The glass ceiling of Punjabi theatre

Ranbir Johal, professor in the Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), faculty of Asian Studies, will deliver a seminar on gender barriers in Punjabi theatre on Nov. 12 through the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

In her seminar, Ranbir Johal will focus on the life stories of four women who have made significant contributions to Punjabi theatre: Neena Tiwana, Rani Balbir Kaur, Navnindra Behl and Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry | Photo courtesy of KPU

The lecture will examine the restrictions women have historically faced in the pursuit of the performative arts in Punjab by looking at the stories of four pioneers in the industry. “[I mean to] focus on women who are exemplars of Punjabi theatre, who contributed quite a lot to the development of it, especially during a time where it was considered dishonourable,” says Johal.

The evolution of women on stage

The history of the performative arts in Punjab is relatively new, gaining momentum in the 1950s, but this lends to the uniqueness of the art form. “Punjabi is a fledgling form [of theatre], and therefore it uses simpler stagecraft rooted in the folk tradition. The primary focus of the theatre for many years was to spread a social message on issues like the caste system or the worker,” Johal explains.

Ranbir Johal, professor in the Kwantlen Polytechnic University. | Photo courtesy of KPU

Even though the art form is considered young compared to its European or Hindi counterparts, it presents problems as old as time. “Some of the earliest barriers for women into the theatre was the perceived shamefulness of being in the public eye, of being on stage,” says Johal. “So first they weren’t seen because they weren’t allowed to be on stage, then eventually they were on stage but only if they had paternal approval or spousal approval. Females were allowed if the male in the family okayed it.”

The evolution of Punjabi women on stage was a much more nuanced process, with the caste system playing a heavy hand. “When women were let into the theatre, they came from the upper caste, where people had more economical, social and political power,” explains Johal.

“It was only when theatre became part of the university and urban setting, and the writers and directors were upper caste where they carried their perceived honour and respectability with them, did women participate in this.”

The invisible role

Even when women occupied roles in theatre, their efforts were relegated as lesser than their male counterparts and not recorded, which presented another gender barrier. “There is a lack of documentation of the contribution these women have made. Eventually you got women who had wonderful prolific careers on the stage but there’s little to no record of them and their contributions,” says Johal.

While researching Punjabi theatre Johal found many lists of men and their accomplishments, while for women it was difficult to find mention of their contributions outside the odd line or two. “First, they had been restricted from this performative sphere, but eventually even the women who began to contribute, their work is no longer seen; it becomes invisible,” she adds.

Johal offers prolific actress Neena Tiwana as an example. “Besides her role as an actress, she was also responsible for a lot of the costuming and backstage work, but there’s never any credit given to that,” she says. “There’s so many contributions that go unrecognized, but without them, the show couldn’t go on. The woman ends up falling into the unseen role. There were a lot of women that were uncredited directors, instances where women could have been acknowledged as co-director, but only their male partners were.”

Writing a new story

Yet Johal believes that there is much that can be done now to create gender equity on the Punjabi stage. “We can demand more content by women and of women. The first Punjabi writers seem to really focus on women as a topic, they wrote about widows, marriage and female education,” she notes. “But the writers and the directors were always men, so they came from it with the male gaze. It wasn’t that the women weren’t writing, it was that nobody was recording, and we can start by listening now.”

Johal thinks that another way to address these gaps is by addressing the lack of opportunity in the industry. “If you can’t find a female authentic voice in writing or acting you need to go out there and discover it,” she asserts. “Provide incentives and opportunities. If you know that the representation isn’t there, encourage it!”

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