Sunday, February 5, 2012

Women of IPTA

The author of this paper Lata Singh is a well known scholar of Theatre and History. She is an Associate Professor of history in Maitreyi College, Delhi. This is an excerpt of the Paper presented at Sahmat Conference in 2011 and is going to be published in full in sahmat’s forthcoming publication. Selected and edited by  
Vineet Tiwari

One of the most significant aspects of IPTA has been participation of women. The journeys of most of the women to IPTA have been through their political path.  After joining IPTA, the women political workers also became cultural activists/performers. What is significant is that women from ‘respectable’ sections of society, who till now had shunned performance, become performers in IPTA. How does one see the journeys of women in IPTA from gender perspective? Did their journeys mark transgression of patriarchal boundary, which is the main concern of this presentation? However patriarchal transgression could only make meanings when one looks at the parameter defined for women. Studies of Kumkum Sangari and others have highlighted how redefinition of the female was a crucial feature of the hegemony of the burgeoning middle class during the colonial period. In this hegemonic quest, the question of ‘respectability’ assumed its sharpest form with regard to issues concerning women. However, within the whole paradigm of respectability and private/public space for women, the space of performance is further marginalized and looked upon with suspect. Even the subaltern women who tread public domain looks on women performers with suspect and consider them as ‘loose’ women. What is significant in case of women performer is their availability as visible body in public space, that is, their body being available for male gaze. Women performers are the most public women. Besides, performance as a space also have various unsettling factors. The commune of theatre and its space transgresses social boundaries of caste, class and gender. Since performers were looked down in society, only women from the marginalized, ‘anonymous’ and ‘condemned’ quarters came to theatre. ‘Respectable’ women dare not tread on this path. It is against this background that the joining of ‘respectable’ women in IPTA becomes very significant. However, unlike the earlier women performers, women in IPTA did not come from any entertainment or professional community. In fact, it was the political journeys of these women that took them to IPTA. Even the performance was for them politics. IPTA was an important cultural platform to further the political cause. Hence cultural activities were extensions of their political activities.

Most of the women come from families which used to appear ‘liberal’ and less ‘restrictive’. They come from families which provide education to girls and the girls are also sent for higher education. Sheela Bhatia says that in her parent’s house there was no difference in the upbringing of boys and girls. According to her ‘food, clothes and education given was the same for boys and girls’. Dina Gandhi says that her grandfather, who was the headmaster of a school in Bhavnagar state, was a rebellious person and wanted the women in his house to be educated. Reba Roychoudhury’s father, who had lost faith on his son as he joined left politics, wanted to send his daughter abroad for studies. Many of these women also got cultural exposure in their childhood. Some of them also participated in school cultural activities. Dina Gandhi’s father was very found of music and would go for Balgandharva’s programme in Pune. He also went for theatre performances and also had theatre performances at home. Dina Gandhi got the opportunity to watch the performances too. Besides painters and singers also came to her house and she had the privilege to interact with them. For Dina Gandhi these must have been the manure of her cultural consciousness.

Although girls were provided education in these families but one should not get a sense of real ‘freedom’ being given to them. There was a certain kind of restrictions and control on them. They could operate within a certain parameter defined for them.  Though Sheela Bhatia’s  family and relations were happy of her education, her doing well in studies, but she was not allowed to go outside. In fact sometimes she had the great desire to go outside and see the world outside. According to her, although there was not special restriction, but ‘jindagi ka daur hi aisa tha’. After her marriage, Sheela Bhatia’s in-laws allowed her to study in Lahore. She had got scholarship and that had opened her door for education but in her own words ‘at that daur mughe bahut jaddojahad karni pari’. Whatever freedom was given to her there was a kind of restrictions. Though a lot of enlightened and cultured people, like Balraj Sahni, Khushwant Singh and Balwant Gargi, visited Lahore, she could not interact with them. She could only participate within the parameter of ‘bandish’. She did not have the liberty to go anywhere.

