A Doll’s House: Legacy portraying the Empire’s women

Rupanjana Dutta Tuesday 17th September 2019 11:50 EDT

A famously intelligent playwright Tanika Gupta MBE, a recipient of our Asian Achievers Awards, has written over 20 stage plays that have been produced in major theatres across the UK. Her recent play 'A Doll's House' has been recreated in adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 'A Doll's House'. Ibsen's play, is set in a Norwegian town and was first performed in 1879 at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark (which I visited in 2018) and created a storm of controversies. 

Gupta's play, directed by Rachel O'Riordan, is set in India in the British colonial era around 1879, where the female protagonist Niru breaks free from the shackles of her patriarchal marriage. She is raised by a much 'Anglicised' father with assistance from domestic help and nanny Uma, who goes on to live with Niru even after she got married. 

Niru is married to a much older Englishman Tom, a colonial tax administrator, who 'worshipped and exoticised' her. Such unions were actually common in the 18th century colonial Kolkata (then Calcutta), creating the city's Anglo-Indian community that exists today. 

The backdrop of this play is set in Kolkata, after Queen Victoria became the Empress of India. There was a sudden shift from the way East India Company ruled over India to an effort of recreating a world of equilibrium under The Crown. However, the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 had already started anti-English storm across India, much of which stemmed from Bengal. There were existential crisis for English educated youth, who questioned everything that the colonial rulers imposed on them, from tax to laws. The increasing racial intolerance also made Eurasian (or Anglo-Indian) marriages rarer. 

Niru in that hostile Bengal represents an upperclass English-educated, converted Christian, Bengali woman with dual life – one where she enjoys a luxurious lifestyle (even under debt), full of grand parties, shopping and hosting gala dinners; the other of 'Jalebi' loving, kathak dancing quintessential Indian- even admired by her husband's friends (like Dr Rank). 

However Niru's friend Mrs Lahiri stands for the other struggle of womanhood. She is widowed at a young age (thankfully not burnt on the husband's pyre after abolition of Sati in 1829). Married off to an older man early, to cut expenses by poor family, struggling to make ends meet under the British rule, and in the end left to fend for herself after husband's untimely death. 

The actors Elliot Cowan (Tom Helmer), Arinder Sadhera (Uma), Colin Tierney (Dr Rank), Tripti Tripuraneni (Mrs Lahiri), Anjana Vasan (Niru) and Assad Zaman (Kaushik Das) have done their best to portray their characters to perfection. They are natural, emotive and tipped the balance. 

But there are a few underlying issues. Often the pronunciation of words by actors as Indians would, came in the way of their natural ability to speak as British actors- especially in case of Kaushik Das (who sounded a bit like Apu in The Simpsons) or that of Mrs Lahiri (while singing a Bengali folk song with Niru). 

Second, Bengali women, young or old, after marriage, especially during the 19th century ran their household with a certain poetic grace, much like Rabindranath Tagore's 'Charulata' (also portrayed a Bengali wife in the 1870s). Niru, though meant to be a bit more naturally childlike and flirtatious, has seemed too chirpy for her age and background. 

Third, the transformation of Niru, from breaking out of the patriarchal shackles into a modern woman, not defined by how her husband or father or children perceived of her, has seemed a product of sudden enlightenment and not organic. Personal attacks or selfish masculinity in a male society, where men assess how women should behave, or do, or even think- the desire to break such preformed archaic notions is a gradual process in every human. Niru has seemed to have no such thoughts till she suddenly stumbles upon a man's judgement of her so called 'earth shattering wrong doings' disregarding her momentary impulse to save her husband on her own ability. 

Either ways, A Doll's House, as imagined by Gupta supported with Arun Ghosh's melodious music is a thought-provoking delight. It touches upon the right questions- about a modern woman in a modern man's world and does not elude from a reliable portrayal of a colonial Bengal and its famous 'progressive' society. 

A much recommended watch, running at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre till 5 October.

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