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Rachana Pandey

Rachana Pandey – ‘Men in Theatrical Performance’

The present paper explores the codified body of male and the way ‘maleness’ and ‘masculinity’ are being perceived and presented in the theatrical space of performance. It examines, with the postmodernist approach, the aspect of power attached to the image/idea of man and searches whether it empowers the male gender in reality or whether the idea creates a world of make-believe for males and deceiving all genders including the males too.

Social ideological constructions are fluid by its nature and subject to challenge and change, hence, expressed exaggeratedly, suggesting anxiety and insecurity. Having been part of the same history, society, space and realities, men are evolved or rather socialised in a different way and they come across societal challenges in a different manner. Masculinity, like femininity, is socially produced and performed. Societal comments on man’s manliness like calling some males as ‘less than a man’ or some as ‘macho’ (exaggerated one) are sexist, producing coercion and restraint. In the context of the politics of the body, Susan Bordo said, “the human body is itself a politically inscribed entity, its physiology and morphology shaped by histories and practices of containment and control” (as cited in King, 2004, 31). Although she stated it to speak for women yet it applies to ‘man’ as well as far as political inscriptions and social practices are concerned.   

Tim Edwards talks about the three stages or ‘waves’ based on the development in the study of masculinity. Considering masculinity as a socially constructed identity and taking the socialisation factor responsible in sculpting boy as dominant man are parts of the first wave. The first stage is an acknowledgement of the fact that masculinity is performed and that too, in a certain manner. In the second stage, the multiplicity and complex nature of masculinity are being identified and the third wave focuses on multiple issues related to the images of man and masculinity like performative nature of masculinity and male impersonation, male narcissism, media projection of masculinity etc. (104-107). Performative nature of masculinity is decoded through the theatrical art of impersonation in the best manner.    

The art of impersonation in theatre is a remarkable example of ‘switching into a gender’ or ‘performing gender’ as a matter of fact. Putting a complex idea in simple words, the female impersonator is a male who performs as woman and male impersonator is a female actor who performs as man (rather less in number). Impersonators mostly perform and represent the generalised image of woman/man. Interestingly, on the one hand, they become the ‘other’ (as man/woman) which is challenging and an act of deconstruction in itself and on the other hand, they represent the generalised man or woman to reinforce the conventional attitudes.  

In comparison to male impersonators, female impersonators are rather having a long tradition of their own and they have also secured some place in documentations. There are several reasons behind the absence of male impersonators. The two main causes are: the absence of women in public space as well as in the performance space for a long period of time and secondly, the assumption concerning nonperformative nature of masculinity which is, further, a matter of debate. Since the relation between masculinity and man is taken as a natural one and hardly questioned in comparison to femininity which is taken as loud, more expressive, easy to perform and hence, artificial and therefore, male impersonation is not so popular. Example from Satish Alekar’s play Begum Barve will clarify the point. The playwright describes the appearance of Barve when he first enters the stage as, “Exceptionally light-complexioned, it is a man’s face, but the gestures are exactly like a woman’s. The face is heavily made up. The hair is long. Across the forehead is a horizontal line of red kumkum. He is dressed in a white dhoti neatly and symmetrically wrapped around both legs” (p. 14). In the context of disguise (i.e. male actor performing woman), Natyashastra states, “To play the role of a woman a man is to wear her clothes, speak like her and look at things” (Ghosh 1951: 232).

The description of Barve suggests the appearance of a female impersonator during the time though it consists of certain commonality and shared aims, for example, the way female characters are being projected on stage in definite roles and certain physical traits. Halberstam wrote on the impressions of femininity which are being created by female impersonators and drag queens with the use of multiple props like wigs, dresses, jewellery, makeup whereas the theatrical performance of masculinity demands a reduction in the use of props as she said. There is a difference between ‘impersonation’ and ‘drag’ performances. Impersonation is the performance of maleness/femaleness as a whole but drag parodies the style of gender it has acquired superficially. Moreover, in the performance, the dominant white heterosexual masculinity is rarely impersonated whereas the impersonation of alternative masculinities like masculinities of color and queer masculinities is fairly visible. There are anxiety and fear of “exposing the theatricality of masculinity” (Halberstam 2012: 235-258).   

In the English theatre, boys have popularly played women (as young and adult both) on the Shakespearean stage but male impersonators have started getting visible on stage in the nineteenth century yet female actors played the role of boy, representing an immature masculine subject having tender appearance and they were kept away from playing a mature masculine roles on stage. Nevertheless, some male impersonators identified and practiced cross dressing as well as masculinity in their everyday lives which suggests the performativity of masculinity beyond the theatrical performance space, simultaneously questioning the naturalness associated with male masculinity and further justifying the standpoint that masculinity without man exists. Judith Butler’s significant theory of gender as performative and gender as being repeated stylisation of the body has challenged the notion of originality and naturalness of gender identity.

