Khote- will not only be read as historical documents but also as performances within the theoretical framework of the dramaturgical model of impression management conceptualised by Richard Schechner. The observations thus produced will be used as cartographic tools for mapping the contours of femininity in the modern Indian public sphere. While Binodini Dasi lived through “the nationalist resolution of the women’s question,” Durga Khote was a product of this movement. The autobiographies offer a variety of analyses of the position of women (as a ‘private’ individual and as the public figure); explores the female subjectivity and brings out to the open the effect of the various strategies adopted to negotiate social change on the construct of femininity in the modern Indian public sphere.

Keywords: autobiography, femininity, subjectivity, ideology, public sphere, performance

Life writing by Indian women was a fairly neglected mode of writing for several years, if not centuries. However, over the last two decades there has been a rapidly progressing endeavour to collect and comment on life writing samples. This has rendered the idea of autobiography as a transparent staging of existence problematic. All autobiographical statements show some process of mediation between the subject/author of the autobiography and the ideological environment they inhabit. This is in direct conflict with the Western, enlightenment notion that the autobiographical act stands alone as a testimony to individuals removed from their relationship to the social world. It is assumed and claimed that the authors articulate the model relationship between the individual and the social world. This way of analysing an autobiography fails to accommodate any sense of tension, struggle, contestation or outright conflict between consciousness and environment, between people and their surrounding ideological world.

The need of the individual autobiographer to impose order via subjective experience is dangerous not only in its asocial aspect whereby the individual appears to bypass society in his relationship to nature but also because it transcends history. If an autobiography is a (male) self speaking synchronically for history, out of the authority of himself as subject, the argument can be turned over on its head and it can be hypothesized that the writers of history organize the events they write about according to their own private necessities and the state of their own selves. Reading the autobiographical texts in such a manner as to understand how the autobiographical and historical narratives agree/ disagree with each other seems to be a relatively less problematical way of reconstructing the past.

The study is intended to theorise the politics and possibilities of women’s self- representation in order to argue for a mode of reading that exposes life writing as a manipulative discourse. The autobiographies of two female actors – Binodini Dasi and Durga Khote – are used in order to re-view the reading practices currently employed in the field of autobiography studies in India. The re-view presumes that the referent(s) possess a contested subjectivity: the public identity or ‘image’ as a woman who broke conventions to earn a living as an actress and the identity unraveled in the autobiography which does not have a one-to-one correspondence with the public identity. Recognition of a given subjectivity as essentially contested implies the recognition of multiple significations of the subjectivity as not only logically possible and humanly likely but as of permanent potential critical value to one’s own interpretation of the subjectivity in question.

As she embarks on a process of reflection, an autobiographer simultaneously juggles with the memories and experiences which rendered her the individual that he or she is at a given moment. The author engages with identity, embodiment and agency in the act of autobiographical composition. Unlike in fiction, life narrators have to anchor their narratives in their own temporal, geographical and cultural milieu. Hence, while the autobiographer conceives her subjectivity in the act of autobiographical composition, she does so by anchoring the self (conceptualized in the process) in the contemporary cultural milieu. The autobiography, therefore, becomes a true measure of the cultural influences on the subjective self.

The search for an alternate self in the selected texts – My Story, My Life as an Actress and I, Durga Khote – will subsequently lead to revisit the numerous premises on which the idea of the female in India is based. This means that the autobiographies are being read as historical documents as the source of evidence for the analysis of a historical moment. But this does not mean that the life narratives would be understood only as a historical record. Unlike in historical writing, self referential writing has to be approached as an inter- subjective process that occurs within the writer-reader pact rather than as a true-or-false story. The emphasis of reading the life writing material thus shifts from assessing and verifying knowledge to observing processes of communicative exchange and understanding. While treating the autobiographical text as a performance, it is conceptualized as a historically situated practice of self representation with due attention to the aforementioned process of exchange and understanding. Hence, the text is relegated into a genre by a rhetorical setting and not because of the presence of a set of formal elements.

