In 1975, two years before her death, Keya Chakraborty wrote the essay “Mrs R P Sengupta”. This is ostensibly not a piece about theatre. It appears, on the surface of it, to be a record of entirely mundane daily activities of a woman who seems to be exceedingly harassed by the demands of her household chores.
However, in the course of just about three pages, “Mrs R P Sengupta” manages to answer several questions about women’s artistic labour in the theatre that were so far deemed unintelligible within the ideological logic of the group theatre.
Keya makes her most important point perhaps in writing a piece about a theatre actress (namely herself) that seems to have little or nothing to do with theatre. Women’s problems in the theatre have everything to do with their lives outside of it, she seems to suggest.
Far from being irrelevant, these “external” or “personal” problems determine women’s productivity as artistes / actresses and must be taken into cognisance in any intended assessment of their creative work. Though Keya does not state this directly, it seems to follow from her argument that rendering these concerns unintelligible within the impersonal and “gender-neutral” rhetoric of the group theatre is an ideological process that effectively ensures a perpetuation of gendered hierarchies both within and outside the group. It stalls any real move towards change.
Keya’s writing seems to resist this process of invisibilisation, wishing perhaps to pull down existing façades of objective neutrality.
Let us go back for a minute to Keya’s interview in 1972:
Surajit: I am sorry but, in my experience, most do not have clarity of this kind, especially the actresses. Obviously, they do not find the time to think or are busy with other, more pressing, problems. Do you have any idea what these problems might be?
Keya: […] the fact that you have seen this lack of clarity especially in women has a reason. Yes, you are right. They have serious problems of their own. And these problems are very rarely personal. In most cases, they tend to be social.
What Keya says here resonates very closely with the feminist slogan of the 1970s that so deeply influenced, even shaped the Anglo-American feminist movements of the time: “the personal is political”. Commentators on Keya are careful to set her concerns apart from what was called, somewhat derogatorily at this time, “markini women’s lib”.
However, it is interesting to see the significant, if coincidental, intellectual connections between her articulation of women’s problems with this particular phase of the women’s movement in America. Carol Hanisch writes in her 2006 introduction to her 1969 essay “The Personal is Political” (the title of which sparked off the celebrated slogan) of the problems that women faced bringing their “personal” concerns into critical discussion within the space of public “political” discourse:
“[…] they belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called ‘personal problems’ into the public arena – especially ‘all those body issues’ like sex, appearance, and abortion. Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man.”
It is precisely “all those body issues” that appear as the clearly dominating concerns in Keya’s writing, especially in essays like “Mrs R P Sengupta” and in the short story “Metle”.
“Mrs R P Sengupta” is written in the first person and is an unapologetically personal essay. However, it manages to establish a clear claim for these “personal” concerns to be recognised as political. The title is a reference to writer herself as the wife of Rudra Prasad Sengupta, who was one of the founders of Nandikar and an active member at this time.
Keya tells us at the very start that although she had sat down intending to write about theatre, she was unable to do so. She makes it evident that it appears impossible for her to write an “impersonal” piece on art in the circumstances in which she lives.
“Mrs R P Sengupta” is, in a sense, a direct reply to Surajit Ghosh’s question: “Obviously, they [actresses] do not find the time to think or are busy with other, more pressing, problems. Do you have any idea what these problems might be?” It is as if in answer to the facile naiveté of this question, (made possible by an ostensibly “gender-neutral” discourse) that Keya writes a “theatre” piece that reads like a journal entry, in which she painstakingly enumerates everything that keeps her from writing what she wants – from kitchen chores to the repeated ringing of the doorbell.
“Mrs R. P. Sengupta” occupies the empty space left by the essay that was imagined but does not get written. However, the absence of the intended essay is quite deliberately calibrated by the piece that does manage to reach the reader. It lists, one by one, all the reasons why the desired essay never came into being.
Written in order to simulate real time, “Mrs R P Sengupta” seems to be a chronicle of those unending distractions which keep the female writer from writing what she really intends. Keya demonstrates the absence of what could have been, while clearly indicating that on a normal day, she indeed does not find the time to think.
She suggests that the reasons for this distraction from intellectual and artistic labour are far from simply personal and cannot be dismissed as such. In a shockingly contemporary voice, she is able to underline the fact that neither merit nor the ability to think clearly is born in a social vacuum. They have everything to do with privilege and the invisibilised labour of those marginalised from a social field.
“Mrs R P Sengupta” is an uncompromisingly political piece that takes on those supposedly trivial and irrelevant “body issues” and establishes their essential connection with a larger systemic gender imbalance.
