‘Nayika’ is a derivative of the Sanskrit word nāyaka nayaka, referring and conforming to a woman. In context to Indian performing arts, a Nayika is the one who performs the main lead role, being portrayed as the heroine in a Natya (drama) or abhinaya (acting) piece. The word Nayika, brings in lyrical gracefulness, softness in its thoughts, aesthetic representation and a sensuous paradigm. The Abhinaya Darpan of Nandikeshwar, entitles a chapter named Ashta Nayika, elaborating the eight varied characteristics of a woman. The same he did for Nayaka (Hero) too! But, in performance presentations the concept of Ashta Nayika is more popular amongst the Rasika or spectators. This is because, women always tend to gain attentions, questions and criticisms.

A woman is defined, moulded and painted in many ways throughout the history. Her societal descriptive identity resides somewhere beyond general understanding and from time immemorial, she has been showcased as an epitome of so many responsibilities, expectations and sacrifices. And at the same time, she has been under continuous scrutiny and tests. In some of such trials, she excels with flying colours, in others her boldness is detrimental and in many her sacrifice and suffocated dreams are remarked to be elaborate examples and this is what is often expected in the society, by the society and for the society.

I find women to be an exquisite piece of art. And this attraction is both an asset for her professional growth or a bad premonition for her doom. I never had repentance for being a woman. I never experienced a strict father who would ponder academics above my dance, I never saw my brother been uncomfortable for me being a danseuse, I never heard my husband telling me to call off dancing as my profession or I never had been ordered by my in-laws to concentrate upon my family and stop roaming with my troupe. Throughout my life, I enjoyed being a danseuse, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a daughter-in-law and a mother. I enjoyed all these relations more, because it never brought hindrance to me and my passion for dancing. And for this, I heartily THANK all these men for whom I’m their pride! Or else if they would had been unsupported and interfering it would have made me go against them like many others, who wish to fulfill their dreams.

In our daily life, we have some fixed notions that outlines a women’s image, do’s and don’ts, behavior, social responsibilities and contour. She is always expected to be someone who is pure, generous and ready to give service.  We expect all HER enactments, moves, waistline and curves to be perfect and alluring! Don’t we? That’s why right from a Bidi packet through a detergent powder or an alcohol advertisement, we just simply cannot deny HER presence. And yes, HER presence makes a huge difference in the product’s popularity.

Today, in respect to artistic growth and aesthetic possibilities, our society is changing and is becoming culturally global, although there are still many unsolved fights regarding women’s power, respect and identity. But, decades back, it was not even this much capable of supporting and promoting female artistes.  It was a taboo for many young ladies to learn and practice arts and perform it in public. And moreover, moving in group from place to place for performances was beyond questions.

In many Indian traditional dance dramas like Ram Leela, Krishna Leela, Kathakali, Ankiya Naat, etc. the female roles were played by the males. In the process of bringing female artistes to the foreground, there lies many women’s contributions.

Madame Menaka in the dance drama Deva Vijaya Nritya

Leila Roy, who is famously known with her pseudo name as Madam Meneka, was born from an English mother and a Bengali father. She was inspired by Anna Pavlova for dancing and produced many successful dance dramas during 1930s. She faced many hindrances into learning and portraying her skills, but after her marriage with Colonel Dr. Sahib Singh Sokhey, Meneka was promoted to learn and even execute her dance dramas at the national and international front. She established her dance troupe in 1934 and staged her first dance drama ‘Krishna Leela’ in the same year. She was bold, beautiful, creative and simply unstoppable.

The Assamese film Joymoti based on the literary work of Lakhminath Bezbaruah’s story of the Ahom princess Sati Joimoti, directed by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala which was released in the year 1935, marked the beginning of Assamese cinema. Its lead role was played by Aideu Nilambar Handique who was then 16 years of age and belongs from a poor family of Golaghat, Assam. Although she earned laurels for her performance, but, back at her village she was socially detested and was not allowed even by her parents to stay with them. She was shunned by her neighbours and was abandoned for playing the role of a wife and calling her co-actor as her husband in the film, thus for rest of her life, she remained a spinster and lived in a cowshed.

Aideu Nilambar Handique, first heroine of the Assamese cinema

The Nautanki of Kanpur was an ardent performing arts form once upon a time, portraying various stories with dramatic plot. Trimohan Lal was the pioneer in introducing female artistes in his Nautanki team. Involvement of female artistes in such public performances created a craze amongst the spectators. With this notion of gaining more interest from the public, gradually other Nautanki teams also started involving female artistes. As Nautanki rose in a fast pace and gained immense popularity from the public, it also lost its stature and position. Inclusion of some erotic and vulgar language in its presentation by some uncouth artistes during the later part of its successful period has trounced the image of this traditional performing art. It turned to be a money-making avenue, demoralizing and portraying female performing artistes in an expurgated and shameful manner.

Arts has witnessed many female protagonists who fought for their artistic identities and cultural reformations. Post-independence brought many collaborations and changing thoughts whilst bringing in opportunities for female performing artistes.

Right from Goddess Parvati (Lord Shiva’s consort) who is known for her Lashya form of dancing, Goddess Saraswati who is known for playing Veena, the renowned beautiful danseuse Amrapali of Vaishali, the Devdasis who devoted their lives practicing dance within the temple shrines, innumerable courtesans and the medieval to modern day female artistes, each one of us has a story of its own.

What’s yours?