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OH MAN, WHAT A WOMAN!

Stree Nataka Mandali, the all-woman troupe set up by R. Nagarathnamma, defied convention and endured much hardship to keep the flag flying high



R. Nagarathnamma as a prone Bheema and her group went about their work without caring to theorise on what they were doing. — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

NO SLOGANEERING. No passionate rhetoric. No feminist agenda. It happened quietly, on an intuition. Stree Nataka Mandali, the all-woman theatre group, under the stewardship of R. Nagarathnamma, was born in 1958. All because of a brainwave that harmonium `master' Doreswamy had.

For long time, women artistes had no entry to theatre and it was men who played female characters, till about early 50s. Earlier, even when some professional companies did employ women artistes, they were given insignificant roles to play. It was only decades later that women managed to gain a foothold in theatre. But curiously, North Karnataka had a tradition of women's theatre as early as 1892. Most of these companies were run by Devadasis, and Papasani's Stree Nataka Mandali was one of the earliest. At a time when it was rare for women to act, these companies, led by women, became extremely popular. People would throng to see these women play the thundering Bheema, the odious Kamsa, the sly Shakuni, and of course, the meek Seeta — all with élan.

Though there have been several other Stree Nataka Mandalis, the one founded by the winner of the Gubbi Veeranna Award, R. Nagarathnamma, is exceptional in that it has survived the longest. At no point in time did the group involve men, both in terms of administration and acting. And no other woman actor of the time was as popular as Nagarathnamma for the male roles she played.



R. Nagarathnamma

Nagarathnamma will tell you all about the ups, downs, misfortunes, and the good times that went into the making of Stree Nataka Mandali. But ask her what it meant to occupy such an important place in what until then was considered a male domain, and you don't get enough details. As Nemichandra, a Kannada writer of repute, said: "The chasms created by men are so deep that it has perpetually thrown women into confusion, so much so that it comes as a hurdle in identifying their own selves." This seems to have happened even to a woman who has made history.

It was certainly not a bed of roses for Nagarathnamma. When the idea crossed Doreswamy's mind, he consulted an astrologer who categorically stated the Stree Nataka Mandali would do well only under Nagarathnamma. But things were difficult right from the word go. Nagarathnamma's family was very hostile to the idea of her donning male roles. They declared it would ruin the good reputation she had earned in all her years as an actress. Though nervous, she went ahead because she had given her word. "Despite all my experience as an actress, I felt nervous getting into the costume of Bheema," she says of her first performance. The show went on before a packed audience and was a stupendous success. Bheema got a standing ovation and Nagarathnamma's future was made.

She was a disciplined actress and a benevolent proprietor, very scrupulous about rehearsals. She ensured that whatever came their way as remuneration was distributed the same day to all her teammates. She guarded her girls with her life, keeping at bay sexual predators. In fact, she was touring when her husband died, but couldn't go home because she didn't want to her leave behind her girls.

When they went on camps to various parts of Karnataka, she would sit guard the whole night with a staff and knife in hand. Rajamma, who has been associated with Nagarathnamma from the beginning, recalls the terror she would unleash on miscreants. "Oh, she was a real Kamsa!" So much so even rowdies would turn up meekly at all the shows, sitting in the very first row, looking up at the women with great respect.

Tragically, it was the men who wore the façade of respectability who cheated her on many occasions. There were times when organisers would get them to perform for 10 to 12 days, only to vanish when it came to coughing up the cash. Nagarathnamma ran up huge debts. Whatever troubles came her way, she ensured that they did not affect her girls. "We really had a great time. We got good food, good payment. Nagarathnamma took good care of us. They were great times," says Rajamma nostalgically.

Most women who came to Stree Nataka Mandali did so because their families refused to allow them to get into other companies, which meant acting with men. A number of restrictions were imposed on them, even in Stree Nataka Mandali — they couldn't go out on their own and weren't allowed to speak to other men: but they had an outlet, and found an opportunity to move beyond their domestic spheres.

For R. Manjula, who has also been with the group since 1958, it was a rediscovery of the self. An introvert who would rarely lift up her head, she evolved into one of the finest comedians of the time. She was famous for her role as Makaranda in Sri Krishna Garudi. "I would gobble up five bananas and two oranges at one go and the crowd loved me for it," she says with immense pride.

A history that has been obsessed with the male experience has never endorsed the woman's experience as legitimate. An exercise like Stree Nataka Mandali gave the woman's voice that legitimacy. H.K. Ramanath, in Kannada Rangabhoomiya Vikasa Grantha, talking about the doggedness of these women, says: "When one examines the kind of hardships that these women who toured round the State endured, their courage is exemplary."

The modern feminist theatre movement struggled to create an entirely new social structure. Nagarathnamma and her group, on the other hand, went about their work without caring to theorise on what they were doing. Operating from the traditional social structure, they ensured that they made the experience of man and woman equal.

DEEPA GANESH

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