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Trina Banerjee

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Emergency in India 1
Emergency in India 2

Spectacles of Freedom and Misogyny: Representations of Women in Bengali Political Theatre Developing around the Emergency in India (1965-1980)

--Trina Banerjee


The period of the national Emergency in India (June 1975 to March 1977) was the most concentrated and prolonged period of undisguised repressive state control of civil liberties and freedom of expression of citizens since Independence. Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who, according to many[1], was simply trying to protect her own position and ensure the continuance of the Gandhi dynastic rule) the nation reeled under the shock of the severest censorship of the press, draconian laws and mass imprisonment of all political and civil rights activists, including, of course, various members of all the opposition parties. In her essay ‘Gender, Leadership and Nation: The ‘Case’ of Indira Gandhi’,[2] Rajeswari Sunder Rajan discusses the roles of female political leaders in South Asian countries and the difficulties that feminist theory faces in analyzing effectively their political contributions (especially vis-à-vis the rather complex popular representations of their ‘femininity’, or lack thereof). She writes: “In the typical biographical representations of Indira Gandhi, the problem of reconciling gender and authority is resolved through the familiar dichotomizing of the subject into a private self and a public persona; and here it is the self alone that is gendered female.”[3] These questions come into sharper focus during the Emergency when Indira Gandhi’s authority grows to unimaginable proportions and slogans such as ‘Indira is India’ filled the air. According to journalist Kuldip Nayar[4], who was imprisoned under censorship laws during the Emergency, a ‘cult of personality’ developed around Mrs. Gandhi at this time and visual spectacle formed a crucial part of this ‘cult’. Larger than life, and in some cases, enormous blow-ups of her figure, along with her new twenty-point economic programme appeared everywhere. It was widely agreed that Mrs. Gandhi looked rather sordid in most of these gargantuan visual representations and she later had some of them pulled down. But the upshot was that the urban and semi-urban spaces of the country were pervaded by ‘monstrous’ representations of the female leader of the nation, who had by then begun to be widely hated in several circles for her uncompromisingly authoritarian ways. On the other hand, according to journalists like Barun Sengupta[5], Indira Gandhi was often popularly referred to as the ‘only real man’ in the Congress (especially contra the previous Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who was seen as a really weak and ineffectual leader), signaling towards a continuance of the reading of effective political leadership in terms of masculinity and femininity within what was, in reality, an atmosphere of severely repressive governmentality.


In Sambhu Mitra’s Chandbaniker Pala [6], a play written and published in Calcutta in1978, the goddess Manasha appears as a similarly monstrous and all-pervasive female figure. The play takes up a well-known Bengali folk legend in order to tell its own story, shifting focus from the female characters (Behula[7] and Manasha[8]) to Chand Saudagar, the male hero, who fails repeatedly in his quest as a merchant-sailor. This happens apparently through the machinations of the goddess Manasha, who Chand refuses to worship because she represents everything that he wishes to stand against – unreason, darkness, ignorance, unbridled sexuality. A gigantic monster-goddess, Manasha is invisible but all-pervasive, humongous but hidden. She rules Champaknagari (representative of the nation) while Chand is increasingly driven to its edges. Manasha works through snakes and through the women of Champaknagari – villainous, conniving, bad citizens - none more so than Chand’s wife Sanaka, who emerges as his primary antagonist in the quest for extraordinary glory. The failed city is also an intensely misogynistic space, where the alleyways are infested with darkness and snakes, and the homes with women who worship darkness, fertility and unreason. The failure of heroic masculinity (that may have led to the formation and realisation of the ideal nation) is affixed directly with the ubiquitous presence (through symbols and representations) of the enormous, succubus-like figure of the goddess Manasha. Female treachery and women’s lack of ‘spiritual’ chastity are seen as definitely detrimental to the course of male heroic political action. In contrast to this, the figures of revolutionary women that appear in Utpal Dutt’s plays from the mid sixties to the late seventies (the period of Indira Gandhi’s rise) – especially in Kallol, Surya Shikar, and even the jatra pala Shon Re Malik – are individuals who have stepped out of their usual gender roles and taken on the mantle of political activism/leadership. They seem, however, neither to have turned into men nor lost their potential to bring about radical political change. Conventional notions of sexual chastity are questioned at many junctures in these plays – to be revolutionary in the struggle against class oppression seems to be the only thing necessary to turn women into political heroes. These plays seem ostensibly to be primarily about class war, but Dutt still engages himself closely with sexual politics and gender relations, questioning at several crucial moments in the texts the territorial laws of property that seem to govern conjugal relationships. As a playwright, Mitra also explores gender relations in Chandbaniker Pala, but with a sort misogynistic dismissal of woman as reactionary, which leaves the male hero very much at the centre of political action at the end.


However, both these playwrights imagine in their texts a face-off of some finality between notions of the ‘ideal nation’ and the current degenerate form of the postcolonial state. In both cases, gender relations and concepts of exemplary womanhood form intrinsic rather than peripheral parts (sometimes in the form of misogynistic spectacles and at others in representations of heroic femininity) of the unraveling narrative of national politics and revolutionary masculinity. The plays bring out into the open the self deceptions as well as the strengths of heroic political action, which is somehow by default culturally gendered male. In setting these playwrights and their texts in dialogue with each other, this paper will try to explore how masculinity and femininity emerge as complex representational tropes in the cultural products of a postcolonial state that is locked in a near-fatal struggle with its own emergent repressive visage.

[1] See Kuldip Nayar, The Judgement: the Inside Story of the Emergency in India (Vikas Publication House, 1977), New Delhi and Primila Lewis, Reason Wounded: An Experience of India’s Emergency (Vikas Publishing House, 1978), New Delhi.

[2] See Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (Routledge, 1993), London.

[3] Ibid, p. 116.

[4] Kuldip Nayar, p. 86.

[5] Barun Sengupta, ‘Indira Ekadashi’ in Rachana Samagra (Ananda, 2008), Kolkata, p. 526.

[6] The play, written by Sambhu Mitra, was published in 1977, but has never been performed till date except as a shrutinatak or an audio play.

[7] Behula, the archetypal brave wife, is Chand Saudagar’s daughter in law. She is traditionally revered for bringing back her dead husband to life by managing to appease the gods (especially Manasha) with her sheer determination. Chand, who is a worshipper of Shiva, treats the female deity (Manasha is traditionally believed to b Shiva’s daughter) with an almost vitriolic scorn. He is punished in the play for his faith in Shiva, who appears to be a rational (albeit distant) god - representative of light, knowledge and reason

[8] A powerful but dangerous female deity, she is a goddess who governs snakes and whose wrath is believed to unleash chaos and destruction on the offenders.