Autobiographers ‘selectively’ engage their lived experience through personal story telling. Located in specific times and places, they are at the same time in dialogue with the personal processes as well as the archives of memory and history. Contextualized thus, the autobiographical project may swerve from the form of autobiography even as it embraces the project of self- representation. These departures offer an opportunity to calibrate our attention to the range of demands made by the autobiography and the silencing and/or shaming effects they impose. A critique of an autobiographical text thus becomes political. Whether and when an autobiography emerges as an authoritative discourse on narrative and reality, have less to do with that text’s presumed accuracy about what really happened than with its apprehended fit into culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity. Within the volatility generated by this kind of representativeness, the `private’ becomes ambivalent and assumes multiple significations as it transforms into autobiographical and subsequently public discourse. The ambivalent subjectivity is envisaged as a product of manipulation prior to or in the act of writing the life. These manipulative practices and their causal factors will then be used as cartographic tools to produce a map for reconstructed knowledge of femininity in the modern Indian public sphere.

Autobiography as Performance

The objective here is to analyse closely the narrative strategies with which the life writing material by Binodini Dasi and Durga Khote, as narratives written in times of national change, had to negotiate between earlier and newer forms of subjectivity. Each of these texts show a distinctive set of tropes which demonstrate some of the important ways in which new (female) identities were assumed in modern India. At the same time, an elusive lack of fit marks each of these stories of subject-formation. The value of these self narratives as histories lies in their potential to elucidate this lack of fit in the Inhabitation of modernity by its subjectivity. This has to be reiterated because despite the predominance of such views in the critical front, as a genre, autobiography solicits and promotes even deeper connections between an author’s personal life and the written work produced.

The past in an autobiography comes across as recollected; in the act of autobiographical composition, these recollected fragments of the past are reprocessed, assimilated and analysed. The pieces of reality are sometimes the elements of the author’s community which is to say that the autobiographer’s representation of reality is unconsciously (if there are disclaimers of intentionality) endowed with archetypal or communal meanings and attitudes. Therefore, the little pieces of reality or ‘experience’ are not what differentiate the male and female autobiographies into separate categories. The difference happens in the reprocessing, assimilating and analysing stages at which points the archetypal or communal meanings and attitudes gets (un)consciously integrated into the discourse. Reading the autobiographies as a proof of the author’s participation in their contemporary culture is therefore unlikely to reveal any new cardinal points to plot the cartography of femininity in the modern Indian public sphere.

If the practices of autobiographical writing in India are to be understood in positive terms, there is an urgent need to move away from the model where it is assumed that the normative structures of the society enact it’s restraining hands on the autobiographical impulses within the author; there is a need to engage more centrally with their avowedly public character. In so far as the autobiographical act involves an exhibition of one’s lived life before the gaze of a reading public, paradigms of spectacle and performance may be more relevant to the study of self- narratives than models of authentic expressiveness.

The intersection of autobiography and history provides a useful site for exploring the phenomenon of autobiographers from India almost always concentrating on their public selves in writing. A large number of Indian life narratives written in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were pre-occupied with the experience of historical change. Using the life of the author at times a mere pretext and at other times as the pivot, these narratives sought to provide their readers with a slice of history. It may be erroneous to regard the confluence of these two elements as an accidental feature of particular autobiographies. Given the frequency of such convergence, it should be looked upon as a vital feature of the genre in India. In fact, an important challenge that autobiography studies in India faces today is how to investigate the integration of the personal and the historical. While the former connects the autobiographical text to a history of subjectivation, the latter links it to a process of collective memory making.

Most public figures create and project an image(s) that is befitting to the situation at hand, so that they can protect their reputation. Performances are a means to know and understand experiences which are central to our social, cultural and personal identities. These performances are not to be seen as attempts to manipulate others but as normal and unavoidable; because humans are social, and therefore must co-ordinate their identities and actions with those of others. The dramaturgical model adopts roles, principles and terminology of theatrical performance in order to explain human communication. Scripts or frames are guidelines for interaction based on cultural conventions. They reduce uncertainty about how to behave and define situations.