Halberstam has discussed the various styles of performances on stage, developed in the 1990s, in her book Female Masculinity (2012) where performing genders is her area of study. She mentioned about the popularity of drag queens (male performing female roles onscreen) in mainstream movies and they have been well accepted and admired. But drag kings have suffered for recognition and they have not become so popular among the straight audiences (straight refers to heterosexual normative audience, in Halberstam’s words). The term ‘drag’ refers to cross dressing which has its own account of tradition off the stage as well as in the space of performance. Man in drag has been acceptable on stage as well as on screen but woman in drag is rarely visible. Halberstam defines drag king and differentiate male impersonator (rather an old phenomenon) from it as she wrote, “a female (usually) who dresses up in recognisably male costume and performs theatrically in that costume” (p232). She said that the male impersonator reasonably performs maleness “as the whole of her act” whereas the drag king performs masculinity, often parodically and exposes “the theatricality of masculinity into the mainstay of her act” (Halberstam 2012: 232). Yet, the exposure of perfomative-ness of dominant masculinity while keeping audience aware who enjoy the theatricality of maleness makes this performing art closure to the contemporary theories of gender and performance having a postmodern approach. Apart from male impersonator and drag king there is another kind called drag butch which is related to expression in mundane life where a masculine woman choose to wear male attire as part of her identity and unlike the previous two, drag butches are mostly lesbian.

Gender roles have always been staged from the advent of the tradition of theatre in India but a “self-conscious staging of gender” started in the 1980s in Mangai’s words (39). In the context of Indian theatre, it was in the late 90s when the plays like Brecht’s The Job (directed by Anuradha Kapur), A. Mangai’s Frozen Fire reveals the theatricality of gender roles while showing dressing/undressing by the characters according to their roles on the stage itself (130). No matter what their sexual orientations are, each time they perform, it significantly reveals the performative nature of gender roles.    

Unlike male impersonation, female impersonation has been common in the Indian theatre similar to the tradition English theatre and reasons are almost the same: the invisibility of women and absence of their participation in the public spaces. Female performers were hardly visible even in performing female roles itself on stage and they entered in Indian theatre as late as the twentieth century so females impersonating men was far from the imagination. But the twentieth chapter of Bharata’s Natyashashtra breaks the notion and gives evidence of a tradition of male impersonation. Puspagandika is a one among the twelve types of Lasya (acted by a single person) which requires a woman to guise like a man as it is written, “When a woman in the guise of a man recites something sweetly in Sanskrit for the pleasure of her female friends, it is (an instance of) the Puspagandika” (as cited in Ghosh, 1951, p. 378). Further, Natyashastra deals separately on the style of impersonation in chapter thirty-five and there are three kinds of impersonation according to it: natural (anurupa), unnatural (virupa), and imitative (rupanusarini). ‘Natural impersonation’ is the one when women impersonate female characters and men male characters, according to their gender and suitable to their age. When a boy impersonates the character of an old man and vice versa, it is called ‘unnatural impersonation’ and it is the ‘imitative impersonation’ when a man impersonates a woman’s character and a woman performs a man’s character (Ghosh, 1951, p. 541-542). Another note is found in the thirteenth chapter of the magnum opus Natyashastra, “the woman should play the role of a man with patient and liberal spirit and intelligence, and with acts as well as dress, words and movement suitable to that (character)” (Ghosh, 1951, p. 232). Certainly, Bharata suggestion here focuses on the character and acting itself and not on man.

There are multiple folk forms in India where female impersonation has remain in constant demand to perform female characters till the twentieth century and among them one of the lesser known traditional form of impersonation is Bahurupi or Bahurupiya, a solo and mute (mostly) performer who purposefully disguise himself, wanders on street, among crowd and in public space to entertain people and earn through his appearance; definitely not to challenge the identities but to amuse people. A bahurupi may disguise himself like any deity or animal or similar to some mythological or historical character but according to bahurupi Subal Das Bairagya, the most popular saaj or guise is ‘presenting male and female in one body’ as he told in his interview with Biren Das Sharma (86).

Figure 1: Bahurupi artiste Shuvas Das Bairagi, Photo by: G. Ramakrishna

In this figure, Bahurupi artist Bairagi is guised half as a married woman and half as man (probably as a Brahman man). Half woman’s part of the guise is traditionally comprehensive in its outer expression of complete woman decorated with ornaments, cosmetics and with covered hair. Man’s side is complete in the sense as it is showing manly firm look (eye expression) with minimum makeup. Though both the sides of decoration are being done by a male Bahurupi yet its one side visibly defines man (right side) and the other side, woman (left side). Here, Bahurupi is not mere an impersonator rather he become an agent (rather unintentionally) to classify and propound the ideas of maleness and femaleness in binary terms. Interestingly, experiencing that this is what “entertains” people the most, Bahurupi was encouraged to guise in that manner.  

