ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Infamous Performers: A Study of Creative Labour and socio-political Identity of Stage Actresses in London and Calcutta, 1850–1950


Singh Twisha - McGill University, History and Classical Studies, Montreal, Canada


13 – The Travelling Female Performer: Mobility and Agency in and beyond South Asia, c. 1760-1940


 This paper examines the history of stage-actresses between 1850-1950 in the cities of London and Calcutta. It traces how stage actresses changed a socially ‘stigmatized’ profession into serious creative vocation not only through acting but also through participation in socially transformative political movements in transnational contexts. In the late nineteenth century, theatre became a form of popular public entertainment among rising-middle classes in both London and Calcutta.  It was also a period of changing perception of women’s presence in public sphere and in urban popular entertainment. In such contexts, performance alongside male actors on stage represented an anomalous occupational choice for women that often drew a link between acting and prostitution. Performative radicalism and mobility by stage actresses enabled them to become active political participants in radical movements between 1900 and 1950. Within the context of the Communist movement in Calcutta, a new wave of performative cultural politics provided a platform for debate on women’s social and political role of which stage actresses became a considerable part of. This paper thus aims to chart the transition in the vocation of marginalized female performers who attained fame not only on stage, but gradually transformed their creative labour into into political activism. In sum, this paper, through a study of stage actresses, brings together, gender, theatre and politics in a transnational perspective.