Female Storytelling and Drama in the 18th & 19th Century
The Indian poet, writer, musician Muddupalani should also be acknowledged in drama because her writings were performed in dramatic ways often with music, dance and acting. She was born probably born in 1750 and was a devadasi (a woman dedicated to worship and performing rituals and sacred recitations) attached to Maratha, King of Tanjore.
Muddupalani spoke and sang in both Telugu and Sanskrit and from a young age had memorized tens of thousands of verses, traditional dances and songs. She was a consort to the court of Pratap Singh who was a great patron of the arts. The work she created and performed was sometimes spiritual and sometimes secular. Her Rādhikā-sāntvanam reflects on the nature of sexual and interpersonal relationships, and some suggest it may have been based on aspects of her life at court. It explores the marital relationship of Krishna to his new wife Ila. Here is a quote from that dramatic erotic poem which would have been recited and performed with dance in court:
Which other woman of my kind has
felicitated scholars with such gifts and money?
To which other women of my kind have
epics been dedicated?
Which other woman of my kind has
won such acclaim in each of the arts?
You are incomparable,
Muddupalani, among your kind.
… A face that glows like the full moon,
skills of conversation, matching the countenance.
Eyes filled with compassion,
matching the speech.
A great spirit of generosity,
matching the glance.
These are the ornaments
that adorn Palani,
when she is praised by kings.
Muddupalani probably wrote and performed thousands of dramatic poems, song cycles and dances. Another one of her works Astapadi is sometimes used as the basis for Indian films and television programs.
The Indian poet, courtesan, writer and performer Mah Laqa Bai was born in 1768 and wrote and performed primarily in Urdu but she did produce works in Arabic, Persian and Bhoipuri. Her writings, performances, dance and songs were performed in the court of Hyderabad. She trained in poetry recitation, singing, dance, archery, horse riding and javelin skills.
Mah Laqa Bai was the first woman writer in India to author a diwan (a collection of poems which is meant to be sung, set to music and sometimes accompanied by narrative dance or symbolic movements) named Gulzar-e-Mahlaqa, which is made up of 39 ghazals (each ghazal has 5 couplets) and this was performed during her lifetime but not published until 1824. In the 1790’s she recited and performed her Diwan e Chanda which comprised 125 Ghazals. She compiled and calligraphed this text in 1798 and gifted it to Captain Malcolm in 1799 during a dance performance of the piece in 1799 at the Mir Alam’s residence. The text is now preserved and displayed at the British Museum.
Mah Laqa Bai was first female to organize Mushaira (performed poetry and verse symposiums). Here is a translation from some verses from one of her Diwan, the ghazal ‘Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower’ translates as:
Hoping to blossom (one day) into a flower,
Every bud sits, holding its soul in its fist.
Between the fear of the fowler and (approaching) autumn,
The bulbul’s life hangs by a thread.
Mah Laqa was accomplished singer and musicians and she played Thumi music, sang in Ghazal styles using raga, taal chautala and khayal tappa styles. The movement and dance styles she mostly performed were in the Deccani style of Kathak. She set up a cultural centre to train over 300 girls alongside masters. Although she was a practicing Muslim, Mah Laqa wrote and performed Hindu verses, stories and songs. She died in 1824 and bequeathed her properties that included land, gold, silver and diamond-studded jewels to homeless women.
Women in Chinese Theatre in the 19th Century
The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (Banham ed. 2000) writes of how the growth of provincial Chinese theatre troupes in the 19th Century sees the rise of all male and all female theatre troupes (Banham, 2000, p.204). Banham describes how the kungu companies were comprised often entirely of females and some women of ill-repute. He also describes how male and female actors were held in low esteem in society.
Women in Japanese Theatre in the 19th Century
The banning in 1629, of women from performing on the stage was maintained for at least 200 years in Japan. It is possible that women in villages may have performed in some Bunraku puppet shows through the 17th and 18th Centuries and also some more provincial puppet forms in Japan where the performer is hidden and does not appear on the stage, may have had female performers.
The beginnings of the Shinpa (also known as Shimpa) is a form of Japanese melodrama which evolved out of political movements and agit-prop theatre in the late 19th Century in Japan. The form developed around 1879 and involved the portrayal of contemporary events or ideas from Western stories and plays such as from the works of Shakespeare and Dumas, being performed in a melodramatic way. Unlike the Noh or Kabuki forms, the music for Shinpa was normally performed off stage or from instruments at the side of the stage. There are accounts of women performing on stage and as musicians in Shinpa performances in the 19th century. More realistic contemporary Japanese stories started to also be told on the stage in the late 19th century and it is possible that women may have written some of these stories since many contain stories of women. The Shinpa became a form which was adopted early in the 20th Century by Early Japanese cinema (Cody 2007).