The process of gendering has been made visible by women directors on stage in the 1980s in Indian theatre. Anuradha Kapur said, “Some of our work is pushing the boundaries” (Mangai 2015: 124). Such works questions about the self and the identity and it interrogates the binary difference between being and doing for example, a play Sundari: An Actor Prepares based on the autobiography of Jaishankar Sundari in Anuradha Kapur’s direction is a significant example to suggest the impact of playing with gender identities on stage as the play shows the journey of a female impersonator Sundari. Anuradha Kapur said that “the performance of gender is in itself a social act engineered by codes grounded in social structures” (as cited in Mangai 2015: 104). Maleness and femaleness are produced through makeup, dresses, voice and particular gestures as it was presented in this play with the portrayal of its complete technicality on the stage itself. Kathryn Hansen has introduced Jayshankar Sundari’s autobiography by saying that “none of the other autobiographies, however, describes how it felt for a man to play a woman’s role”     (170). The play, based on the autobiography, represents the process of transformation from Jayshankar Sundari as a man to woman. Significantly, Sundari also played a man on stage but once and failed.

However, in certain physical terms, the gender of the impersonators and actors give ambiguous impression and appears to be androgynous individuals for example, the voice of the female/male impersonator or sometimes the shoulders of the male actor performing female role marks the difference as exemplified in the case of Begum Barve. On the other hand, A. Mangai gives reference of Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry’s theatre group called The Company having trained female impersonators like Puran Singh, Bahadur Chand and others. Her group experiments with Naqqual, the traditional folk form of Punjab. Chowdhry has mentioned that, “the illusion is so complete that even the males in the audience see them as women” (123). The public have certain ambiguous idea about the sexuality of Naqqual artists and they mostly consider them as homosexuals or hijras (transsexuals) on which Chowdhry defends by saying that they have wife and children and they prove to be better husband since they are more tender and sharing. Nevertheless, some of the theatre companies in South have given opportunity to transgenders to perform in their plays.   

Interestingly, the directors like Anuradha Kapur, Amal Allana had tried to expose the process of gendering on stage instead of hiding it in traditional manner. Impersonation (i. e. male and female impersonating female and male respectively or male mimicking the dominant man and female acting in woman’s roles) shows on the one hand the constructed and ambiguous nature of gender par excellence in the theatrical space of performance and on the other, it presents the socially coded/loaded images of male/female sex in the traditional binary way which is grounded in the multiple marks of differentiation which keep the either/or category of sex intact. For example, Jayshankar Sundari mentioned in his autobiography that his method of preparing for female roles was “close observation of actual women from respectful families” (as cited in Hansen 2011: 172). In this way, it suggests that drama companies were having their preference of the ideal (i.e. socially acceptable) kind of woman to be imitated and represented on stage.  

However, plays like Himmat Mai (adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage) and Begum Barve tried to break the binary through performance since a famous male actor Manohar Singh played the roles which are not strictly male or female character but having shared features. The play Himmat Mai has portrayed mother as being the nurturer and the protector both (Mangai 2015: 112). The boundary of male’s attributed masculinity and female’s recognized femininity collapse with the portrayal of character itself and further the role of mothering is performed by a male enhances the anticipation as it presents multiple gendered selves in one body which stands outside of the socially and biologically (gender/sex) defining boxes. Significantly, even in the process of female impersonation, Allana did not try to hide the maleness of the actor in the female character for example, the voice of Manohar Singh and anklets in his male feet which breaks the stereotypes of gender and simultaneously suggesting the ‘artifice of impersonation’ (Mangai 2015: 111) in a Brechtian style of theatre. Womanhood is being redefined through the character of Himmat Mai and in the process of redefining and demonstrating woman the play purposely breaks the other gender constructions as well. However, the play received mix responses since it was not easy to accept it though the play was appreciated for the excellent performance of Manohar Singh.     

Another play titled Brhhannala by Veenapani Chawla which portrays Arjuna’s story from Mahabharata during the period of exile when he lived in the guise of a woman in King Virata’s court is performed by the artist Vijay Kumar. The character was inspired by Lord Siva’s Ardhanarishwara form, combining the elements of masculinity and femininity further suggesting the thirdness in a dominant form which is neither one nor the other but in combination of the both yet retaining certain originality of its own.   