The dramaturgical model of “impression management” (Bell 148) describes how people shape others’ impressions of them as well as how people convince others to adopt certain, and not other, definitions of a situation. The collation of poststructuralist critique with impression management conceives the internal landscape of an individual as revealed in the life narrative, as a set of stylized acts – that is, performative. The disparities between the various significations of the same identity can be reconciled within the parameters of this theoretical setup. What an actress does onstage or onscreen is to pretend to be someone other than her true self. In Performance Studies terms, this is called “restored behaviour” (Carlson 4) by Richard Schechner. It points to a certain distance between self and behaviour, analogous to that between an actor and the role the actor plays onstage. Even if an action onstage is identical to that in real life, onstage it is considered to be performed while offstage it is merely done. There is a thin line differentiating an action ‘performed’ and ‘done’ and that is a consciousness of the performance which can easily move from the stage, from ritual, and from other special and clearly defined cultural situations into everyday life. So there are two different concepts of performance, one involving display of skills, but less of particular skills than of a recognized and culturally boded pattern of behaviour.

Binodini Dasi’s and Durga Khote’s Narratives

In Binodini Dasi’s autobiographies, it is an introspection of the first kind of performance. Binodini was not praised for acting well in some abstract way, but for bringing the characters alive. The attention in the autobiography is drawn to what is in fact happening/ happened, the event- the miracle is the fine tuned and sublime recreation of figure and world for a historical audience. My Story is in part an elaboration of what went into this feat. In Khote’s autobiography, this aspect of performance is rather overlooked as Gayatri Chatterjee correctly anecdotes in her introductory piece to the autobiography:

Learning about Shanta Gokhale’s translation of Khote’s autobiography, friends and scholars were pleased. But they also raised many questions. For example, P. K. Nair immediately asked, ‘Is there anything in her book to explain the tremendous dignity and strength exuded by the characters she plays? She is so regal and manly!’ Whenever Durga Khote is mentioned, an image of the actress comes to mind – particularly to those who have seen her earlier films like Amarjyoti – proud and erect, wielding a sword, wearing a nauvari. (Khote xvii)

The attention is therefore drawn to the performance of culturally coded patterns of behaviour.

Binodini Dasi’s and Durga Khote’s dilemma as artists who achieved popularity with audience and attention from the art world is one which is current in much writing on autobiography – how an artist or writer who works with herself as subject matter manages to confirm her legitimacy and coherence as a speaker while exploring the complexities and fragmentation of her experiences. As Roger J. Porter substantiates in Self-same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections, over the last twenty years performance has offered a space for feminist artists to explore the self as subject all over the world; many of the issues raised by performance have analogies in autobiographical writings and much current theoretical writing about feminist autobiographies also illuminates performance art. Women artists had long struggled to negotiate the relationship between woman as the object of artistic representation and the woman artist as agent and author of her own work. Many women artist began to feel that in the merging medium of performance they were able to challenge and work with this complex relationship through bringing their own live presence into the work. Performance offered a form in which to speak to new voices as well as act in new and authentically female ways.

Durga Khote gained popularity for her strong manly roles on silver screen. Throughout the rest of her life, Khote was, in a way struggling to live up to these expectations of being a strong woman. I, Durga Khote can be seen as the only ‘performance’ which is not mediated by a script. Here she explores the relation between self as agent and self as subject – a gap which can allow for the playful assuming of identities whilst still signalling the real life presence of the artist, enabling an artist to invoke many aspects of herself brought into play through her live performance. The notion of performance (the performance being referred to here being the autobiography) as directly accessing an artist’s real self continues the project to bring the everyday directly into the pages of the autobiography. However, as writers are always aware, there is always a friction between the two, an edge or boundary over which the everyday is transformed, a space which art seeks to articulate.

One of the notable features of Durga Khote’s autobiographical content is that at no point in her narrative does she whine or complain about the patriarchal world of cinema. The in the autobiography is multi faceted and marked by all the contradictions and paradoxes contained in Khote’s rich and elite background; it chronicles the many pleasures and pains she went through as a woman going out to earn a living for herself and her family. She writes about everything with almost the same degree of passionate attachment or dispassionate distance. Her writing can be enjoyed as a testament of the multiplicity and ambivalence, the determination and confusion of the period she belonged to Khote’s portrayal of herself as free-willed as well as chained by the opinions of others are to be equally appreciated; on the -one hand Khote as a woman capable of acting independently and on the other hand as a woman unable to take harsh decisions putting an end to things that brought her only pain. In fact, for the writing woman, the act of writing reconstitutes her subjectivity in radically new ways.

Yet, a woman’s writing, especially her life writing is intimately and inevitably related to the cultural world it came out of. As a performance therefore the orientation of I, Durga Khote is related to women’s personal experience and her collective past. But the paradoxical truth is that even this attempt gets tainted by the multiple politics of gender and class as was operative in the Indian society.

