Female impersonation has been understood in South Asia as a theatrical compulsion resulting from the social taboo against women performing in public. The gendered segregation of public and private spheres forced the seclusion of women within the households of socially prominent families. Singing and dancing were relegated to a stigmatised class of women who sought economic stability through attachment to one or more patrons. To the question why these professional women were not available to the public stage in the nineteenth century, it is claimed that they kept themselves away because of the excessive degree of publicity, or that they were lacking in skills and hence were “unsuitable.”

This explanation of female impersonation, although correct in acknowledging the widespread exclusion of women from public life, confuses the agency of company managers and publics with that of performing women. It hypothesises a social absence or avoidance on the part of actresses that contravenes the historical evidence. Contrary to the argument that performing women were unavailable, the record shows that the Parsi theatre employed both female impersonators and actresses for a considerable duration. In a sense, they competed against each other, and companies and publics made choices about whom they wished to represent women on stage men or women.

For the first twenty years of its development, the Parsi theatre was an amateur enterprise supported by enthusiastic young students and an older generation of notables active in public life. Among the pioneer impersonators were men like DN Parekh, later a medical doctor and lieutenant colonel in the Indian Medical Service. The high social standing of the actors, the prestige of its wealthy patrons, and the location of amateur dramatics as a supplement to college life all established the early Parsi theatre as a “rational” form of amusement, in contrast to the older nautch performances sponsored by “feudal” aristocrats. By the end of the 1860s, the fondness for “theatricals” was such that Parsi businessmen were drawn to theatre as an investment opportunity. Productions became more lavish, and audience size expanded. A premium was now placed on young men of pleasing figures and superlative voices who would ensure company profits through their virtuosity in women’s roles.

The Parsi theatre invested in the recruitment and training of boys because it needed their labour to ensure its economic viability. An acting career normally began in a period of apprenticeship with schooling in female roles such as the saheli or sakhi, companions of the heroine. Certain actors became “all-rounders,” performing the hero, heroine, or comedian, as needed. With age and changing physique, others shifted from female to male roles. Other actors specialised as female impersonators. Success in a role led to the public affixing the name of the character to the actor’s name or nickname. Two brothers of the influential Madan clan acquired this popular status. Nasharvanji Framji became famous as Naslu “Tahmina” for his performance as Sohrab’s mother in Rustam and Sohrab. Naslu’s younger brother, Pestanji Framji, was called Pesu “Avan,” after the heroine in a Gujarati version of Shakespeare’s Pericles.

Female impersonators performed in various types of stage roles. One was the romantic heroine, beloved of the hero and the embodiment of feminine perfection and modesty. A mellifluous voice became a valuable adjunct to such a role as songs gained ascendancy in the format of the musical drama. Famed for his sweet, “cuckoo” voice, Naslu Sarkari played the Emerald Fairy in the Indar Sabha. Then there were the female magician roles, like the Jogin in Harishchandra. Kavasji Manakji Contractor, a female impersonator affectionately called Bahuji, created a sensation by delivering countless lashes to the tormented dancing figure of Balivala playing Lotan.

Female impersonation continued on the Parsi stage well into the 20th century.

Female impersonators, by bringing into the public sphere the mannerisms, speech, and distinctive appearance of middle-class women, defined the external equivalents of the new gendered code of conduct for women. That such tastes were crafted by men (albeit men allegedly imitating women) gave them the imprimatur of acceptability. I would argue that it was the possession of the external markers of femininity the armour of correct sari style, hairdo, and jewellery, together with appropriate gestures that made it easier for women to begin to move in public. Without a visual template that enabled recognition of their “spiritual” essence, Indian women could not actually become visible.

Yet women were kept at a distance from this process of gender formation, in several senses. Insofar as female impersonators usurped the position of actresses within the entertainment world, they not only denied women opportunities for employment but intensified the misogynist discourse that held that women had to remain off-stage and out of the public eye. Furthermore, by asserting that female impersonators could “do” gender better than women, the theatre system and its public served to perpetuate longstanding male control over the female body and its representation.

Excerpted with permission from Pure Entertainment: Parsi Theater, Gender, and Performance, Kathryn Hansen, Primus Books.