It is not only that the woman in the constructed ideal feminine image are performed on stage by the female impersonators and further, women are being judged with those set parameters but on the other hand the male actors who perform men (as heroic, brave, rational etc.) in a stereotypical coded manner become agents to convey what it means to be a ‘man’ and how man performs in societal terms unquestionably. Hence, male actors performing man are also impersonating man through their performance because as a matter of fact, the idea of ‘real man’ is socio-politically constructed and the traditional Indian theatre has served the purpose to emphasis this ideal image of ‘dominant heterosexual man’. Bharata’s Natyashastra too mentioned about the man impersonating male characters suitable to his age which is called natural impersonation (anurupa). Since there is no real man but only the image of real man exists and male mimics this image of Man. Thus, normative masculinity is mimicked. Halberstam aptly wrote, “that each layer is as unreal as the last” (262).

Male impersonating the man are mimicking and also realigning the masculinity, mostly in extravagant manner. It categorizes and confirms the binary features of masculinity and femininity. Even the Natyashastra confirms that graceful and delicate movements represent the persona of a woman and firmness, restrained and ‘self-controlled’ (quality of a hero or nayaka precisely) of a man; weeping and sighing indicates woman’s sorrow and heavy breathing and sighing man’s (Ghosh, 1951, p. 599-500, 528). It is difficult to say whether Bharata was influenced by his society and suggested the man’s/ woman’s gestures and representation accordingly or his ideas has been foundational in forming the gender representation in Indian theatre yet both the conditions are possible simultaneously. Whether societal perceptions and gender categorization are being reflected in the classical norms of theatre or the texts are written with preconditioned mind itself is a matter of debate. However, it settles down the argument that gendering is a process, a practice hence, masculinity is a practice too.  

At the end of twentieth century and the beginning of twenty-first, there are some all-female groups in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where both the characters, female and male are being performed by female artists. Mangai wrote that the practice of male impersonation is prevailing from the turn of twentieth century though it is not established as tradition until now. K. B. Sundarambal, Jayalatha are female actors who are impersonating male and being popular among their audiences. Another example of Therukkoothu, an exclusive male folk form having full of heroism and physical movements is performed with the same spirit by an all-women performers (in the role of Arjun, Kichaka and others) first under the guidance of Perungattur Rajagopal in the year 1997 (Mangai 2015: 125-127).   

Nevertheless, impersonators are less respected and popular unlike mainstream actors. There are only a handful of names who have got success among many of them were lost due to lack of documentation, interest and lack of seriousness for their art. Alekar’s play Begum Barve (1979) puts some light on the condition of a female impersonator Barve who considers Narayanrao as her inspiration, better known as Bal Gandharva, famous female impersonator of his time. Barve is abused, beaten and humiliated in the hands of his employer Shyamrao. He often addresses Barve as Barvya and Begum satirically.        

It is not male masculinity which produces sexism and misogyny but it is the male masculinity living within the structure of patriarchy that makes the aggression and violence as a part of the male nature, making man as a doer hence, the oppressor. Theatricality of masculinity exposes the fact and presents masculinity without misogyny and not being always a threat for other genders. Moreover, gender role playing on stage reveals the fluidity of gender roles and further it challenges the societal notions of woman/man and blurs the boundary between acting and being as in fact the boundary exists in the structural frame of mind. Theatricality of gender roles gives the opportunity to rethink, question and negotiate on the idea of fix gender identity since the effect of performance in theatre goes beyond the space of theatre.     “Gender confusion (gender ambiguity) is a small price to pay for social progress” (as cited in Halberstam, 2012, p. 232).


  • Alekar, Satish. (2003). Begum Barve (Shanta Gokhale, Trans.). Calcutta: Seagull Books.
  • Brittan, Arthur. (1989). Masculinity and Power. UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • Edward, Tim. (2006). Cultures of Masculinity. London: Routledge.
  • Ghosh, Manmohan. (1951). Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics. Ascribed to Bharata muni. (Manmohan Ghosh, Trans.). Calcutta: The Royal Asiatic Society Of Bengal.
  • Halberstam, Judith. (2012). Female Masculinity. New Delhi: Zubaan, an imprint ofKali for Women.  
  • Hansen, Kathryn. (2011). Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies.       Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
  • Mangai, A. (2015). Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India, 1979 Onwards. New Delhi:  LeftWord Books.
  • King, Angela. (2004). The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the       Female Body. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 5 (2), 29-39.Retrieved from
  • Ramakrishna, G. (Photographer). (2014, February 7). Artistic Skills to Fore [digital    image].
    Retrieved from, Biren Das. (1999). The Many Faces of the Bahurupi. STQ, (22), 73-86.



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