The intention of an autobiographer may indeed be mediated through any number of impersonal systems that slightly modify those intentions but as Roger J. Porter observes in Self-Same Songs: Autobiographical Performances and Reflections, “…even radical skepticism about a self’s non textual existence does not negate the presence of an intention; it merely relocates intention to another realm” (xiii). The one sure way of making out the intentions behind the act of writing is to examine the intentions that exist ‘outside’ the text via statements in interviews or letters. Since there are few documents of this nature as regards Durga Khote, one is limited to construe the intentions from the act of writing. But this is not so in the case of Binodini Dasi; though there are few authentic evidences of her personal life, there are numerous chronicles of her professional life in the form of articles in theatre journals.

Generalisations about how the organisation of an individual’s daily life produces or even causes the autobiographical form as the reader/audience perceive it depends on a kind of logic that transcribes lived experience on to textual production and then presumes to read textual effects as experiential cause. According to Leigh Gilmore, “when experience as a category of analysis is thematized rather than historicized and is used to cover the complex links securing ‘identity’ to ‘politics’ in the practice of self representation, it play a role in the politics of interpretation as well” (x).

In context of the autobiographies selected for study, the term ‘politics’ encompasses primarily gender, class and nationality. As pointed out earlier, one of the striking features of Durga Khote’s autobiography is that unlike other autobiographies written in Marathi by her contemporaries like Leela Chitnis and Hansa Wadkar (which have not yet received the fortune of being translated into English to be accessed by a larger audience); Khote’s autobiography is more or less devoid of complaints or the despair of being a woman in a male dominated industry. Khote attempts to make the best out of Dar’s My Story and My Life as an Actress and Durga Khote’s I, Durga Khote a bad situation which is not possible unless and until she manipulates her world and confines herself to the private world where no one will confront her with a why or how.

Her non conformity in the public space relegates her into an aberrant private individuality at the cost of effacing the public individual. It is, nonetheless, in these moments of “acting out” (Hart 1) that “the factitous identity of the subject disappears” (Hart 1). Catherine Clement speaks of identity as “prosthesis” (qtd. in Hart, 8) or “armor” that one must wear in order to be understood. Identities are necessary if we are to live in reality and feminist identities embrace the monstrous possibilities of ‘performance’ or ‘acting out’. Cutting herself off from reality can be the woman’s way of escaping the inundation in a masculine imaginary that passes of as the symbolic order. However, cleverly concealed, the autobiographical texts leak out such moments of repressed agony. The intention must have been the construction of a coherent self which is impervious to the pains inflicted by the forces of Life; an attempt to reconcile with the rapacity of Life. However, the integral self turns out to be an illusion which is revealed to be the emergence of shifting, contentious subjects who speak in a range of discourses. This in turn will lead to the tension(s) in the professed intentions and the political as well as cultural ideologies that gave rise to these tensions.

A comparative study shows that the manipulation of reality begins at the level of language. The material that both the women have to work with is, if not awful, sad and they have only one option – to tell their story as it was, as quietly as possible. While Durga Khote does this with admirable restraint, Binodini Dasi cannot help mixing her narrative with melancholy and pathos. The revelations and disclosures in both the autobiographies are subtly and artfully structured by the authors to protect both author and reader from the horrors of the material. This point can be illustrated with the example of Hansa Wadkar, a popular actress of the same era and cultural world as that of Khote. Hansa Wadkar follows a very different path in her autobiography Sangte Aika (1970) in which she is brutally graphic about the privation and abuse she was subjected to Wadkar’s book is similar to Mee, Durga Khote in that it is as much about her personal life as about her profession; it is different in that it includes accounts of her amorous relationships and also of abuses (including sexual) by men who supported her in her work. It is easy to understand why, at the end of it all, Wadkar did not feel any hesitation in writing about that part of her life and profession. It is equally easy to understand why Khote would want to be silent about her personal life. At the time of publication of Wadkar’s book, the publisher had suppressed many names, for the men she discussed in the book were well known, and some still living.