It unravels the nature of a contemporary Bengali middle-class family, along with its deeply-ingrained patriarchal structures of labour and builds up to the almost inevitable conclusion that: “To be a good actress in this society is one of the most difficult things to do in the world”.
“This is the sixth time I had to get up. In half an hour. That is, in the half an hour that I have sat down to write. The first time it was the milkman, I had to open the front door. My husband could not find his vest, I found it for him. Then it was my neighbour asking for some mustard. There were two phone calls. My husband and my brother-in-law are at home. But there is, of course, no one to pick up the phone but I. The last time I had to get up I felt a little angry. My brother-in-law’s friend came to visit and tea was needed. I have made tea five times since the morning.
I will have to sit down and rearrange everything now. I had planned to write about theatre, but my head is full of other thoughts. Perhaps it’s because I had to get up so many times.”
The United Nations had designated 1975 as the International Women’s Year and “Mrs R P Sengupta” was first published that year in a journal called “Durba” in the special edition celebrating this occasion. The editor of the journal had introduced Keya thus: “It is perhaps because she is so sharp and outspoken in her thinking that she plays Antigone so well.”
She goes on to say that Keya’s writing displays “the problems posed by the cruel reality of our day-to-day lives that forces one to think.” More than her outspokenness, it is perhaps Keya’s irony that becomes so effective in this piece. Her writing exposes the absurd triviality of the little customs of the Bengali household that weigh so heavily on her time as an actress:
“I don’t think I’ll find the time to bathe today. I woke up at six thirty am. Till nine, I was making and finishing breakfast. Now it’s time for lunch. He doesn’t like to be served by the maid. I feel it strange too. We have started rehearsing a new play. The director says I must learn to sing for this one. But when? When? Where is the time? […] It’s after marriage, that girls…but why blame marriage? I had no time even in my father’s house.”
The piece about theatre does not get written and the reader, having come to encounter the only “thinking actress” in Bengali theatre, is forced to enter the confines of her home and witness that which is supposedly irrelevant to the ideological/politico-cultural enterprise of group theatre:
“I wanted to go and see a film society show this evening at the Academy of Fine Arts. He asked me not to. He has a meeting in the evening; he will not be able to bring me back. The show gets over at nine – it would not be right to come back alone from that neighbourhood so late. I know there will be boys there – boys who are younger to me, and perhaps not as bright. There is nothing to stop them.
Ajitda had said: ‘Broaden the sphere of your experience. The more you know life and human beings, the more you will grow as an actress.’
Let me go and serve lunch to my brother-in-law.
Ajitda, how do I broaden my sphere of experience? I can’t even return late from the Academy of Fine Arts. Where can I go? And where is the time? The household waits. In the papers, there are advertisements for brides with domestic skills. And there are undressed women in films, on posters, even in plays these days.
Where is the demand for women with broadened-spheres-of-experience? And if there is no demand, who do I supply to? Besides that, where is the time?
Therefore I, Mrs R P Sengupta, will clear away the dirty plates and head straight to the stage.”
In these passages, Keya’s thoughts on the injustice of women’s unpaid labour at home and the customs (often internalised) that govern it are brought to the fore.
She zeroes in with harsh precision on the purely economic calculations that govern middle-class women’s lives in Bengal. She also appears to understand clearly how these economic imperatives then begin to masquerade as ideological or sentimental demands within the family:
“It’s true that my father had to spend a big amount on my wedding. Why? Who had asked him to? Was it in order to protect his social ‘prestige’ amongst relatives? Of course, he did not have to pay any cash as dowry. Other girls’ fathers have to. Why? Does cooking and cleaning for our husband’s family all our lives not pay for the cost of our upkeep? Even a maid to take care of the children must be paid a salary. Oh, I have to go. Someone’s knocking on the door again.”
It is difficult to determine from available material what Keya’s own readings of contemporary feminist literature were; but her interviews and articles display an acute awareness of women’s oppression.
Many of the issues she focuses on are, in fact, the dominant questions of Anglo-American feminist thought in the 1970s. For example, in Mrs R P Sengupta” and in her short story “Metle”, Keya is deeply concerned with the politics of intimate relationships and the power structures that govern relations between the sexes.
Not long before this, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, which was first published in America in 1970, had brought to the forefront of feminist discourse the idea that sexual relationships must also begin to be read as “political”, since the essence of politics is power.
Excerpted with permission from Performing Silence: Women in the Group Theatre Movement in Bengal, Trina Nileena Banerjee, Oxford University Press.