For most women their political journeys have been quite exhilarating. For many women of IPTA, especially the experience of commune of Cultural Squad, has been the high point of their life. Life at the commune was very different from the kind of life most of the members of the Cultural Squad had earlier. Especially in the accounts of the women those 2-3 years that they had spent in the commune changed everything for them. Rekha Jain talks very highly of her experience in commune – of her learning of dance, the discipline in CS. In fact the experience shook her total mind set. After joining the cultural squad her conservative ‘sanskar’ got a big jolt due to teacher like Shantibardhan. For her the process of learning dance was also a struggle to get liberated from conservative ‘sanskars’. She realized that her ‘mun ki jhijhak’ had prohibited the body flexibility for dance. The turmoil of family ‘sanskars’ that was happening inside her would many times come in her way of properly learning dance. She goes through inner conflict. She talks of the dilemma of doing a character in a play directed by Shambhu Mitra. It is the character of a fighting woman, who fights with her mother-in-law without shame. While doing this character Rekha Jain, because of her ‘sanskars’ of conservative family, was finding it difficult to pull hairs of her mother-in-law and shout.  Hence for Rekha Jain who came from conservative family of Agra, with ‘jakran’ of different ‘sanskars’, the whole atmosphere of commune broke her ‘ghighak’ and ‘bandhan’ and raised her confidence. Rekha Jain’s childhood and its naughtiness which was suppressed because of her very early marriage once again bloomed  in such atmosphere.

Even Dina Gandhi in her interview says that being part of Cultural Squad was a tremendous experience. According to her ‘We toured all over the country ……Thousands and thousands of people attended our shows. For six months we rehearsed and for six months we toured. We went to each province, to so many small towns. I have seen my country the way it should be seen. We were just living one life and you know, three bogeys were booked and we used to sleep in that. There were no hotels. After the show you come back to the bogey, go to another place and do the show there. This was the tremendous experience’. Dina Gandhi her interview to Pratibha Aggrawal says ‘mein usko khad ka kaam kehti hoon’. Reba Roychoudhury in her memoir says that she got the strength of struggle because of ‘saathi’. For her the life strength to struggle was the atmosphere of ‘laughter, galp, dance, play, writing, reading, alochana’.

The commune was also a non-exploitative space for women performers as compared to the space of commercial professional theatre. The actresses mostly talk of pain and betrayal that they go through in professional theatre. Another aspect, one would like to highlight is how in their personal lives too, IPTA women were negotiating domesticity and matrimonial relationship which was different from the mainstream ‘married household’. For Preeti Banerjee the year that she got married the party was banned. She says that ‘after marriage we (she and her husband) did not have contacts for five years. We had to go underground. Three months after marriage we went to Darjeeling and the very next day he was arrested by the police…I was in the jail for six months. When after 5 years the ban was lifted I could meet him’. Dina Gandhi became full time cultural worker when she joined the central troupe. She was married by then. She says after joining the central troupe ‘I forgot about my home life and everything. I got thoroughly involved in my activities and my husband also got fully involved in his party activities and we drifted apart. In those days these things did’nt have that kind of an impact – if it happened to me today it would have, perhaps. You know, at that time the priorities were different. At that time I went along with the prabaha, the current’. Reba Roychoudhury met her husband Sajal in Gannatya organization. Mutual faith and idealism had helped them sail through difficult times. Even after marriage, she remained active in politics and was even jailed.

Thus, the IPTA women through their politics, works and lives challenged certain patriarchal boundaries. Experience of men and women activists living and working together in difficult and dangerous circumstances constantly necessitated overcoming gender and class barriers. In their cultural as well as their political assignments during this entire decade, women were moving into spaces that had been entirely unfamiliar to women of their class. They had to spend time continuously in close proximity with male comrades and in worker and peasant households in very unconventional circumstances. This opened the IPTA activists minds towards a different gender culture in many ways and perhaps this is what sustained the enthusiasm of the women activists.