When Sangte Aika was published, the reviews accorded to it were of different nature. While some reviewers saw the autobiographical discourse of the actress as a window to the patriarchal world of cinema, people uncomfortable with Wadkar’s life writing raised the objection that there is no evidence to corroborate all that she has said actually did happen. They wanted to know what the men she wrote about thought: such books were one-sided narratives and the ignorance of the story on the ‘other side was questioned. There is more at work than simple authorial benevolence. Subtle revelation – a common feature of My Story, My Life as an Actress and I, Durga Khote, and in particular the use of a naïve child like narrator, positions the reader in some ways ‘above’ the narrator, and therefore alongside the author. In this way, the author is able to connect with the reader, perhaps even gaining the fruits of critical readership and interpretation, while maintaining the position as named author.

The observations above point the finger towards the Hindu cultural chauvinism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; though not the exclusive reason Hindu nationalism is definitely the strongest ideological underpinning that has reformed the way Indians looked at women for decades to come. There was a fundamental transformation in the structures of political-cultural sensibility in the late nineteenth century, wherein liberal reformism was abandoned in favour of a hard and closed nationalistic culture. From the later decades of the nineteenth century this nationalism- which was the construct of upper caste men, had annexed both the caste question and the women’s question into the sphere of the cultural and the private. This is apparent in the strength of resistance to widow remarriage and other gender issues, which lay in the fact that it represented the adoption of lower caste models for the higher castes. Further, the fear of losing caste was a deterrent against any popular acceptance of reforms. Ulna Chakravarti has drawn attention to the branding of Pandita Ramabai as a betrayer of the nation because of her rejection of oppressive patriarchal practices integral to Brahmanical Hinduism. Her conversion to Christianity came to be seen as a betrayal of a nation that was ipso facto Hindu. But as Chakravarti rightly notes, Phule or Ramabai, “the so-called betrayers, were in fact the ones who were betrayed by the narrow basis of nationalism which was a construct of upper caste men” (342). The “nationalist resolution of the Women’s question” (Chatterjee 87) relegated the women to the private sphere – the middle class, upper caste woman became the symbol of all Indian women and a reconceptualised Hindu culture – but it did not go uncontested.

Empirical evidence suggests that women’s question often continued to dominate debates in the journalistic literature of women as well as the lower and middle class associations. Women’s rights were invariably posed as opposed to political claims made by untouchables and minorities. This opposition has continued to influence the self-understanding of the women’s movement and the anti- caste movements. Maharashtra has been particularly fortunate in possessing a lively and diverse tradition of scholarship in this regard. Some of these themes, emerging out of a combination of regional specificities, wield a powerful influence on the Maharastrian psyche and mould current and future socio-cultural developments. One of the key themes which hold together this kind of scholarship on Maharashtra is religion in its manifold representations; it can be safely assumed that the Maharastrian psyche-especially the female- was tempered by it. This is not surprising because in India religion has always played a vital role in the formulation and (re)formulation of the public sphere. Religion has served as a strong input in the creation of Maharashtra’s cultural identity which also has inputs from history and legends. Maharastrian identity coalesced in the seventeenth century, as a blend of diverse elements: political (in the sense of Maratha power), regional (in the sense of being a Maharastrian) and religious (or Hindu).

This has another important dimension as it has provided the ideological impulse to political action for over three centuries: through the reign of the successive Chhatrapatis after Shivaji and of their hereditary Brahmin prime ministers (the Peshwas) whose dynastic rule from Pune became legendary, the British colonial rule with its multi pronged impact like the introduction of Western style education, secular legal system and new principles of administration with its resultant socio religious reform movements. The reform movements had two dimensions – caste inequalities addressed mostly by non Brahmins foremost among whom was Jyotirao Phule and gender injustices addressed mainly by the Brahmin reformers both by virtue of their public leadership based on multiple hegemony and because of the greater rigidity and oppressiveness of the Brahmin customs. Meera Kosambi observes:

The equation of widowhood with instant ‘marital and social death’ was firmly entrenched in upper caste Maharashtrian society which accepted women only in their wife-mother role, and which allowed no legitimate social space for widows. The social awakening, which sought to give widows a new lease on life, did so within the broadly patriarchal societal framework by opening up two quite divergent and radical new options. One was the path of remarriage, which was restricted to child widows… The second path, feasible for women widowed in adulthood, was that of the newly available Western education and a socially useful career. This created an altogether new space for them… in the semi-public sphere. (6)

