Theatre was for the longest time a sphere in the arts where women were forbidden to enter. The precipice of women’s theatre in India began as early as 1904 with Swarnakumari Devi’s The Wedding Tangle (1904), a distinguished poet, novelist, and playwright. Swarnakumari’s legacy is positioned at a remarkable level of respect and she was also one of the most accomplished figures of her time.
A revolutionary element of The Wedding Tangle, was challenging the traditional ideological notion of the sad widow. However, decades later in the 1970s, dowry deaths were still at large and the emancipation of women from the clutches of the patriarchy was just beginning to occur worldwide through protests.
In late 1979, the first feminist street play, Om Swaha was staged. Om Swaha was a provocative reaction through the medium of theatre to the public death of Hardeep Kaur, who was burned at her own home because she lacked the required amount of dowry.
Subhadra Butalia, mother of writer and publisher Urvashi Bhutalia, was crucial in organizing and guiding actors, directors, and activists on how to create Om Swaha and portray it to the masses. The play was about Hardeep Kaur as well as Tarvinder Kaur in Model Town who was also killed for dowry, their friends and family and victims were all a vital part of the play’s narrative. It opened at Indraprastha College and the theatre group, part of the Theatre Union, enacted the piece across all of Delhi.
Maya Rao, who was in the role of Hardeep performed with much vigour audiences were baffled and in shock. Urvashi tells the scroll about Maya’s performance, “The scene where she is being killed, I remember there was pin-drop silence,” and “You could only hear two things – Maya’s scream and the traffic on the road. Even when we played to mostly all-male gatherings during lunch hours in Connaught Place and Patel Chowk, there was no hostility. Just compassion.” The play for the first time showcased ordinary women in salwar kameez and saris talking and acting about then family only issues.
A conversation was being communicated to the public about the detriments of discriminatory practices such as dowry killings. Other actors were Sudesh Vaid, Rati Bartholomew, and Anuradha Kapur. The play preaches involvement through strong narrative and thematic concerns and allows space for political discourse. The play tried to change social perceptions of the nation at the time as the condition and the situation of young wives who found themselves across state borders susceptible to violence was high. 1979 was also the year Indian Women were protesting the encroaching dowry system.
A pivotal point in history and the legacy of feminism in art and theatre, it managed to push people into acknowledging many detrimental religious practices which scrutinised the position of women. Without the quick wit of actors to congregate together to form the Theatre Union, feminist theatre productions might have taken a whole new direction with its capabilities to address social issues. Om Swaha would go on to become one of the first women-led and feminist theatre productions highlighting the plight of women in Indian society.
Photo courtesy: Maya Krishna Rao