In post-independent India most of these women carved their identities, exhibiting confidence and boldness in their work. Some took to political path and some made niche in cultural activities. For Rekha Jain it was a journey from ‘ghoonghat’ to etching her identity in children’s theatre in Delhi. She was very active in political and theatre activities, where she acted and directed plays in IPTA. She motivated girls in Allahabad to join IPTA and would pick up girls and drop them back. One can see the kind of confidence that she exhibited as comes out in the words of Mohan Upreti.  Once teaching dance when some boys were not dancing, she held one boys’ hand to show gesture that boy became very conscious. According Mohan Upreti, who was also the student, ‘when I saw first time Rekhajee as an akeli larki who was teaching boys with out any jhijhak, then we became surprised (dang). But I got lot of motivation from you. In this way you are my first guru’.
Sheela  Bhatia became active in National Cultural Front of Kashmir, where she acted and directed plays. In fact, she was the only woman amongst them, who would sit with them and eat with them. She was the first woman to broadcast in Kashmir radio. She returned to Delhi in 1951 and formed Delhi Art Theatre. Sneh Sanyal, Usha Bhagat, Swantrata Prakash were also part of it. Sheela Bhatia wrote and directed plays. She taught acting in National School of Drama and wanted NSD to play a crucial role in theatre movement. Her residence had become a space of theatre workshop. In fact, this is the trajectory of many IPTA women in post-Independent India.  

Another crucial aspect from gender perspective would be to look at the position of women within the organization of IPTA. However, within the organization women primarily remained performers and only few emerged as composers and directors. Within the movement there were women capable of writing and producing plays but such aspect rarely getting highlighted is an indication of the limits within which a woman activist was expected to operate. The Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti did have its cultural programme, but within the IPTA, they were performers rather than directors. Besides very few women were in position of leadership and decision-making in the IPTA organization. Women who built up the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti in Bengal from 1942 were quite often also active in the IPTA, but these activists too, were never in a position of leadership there. These women were conscious political workers, aware of the shifts taking place in cultural squad and having their own political opinion on the shifts within the cultural squad and on the disbanding of cultural squad.  What is not important is whether they had difference of opinion on such matters but what is matter of concern is that despite their being politically conscious the women did not take any political stand.  Dina Gandhi in her interview says – ‘I was not involved in policy making, and in the organizational structure. I was a performer. But all of us, the performers of the central troupe of IPTA were conscious workers somewhere else. So we were not dull performers. We were alive, reactive to everything that was happening. We all had come from different provinces with one discipline – we were all connected with progressive left movements….We were made more and more conscious of not allowing ourselves to break it up, not to shake it up too much, not to disturb it at a wrong place. Because this was a sort of laboratory experiment….Spirit of India and India Immortal were two different tours. The audience had changed. We were alive to the audience which we had seen before. We were alive to those issues which had caused us to transform ourselves, translate ourselves. But not to the kind of audience we were meeting with in Calcutta, in Bombay, in Delhi, wherever we went. There we were completely in awe of Robuda and Shantida. So it became like they were the masters and we were the tools – at least I felt that.

But we never questioned anything. This is the worst thing. If we had questioned it, if we had been culturally strong enough to stand up and ask, then even they would have understood what it was that they were trying to do. They did not understand either. Why? Who should question us? We are the creators. We decide’. Gul Bardhan says in her interview that, ‘During our tour we received a lot of appreciation everywhere we went and because of our work a large number of intellectuals and artists came closer to the Party and many became party supporters. But the party did not realize that. When we returned to Bombay we were told that it had been decided to disband the Central Squad…There was no debate or discussion….All the members of the Central Squad felt very sad and sorry about the whole thing. We felt that this was absolutely wrong but we were too young to speak against the leadership’.

Thus the paper has tried to map journeys of IPTA women which marked transgression of patriarchal boundaries at various moments of their lives. Although the transgression was not triggered by feminist politics but most of the women were aware that the opposition to their politics came from patriarchal front. But such transgression could not translate into challenging the hierarchy based on gender within the organization and there is a need to problematize it too.


  1. Hello
    I am a PhD student at the University of British Columbia who is researching the lives of women in Punjab theatre. Do you have any information in regards to making contact with Sheila Bhatia's descendants so that I may attain access to any diaries/correspondence etc that she may have had?
    Thank you

    1. yes I have...plz contact