• Transgression of Boundaries: Women of IPTA

    Lata Singh

    August 7, 2019

    The Progressive Cultural Movement: A Critical History is a collection of essays originally written to celebrate the seventy-five year anniversary of the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA). Each of these essays has since been published in some form or the other and revised several times. These essays were republished in 2017 to mark the 80th anniversary of the PWA. The essays, supplemented by numerous others, deal with a part of the rich and varied canvas of cultural practice and struggle.

    This volume seeks to chart out a possible trajectory that the movement of writers and cultural activists in the 1930s could assume in circumstances that are vastly changed in terms of their technological and material foundations.

    The following is an excerpt from Lata Singh's essay "Transgression of Boundaries: Women of IPTA".

    Image courtesy SAHMAT

    One of the most significant aspects of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) has been the participation of women in it. The journeys of most of the women to IPTA have been through their political path. After joining IPTA, the women political workers also became cultural activists/performers. What is significant is that women from 'respectable' sections of society, who till then had shunned performance1, became performers in IPTA.


    However, being performers was a defiance of the paradigm of respectability prescribed for these women. In this context, one would like to point to the mental turmoil that Rekha Jain had to undergo. Her joining the Cultural Squad of the IPTA came as a huge shock to both her and her husband's families. A girl, who in her childhood had been kept away from dance and not even allowed to study, was joining a dance-group and performing in front of all. The strain of her relations with the families further increased. She was not only criticised by her parents and in-laws but aspersions were also cast on her. She received a very nasty letter from her mother-in-law. The letter said that her learning dance and that too learning with men was a big stigma and bring bad name to the family. Such were the harsh words for her at the end of the letter 'if you were stone, then I would have swept you in the river so that I did not have to see your face'. Once, during the holidays, when Rekha Jain had gone to her in-laws' house with Nemichandra Jain and after reaching when she tried touching her mother-in-law's feet, her mother-in-law withdrew her feet with force, saying 'kis muh se pair chhu rahi hai? Pata nahi kitne ghaton ka pani pi hai.' (with what face do you have to touch the feet. Do not know from how many sources/river sides have you drunk water).2

    In fact, the space and life of the IPTA cultural troupe was looked upon with suspicion by the larger society. In the 1940s for unmarried women and men to stay together in a commune and travel with the cultural troupe comprising of both men and women, was considered very scandalous. It unsettled the middle class notions of public and private space. Apprehension was also linked to women's sexuality. Their lifestyle was often criticised, to the extent that even Gandhi's paper, Harijan, criticised them for immoral activities. When the troupe went to Meerut to perform, although they were looked after by a landlord at whose house they were staying, the women of the house were not allowed to interact with the women of the troupe. There would be slogans condemning them for moral turpitude. They were jeered with cries of 'Radhey Radhey. Reba Roychoudhury in her memoir says that there was not only social and political opposition, but that in women's name posters were brought out casting aspersions on their character. But she says that her commitment to political ideals was so strong that she did not bother.3 Thus it was the political conviction of these women that made them withstand such moral condemnation.

    For most of the women, their political journey was exhilarating. For many women of IPTA, the experience of the Cultural Squad commune was the highpoint of their lives. Life at the commune was very different from the kind of life most of them had had earlier. The two to three years they spent in the commune changed everything for them. Rekha Jain talks very excitedly of her experience in the commune — of her learning dance and the discipline of the Cultural Squad. In fact the experience transformed her entire mind-set. After joining the Cultural Squad her conservative values got a big jolt due to her teachers like Shanti Bardhan. For her, the process of learning dance was also a struggle to get liberated from conservative values. She realised that her mental inhibitions had prohibited body flexibility for dance. The conflict that was happening in her because of her family values would many times come in the way of her properly learning dance. She went through great inner conflict. She talks of the dilemma of doing a character in a play directed by Shombhu Mitra. It was the character of a woman who openly fights with her mother-in-law. While playing this character, because Rekha Jain came from conservative family background, she found it difficult even in acting to pull the hair of her mother-in-law and shout. However the atmosphere of the commune helped her to break her inhibitions and restrictions and raised her confidence. The freedom of her childhood, which was suppressed because of her very early marriage, once again bloomed in such political atmosphere.4

    Dina Gandhi in her interview also says that being member of the Cultural Squad was a tremendous experience for her. According to her:

    We toured all over the country. … Thousands and thousands of people attended our shows. For six months we rehearsed and for six months we toured. We went to each province, to so many small towns. I have seen my country the way it should be seen. We were just living one life and you know, three bogeys were booked and we used to sleep in that. There were no hotels. After the show you come back to the bogey, go to another place and do the show there. This was a tremendous experience.5

    Reba Roychoudhury in her memoir says that she got the strength to struggle because of her political friends. For her, the strength to struggle came from the atmosphere of 'laughter, talks, dance, play, writing, reading,criticism'.6

    1. Lata Singh, "Fore-Grounding the Actresses Question: Bengal and Maharashtra" in Lata Singh, ed., Theatre in COlonial India: Play-House of Power, OUP, New Delhi, 2009
    2. Rekha Jain, 'P.C. Joshi — Communist Party ke purva General Secretary' in 8 Kathadesh, December 2006; Interview with Rekha Jain 6.3.2007; Mahesh Anand, rekha Jain, pg. 26.
    3. Malini Bhattacharya, 'Changing Roles: Women in the People's Theatre Movement in Bengal (1942-51); Reba Roychoudhury, Jeevener Taane, pg.8
    4.Rekha Jain, 'P.C. Joshi — Communist Party ke purva General Secretary, in Kathadesh, December 2006; Interview with Rekha Jain 6.3.2007; Mahesh Anand, rekha Jain, pg. 26.
    5. Dina Gandhi 'But I am still here, acting and acting and acting…'
    6. Reba Roychoudhury, Jeevener Taane, pg. 41.

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    Lata Singh is Associate Professor, Centre for Women's Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

    This is an excerpt from the collection of essays The Progressive Cultural Movement: A Critical History, published in 2017 by SAHMAT. Republished here with permission from the publisher. The essay "Transgression of Boundaries: Women of IPTA", written by Lata Singh, first appeared in Social Scientist in 2011.

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