The production of culture in the form of literature, the theatre and the performing arts continued simultaneously with these developments revealing their own urban-rural biases as well as caste biases. Cultural forms not only served as light entertainment but sometimes exerted considerable influence in shaping public opinion. Dance, drama and music displayed both continuity and innovations of various intensities, operating at various levels. Maharashtra has largely favoured music and drama over dance, which was relegated to the non-elite categories of expression. This eagle’s eye-view of the Marathi cultural and political history serves as a background against which the subjectivity of a female performer gets manipulated in the pre-discursive space, a female performer who remained in the profession of acting even after widowhood in a society firmly rooted in tradition and orthodox religion. Accessing the interiority of the actress through a close and sensitive reading of the autobiography I, Durga Khote illustrates the influence of all these cultural forces on the identity of the widowed female performer. All the glory and accomplishments associated with her career are dwelt upon in detail and clarity while problematic areas are completely sidelined. The debacle with Bal Gandharva is a good example; he is said to have declared in a public meeting:”When women from respectable families enter professional theatre, they are likely to go astray” (Khote, xxvii).

But a comparative study of Durga Khote and Binodini Dasi become relevant against the background of the contestations of dominant ideologies of gender which were caste-bound and worked towards extending caste and class authority. The politics of these early feminists who consolidated the notions of stree samaj/varg/jati were not autonomous of the fractured modernity of their class and therefore articulated both a critique of and complicity with Brahmanical caste and gender codes. They articulated navmatavad (modernity) thus:

From the time the word navmatavad has come into practice it is not as if old ideas hinder the development of new viewpoints among the new generation. They only remind them of some existing theoretical perspectives. New psychology is nothing but what the Vedas and the sadhus have said about remaining distant from one’s body and concentrating on the atman. (Alam 209)

The elite women invented and appropriated different symbols of fractured modernity, exercising the power to nominate and represent modern women.

A brief review of the extraordinary number of autobiographies written and published in Marathi by women from the early twentieth century can help understand the ways in which elite women exercised the power to name and represent the modern. Ramabai Ranade’s Amchya Ayushatil Kahi Athvani (The Memories of Our Life Together) published in 1910 was the first full-scale autobiography written in Marathi and by 1975 more than thirty five autobiographies by women came to be published.

Much of the critical Marathi discourse on the issue had centered around and applauded Laxmibai Tilak’s autobiography Smritichitre (Sketches from Memory) for its articulation of pain in a genre that was impersonal and attempted to maintain a distance from emotion. Feminist scholars critiqued this appreciation and suggested instead the importance of exploring the reasons for a lack of space for women to write about pain in the Marathi public sphere. The autobiography of the modern Marathi women generally ended up being a life sketch of the husband or a narrative of the joys and pains of having a reformist husband.

When the categorisation of Marathi women’s autobiography from 1910 to the present is considered, more than half of the autobiographies in the period 1950-75 representing Marathi middle class life are narratives of companionate marriages or life sketches of famous husbands. An extraordinary number of autobiographies in the period 1976-2000 are narratives of women artists and wives of famous men. Reviews of these contemporary works have drawn attention to the predominance of expressions of marital discord as opposed to the earlier stress on perfect companionship and on the near total absence of direct involvement in political and social issues. Caste rarely appears in the life writings of the Marathi middle woman; caste, as far as she was concerned always belonged to someone else or to some other time frame. The majority of these modern Marathi women’s autobiographies have been narratives of upper caste women (who had the benefit of Western education), their struggle with tradition and their desire to be modern. This categorisation classifies the narratives of women whose self-definition is located explicitly in caste (say, the Dalit woman) as a relational identity, “as if it were the ‘other’ of modern and feminist” (Rege 51).