Women in Theatre and Performance on Bali, Java and Sumatra in the 19th Century
Legong Dance Drama – Bali
The Legong Balinese dance drama form is characterized by precise finger movements, defined foot movements, dramatic gestures and expressive facial expressions. Some people believe that the Legong Dance Drama has its origins in the ancient religious Balinese Hindu trance-like Sanghyang dedari dances where pre-pubescent girls dance in a trance in a ritual. Others believe the Legong has its origins in the early 19th Century. One story goes that a local prince in Sukawati (north east of modern day Denpasar) was on death’s door. Then, one night he had a strange dream where he saw two young maidens dancing to gamelan music. Upon his recovery, he removed a ban on woman dancing and started to direct and choreograph the dances he saw in his dreams. The directing or choreographing of these dances started to be passed more on by the female dancers themselves, so a tradition of female teachers and directors of the Legong started to emerge. This tradition is still alive and popular today on Bali.
The stories shown in Legong Dance Drama are traditional stories often based on stories from Hindu culture but many popular Balinese stories are used such as The Tale of the King of Lasem derived from the Malat, a set of dongeng (stories/fables) or cerita rakyat (people’s folktales) which were passed down for generations through oral traditions. Legong dance dramas normally involve two female actresses/dancers who enact different characters in the story and a third dancer named a condong who is an attendant who sets the scene, passes the actor/dancers props and also plays small parts (mostly animals). Over the course of the 19th century, eight forms of Legong evolved. These are Legong Bapang Saba, Legong Jebog, Legong Kraton, Legong Kuntir, Legong Lasem, Legong Raja Cina, Legong Semarandana and Legong Sudasarna.
Some people may regard the form of the Legong as worrying because it was initially only performed by young girls. Yet when one sees a Legong live, one is struck by the other worldly quality which the form has. Also the fact that the form is regularly performed and passed down by women of all ages today, suggests that it has evolved as an important Asian performance tradition which is driven by women and potentially can act as a form which has great agency and advocacy for female traditions and forms.
Srimpi Dance Drama – Java
Although many Javanese performance forms such the Wayang Kulit and the Wayang and the Wayang Topeng remained primarily male forms until the 20th century, some Javanese performance forms were primarily forms performed by females in the 19th century. Srimpi is a ritual stylistic dance drama form which originated in Central Java in the royal courts of Yogyakarta, Indonesia which has its origins in bedhaya form such as the which has its origins in the 17th century. The Srimpi is a Javanese form of rituralized dance drama which is normally performed by four female dancers who normally use synchronized slow movements and stylized hand movements to describe an event, story or human attribute (Brakel-Papenhuijzen. 1995).
The Srimpi form is less sacred and more conceptual than other ritual Javanese dance forms.As a dance drama form, the Srimpi involves stories of characters such as the mythic goddess of the South Sea. In a Srimpi dance drama form, normally four dancers performed before the Queen of a kingdom and the princesses, dance stories in slow synchronized motion which show folk stories or often ‘secret women’s business’ stories which are done slowly and with grace. These dancers were often to performed by female dancers to an all-female audience to gamelan music played sometimes only by female musicians.
Randai Dance Drama – Sumatra
Although Randai dance drama is normally known as a dance drama that involves martial arts accompanied by music, which is predominately performed by men, there are some records which seem to indicate some women performed in adjuncts of this form in the 19th century. The form tells the folktales of the Minankabau (the largest ethnic group in West Sumatra). Randai is performed in a circle. The dancers (galombang) perform in a circular formation with 8-16 performers, 2 singers and a flute player. Females had sometimes been involved in the form as commentary or narrator singers (aluang jo dendang) in randai theatre and during the 19th century some started to replace the male narrators or storytellers and they started to introduce more female subject matter and love stories. Also, during the early 19th century male performers impersonating females (pondang or surai) started to introduce female characters and scenarios. By the late 19th century females were involved in the randai both as storytellers/singing narrators and as characters. It would take until the political movements in Indonesia of the 1960’s before female in this performance form became more prominent.
Women in the Thai Laknon Dance Drama Forms in the 19th century
Although dance drama in Thailand existed for many centuries, the 19th century saw great changes in the forms. Lakhon is a generic name for a number of dance drama forms in Thailand. The major forms are the lakhon nai and lakhon nok. The Lakhon nai’ is also known by its full name lakhon nang nai (ละครนางใน) which means ‘Theatre of the women of the palace’. As a form of dance drama, it is normally only performed by women of the court and involves slow stylistic movements telling stories from four epics – Ramakian, Aniruddha, Panji and Dalang. As a form Lakhon Nai even has females playing male characters although when females play male characters the graceful fluid movements are toned down and movements are more angular.
