chapter  11
18 Pages

A Different Desire, a Different Femininity: Theatrical Transvestism in the Parsi. Gujarati, and Marathi Theaters, 1850-1940

Female impersonation, the practice of men playing women's roles, has a long history in South Asian theater. In Patanjali's grammatical text the Mahabhasya (ca. 150 B.C.E.), a male actor who plays female roles is described as a bhnlhmua, one who "Butters his brows. "1 The well-known dramaturgical compendium of ancient India, the Natyashastra (second to fourth centuries C.E.) mentions both men assuming the woman's character, an impersonation termed rupaniiSarini ("imitative"), and women taking on the man's role.2 Today female impersonation continues in regional theatrical arts such as the Kathakali of Kerala, the Ram Lila of Uttar Pradesh, and numerous local and folk forms.3 As a customary mode of enacting female characters, however, theatrical transvestism has vanished from the urban cultural zone. It surfaces in current film and drama either in the mimetic representation of the bijra, the transgendered social actor (for example, the protagonist of Amol Palekar's 1996 film Dayra [The SqMan Cirdt] or the minor character who appears during the riots in Mani Rathnam's 1995 film Bombay), or as a self-conscious interrogation of the earlier female impersonator (for example, Anuradha Kapur's 1998 theater piece Sundari: An Aaor PrrJkmS).