Binodini Dasi’s subjectivity emerges from a relational identity; her writings become relevant as a comparative study between Binodini and contemporary bhadramahila writers and the various institutions, practices and beliefs that shaped their lives and their writings. The fairly substantial output of women’s published writings in Bangla from the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comprises articles in newspapers and journals, poems, pamphlets, tracts, novels, short stories, autobiographies and memoirs (including all those forms sometimes categorized as personal narratives). Most of these are written by bhadramahilas and while that label “cannot erase differences of social locations, education and other affiliations of the writers, or suggest a commonality of purpose or target readership”, Binodini’s writing stands on very different grounds. She was a public figure with a professional career and thus she was not a bhadramahila. She had very little formal education and was considered to have acquired her learning from her years in the theatre. By the time Binodini’s work began to be published, there was more than half a century of women’s writing in print. The difference is not just in Binodini’s class origins but also in the kind of readership she was addressing. Most of her writings were not published in any of the upper or middle class women’s journals but in theatre magazines. The construction of the bhadramahila identity in print comprising largely of exhortatory and didactic literature was that part of the reformist movement initiated by men but writing, as a literary activity, took a new direction with the proliferation of theatre magazines in the first decades of the century and is greatly shaped by some of the consumption patterns the latter catered to. The Natyamandir, the theatre journal in which Binodini’s autobiography was first serialized, had an elaborate subscription plan which included both the theatre-going audience as well as those who would be curious about theatre gossip but not necessarily regular theatre-goers.

Most of the periodicals from this time appeared to be participating in a project of rehabilitation of the actress, and “through her seeking to establish the legitimacy of theatre as an artistic, moral and educational ‘temple’ of society” (Bhattacharya 22). Another important thing in this context is the fact that though the actresses did write from time to time and the theatre magazines almost always carried their photographs, most of the articles were written by male writers who wrote fictitious first person women’s lives, usually of actress-like figures. There was a stream of generic ‘actress stories’ or abhinetri kahini, variously subtitled ‘story,’ fiction based on real life’ and ‘autobiography,’ so that the blurring between fact and fiction, the literary and the historical was quite complete.

Binodini’s autobiographical text stands out from those of her contemporaries, male and female, by virtue of the absent father who is never once invoked. Instead, the book is constructed around a series of the now absent men in her life, although it also testifies to the warmth she felt for many women: her mother and grandmother, the kindly neighbour of her childhood, her first teacher, Gangabai, her senior colleague Rajkumari among others. The value of Binodini Dasi’s autobiography in reconstructing modern Indian femininity is measured by both its distance from the continuity of the familiar (the bhadramahila writing) and by the extent to which the author of the autobiography has internalized the norms of the bhadramahila writing.


As a comparative study, the two autobiographies – one written by a theatre artist of the colonial era (Binodini Dasi) and the other written by a tine artist of the modern era (Durga Khote) – were chosen for a reason. It has always been a matter of intrigue as to why women writers in India have preferred to write poetry or fiction rather than drama. It is still a debatable question as to why women hesitate to make better use of theatre’s volatile space to highlight women’s issues. The only rational reason seems to lie in the requirement for drama to be performed. Theatre necessitates the breaching of the private space-public space divide that most women artists seem reluctant to initiate. This holds equally true for the female actor. As a theatre artist, Binodini Dasi initiated the breach of the private- public divide. The case of the cine artist is slightly different as there is a temporal split between the performance and the reception; the female cine artist is somewhat protected from the voyeurism of the audience by this temporal split. This must have had a significant impact on the femininity and its performance were perceived and enacted by Binodini Dasi and Durga Khote. Besides, while Binodini lived through the formative stages of the “nationalist resolution of the women’s question” (Chatterjee 87), Khote was a product of this movement. The autobiographies offer a variety of analyses of the position of women (as a ‘private’ individual and as the public figure); explores the female subjectivity and brings out to the open the effect of the various strategies adopted to negotiate social change on the construct of femininity in the modern Indian public sphere.

The modern social order in India did not bring in its wake equality or freedom for Indian women. The old patriarchal system was merely substituted with a new one, which was as dysfunctional as its predecessor. Women were precariously placed in the social order connecting the home and the world which was not only in contrast to the liberal West but also sharply different from the immediate social and Cultural conditions in which majority of the Indian population lived. The ‘new’ woman was conveniently placed on a pedestal of cultural Superiority as opposed to the coarse, loud, sexually promiscuous ‘Common’ woman who was physically and intellectually inferior to their male counterparts. While claiming to liberate women from the shackles of this kind, of coarseness and of oppression, the so-called co-liberal nationalist movement placed Indian women of culturally superior pedestal of femininity which would later turn out to be a liaison for women in India for decades to come.


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SULFIA SANTHOSH. Is Doctoral Researcher Scholar at the University of Hyderabad.

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Is Doctoral Researcher Scholar at the University of Hyderabad.

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