During the early 19th century, under the reign of King Rama II, Lakon Nai still thrived and King Rama II and his first wife even wrote their own versions of stories from the Ramakian. New dance manuals were written during this time by lead female court performers. However, when King Rama II died and King Rama III became leader, bans and controls were put on performance. King Rama III was particularly religious. Court performers were meant to leave court. Some ended up in the courts of Cambodia and some moved to the Siamese countryside and helped to morph this female court dance drama into more provincial forms even using local stories. This also gave more autonomy to the female performers and the female makers of these dance dramas. When the great reformist leader King Rama IV (1851-1868) started his reign, Lakon Nai, was revived again as a form.
One of the other reforms brought into the performing arts in Thailand in the 19th century by King Rama IV was his endorsement of females also performing in the lakhon nok form. This genre mostly uses Buddhist Jataka stories and folk-tales. The introduction of women meant that changes started to happen to the characters, costumes and sets. Costumes started to become more elaborate, sets more ethereal and illusionistic and some of the plots and characters started to even include some more comic forms.
Further reforms happened with the reign of King Chulalongkorn or King Rama V (1968-1910), who banned slavery, outlawed opium and built both Siamese and Western style theatres. King Chulalongkorn himself loved theatre and he even wrote plays himself. Thai traditional forms thrived during his reign and women became more prominent in both the performance and the directing and writing of these forms. Also, he introduced Thai, Chinese and Burmese stories and forms into the repertoire. Western stories, plays and popular stories from other cultures such as the Arab One Thousand and One Arabian Nights were performed. The importance of females in the performances and mounting of these productions cannot be calculated. King Chulalongkorn also was found of the new movement in theatre of realism. The eclectic tastes of King Chulalongkorn meant that the style and stories of Thai traditional dance drama forms started to change and expand in so many ways.
The Vietnamese Ca trù Performance Form in the 19th Century
There are many forms of performance, drama and theatre in Vietnam. Some forms of Vietnamese performance are dominated by females. The Ca trù is a form of song drama where stories, poems and tales are sung by a female singer who plays a small percussion instrument known as a phách and is accompanied by a man on a three string lute known as a Đàn đáy and an important audience member who beats a trống đế or praise drum. Other forms such as the Tuồng (also known as hát bội) eventually during the Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945) developed to have a significant number of female performers.
19th Century Development in the Vietnamese Tuồng Performance
The Tuồng is a Vietnamese performance drama first developed during the 13th century which uses singing, dancing, stock or archetypal characters and the telling of traditional folk stories. During the Nguyễn dynasty, the Tuồng started to adopt many of the conventions of Chinese opera such as elaborate costumes, intricate makeup, intricate stage design and stage effects. With the building of the first purpose-built theatre and Tuồng performance space in 1810, permanent performance companies started to emerge attached to the courts. Emperor Tự Đức (1847-1883) kept 150 female performers for performances and it is believed that some of the operas, plots and Tuồng were written by some of the lead female performers (Brandon 1967:73).
The further inclusion of women in the Tuồng saw an increase in the diversity of subject matter. More Vietnamese folk stories and stories started to be included and is likely that many of these were provided by and even written by women. It is impossible to know the exact nature of their contribution since the convention at the time was that the male master scribe would receive all credit for the plays performed.
Vietnamese Múa rối nước Puppet Performance Form in the 19th Century
The Múa rối nước is a water puppetry performance form which is indigenous to Vietnam and was initially developed in the north of Vietnam during the 11th century. The form involves puppeteers who stand in water manipulating puppets while obscured behind a split-bamboo screen. Mua Roi Nuoc translates loosely as “puppets dancing on the water”. It is a rural village puppet drama form from the Red River Delta region which originated around the 11th century but by the 16th century had developed into the form we know today. Originally it was only performed after rice harvests when to thank and appease local spirits rice paddies were used as the ‘stage’ for plays of thanks and hope. Around the 16th century, stages started to be erected on rice paddies or shallow ponds and wooden puppets on sticks started to be used. Eventually puppets were supported under the water by bamboo rods. A little later the convention of erecting a screen (usually painted with the image of a temple) behind which 6-12 puppeteers were hidden developed. The puppets can appear from either side entrances or from beneath the water itself. Around the 16th century, a traditional Vietnamese orchestra was incorporated using drums, bamboo flutes, gongs and dan bau. This music is largely used in an atmospheric way but it also accompanies the chorus singers who sing the story in a cheo style. The stories in Mua Roi Nuoc are normally local folk tales and legends but some works can include comic routines and even political satire.
During the 19th Century, women started to for the first time, to be allowed to perform some parts in the Múa rối nước. The first aspects of the Múa rối nước were involved in most probably the making of the water puppets and then the operation of some puppets. The fact that during the 19th century more local and regional folk stories which included female characters started to become part of the repertoire of companies seems to indicate that females started to have more of an influence on the form. Also the changes in the cheo singing form to higher registers seems to also indicate that females may have become more involved also as singers in the Múa rối nước in the 19th Century.
Asian Female Storytelling, Drama, Theatre and Dance Drama in the 18th & 19th Centuries
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