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KATHRYN HANSEN RETIRES

Admirers of Kathryn Hansen's 
Kathryn in Austin, Texas
many contributions towards understanding North Indian culture, literature, and theatre will want to read this interview. It provides an excellent synoptic view of a scholar who has devoted a large part of her life to a deeply empathetic engagement with things Indian. Not many know that she played the sitar and became, when she first came to India, a friend of Nikhil Banerjee.

Permanent Black was privileged to be approached by her to publish STAGES OF LIFE: INDIAN THEATRE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES (2011), one of the most accessible, readable, and enthralling books on our list. In this she both contextualizes four important autobiographies by four theatre personalities from the days of the Parsi theatre, and translates all four from Hindustani/Gujarati into excellent contemporary English.

Books by heavyweight scholars can seem intimidating; this isn't one of those. Kathryn Hansen entices you into the Bombay and Calcutta and Lahore and Karachi worlds before Bollywood with anecdote, poster reproductions, and critical analysis in prose that's never difficult. You don't have to be interested in theatre and cinema to enjoy this one, it's a book for everyone. Here are two small bits from it:

FROM KATHRYN HANSEN'S INTRODUCTION TO THE ACTOR JAYSHANKAR SUNDARI
"In the early twentieth century, leading Parsi and Gujarati companies still hired men to perform women’s roles.  All the autobiographies mention this practice as routine, just as they refer to the employment of women as actresses, which had begun in some companies, as problematic.  None of the other autobiographies, however, describes how it felt for a man to play a woman’s role.  Sundari’s autobiography is extraordinary in documenting his experience as a female impersonator.   No other “lady actor,” as such performers were sometimes called, has left such an insightful account of the process of transformation from man to woman.  Sundari was a female impersonator of the highest order.  Through his method of total identification with women, he created idealized feminine characters that were widely imitated.  Sundari’s stage movements, attire, and speech became models for women offstage.  He was second only to the great Bal Gandharva in bringing about changes that led, paradoxically, to greater freedom for women."

AN EPISODE FROM JAYSHANKAR SUNDARI'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY
"[...] There was one other incident between 1908 and 1909, when we were rehearsing Chandrabhaga.  One evening, as I was coming down the stairs in the Gaiety, Mr Clement the ticket master said to me, “A woman wants to meet you.  She’s sitting outside in her carriage.” 
I went to the door of the orchestra section and saw a beautiful young Parsi lady.  I approached her carriage and asked, “Did you wish to see me?” 
She smiled modestly and said, “Do you have a copy of the drama Lalita Dukhdarshak? I saw the play last week and enjoyed it very much.”
“Some books are on sale in the auditorium,” I said.  “Maybe the ticket master has it.  I’ll ask him to arrange a copy for you.”
The ticket master came up and said the book was sold out.  He recommended that she go to a certain bookseller.
“Mister Jayshankar,” the Parsi lady retorted.  “How can I go there, being a woman?  Can’t you order the book through the ticket master?  I’ll come and get it next time.”           
I did just that.  But she couldn’t come the next day, and several days later a letter arrived from Matheran in elegant handwriting.   It read, “My dear Jayshankar, I cannot forget you.  You have inhabited my heart.  You are such a gentleman—this I realized from our first meeting.  And seeing the Theosophy ring on your finger made me very happy.  I want to open my heart and tell you so many things.”
It was obvious from the handwriting that the letter was from a woman, but the mode of address struck me as odd.  There was no signature, and I wondered who the woman might be.  Suddenly I remembered the Parsi lady from a few days earlier.  Still, I couldn’t be sure it was she.
All my incoming letters were first read by my bosses before being handed over:  it was how they kept me under surveillance.  They were always alert lest another theatre company lured me away.  So they were abreast of everything in my life, and this had two consequences.  First, I bridled at these restrictions and was angry, and second I had to constantly bottle up my desires.  But like it or not, my life was the target of their moral rescue, and I was powerless to oppose it."

GIRISH KARNAD AND STUART BLACKBURN SAY ...

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“These four autobiographies of artists and writers who shaped early Indian theatre during its most creative period are as riveting as the fare that the theatre itself provided. Kathryn Hansen’s lifelong and perceptive involvement with that rumbustious enterprise infuses every word of her translation of these texts.”Girish Karnad

“Kathryn Hansen has given us a special kind of book—one with many voices, on many layers, which cohere in a single, satisfying picture.  Autobiographical accounts of early pioneers of the Parsi theatre are enriched by the author’s considerable knowledge of this theatre, its performance styles and people and languages. This well-produced book includes original thinking about a number of topics, including autobiographical writing in India, its history in India and first-person narratives as a form of cultural memory.  The narratives themselves, which lie at the heart of the book, are lovingly translated, combining humour, flare and intimacy.  They read as they were written and bring us inside this world where stages of life were sung and danced and spoken under the lights.”— Stuart Blackburn


So, a book for everyone. And a career for her fans to admire and congratulate Kathryn Hansen for. We hope she will write many more books as brilliant as her last, and publish them all with us.




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