ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Traveling While Female


Hansen Kathryn - University of Texas at Austin


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


In the late 19th century, women who braved the proscenium stage became objects of historical record —— and targets of public scrutiny. This paper compares three actresses of the first generation in the professional Parsi theatre companies. Jamila Begam, a Baghdadi Jewish entertainer, traveled the furthest. She journeyed from Iraq to Bombay, formed her own drama company, hired a Parsi actor—manager, and relocated to Rangoon. Mary Fenton, the first Anglo—European actress of the Parsi theatre, joined the famous Alfred Theatrical Company. She spoke perfect Gujarati and Urdu and achieved star status, traveling from Quetta to Calcutta, from Amritsar to Hyderabad.

Third was the tawaif Nanhi Jan, seen in photographs taken by the Maharaja of Jaipur and commercial photographers. Her movements were small—scale, from the zenana of the palace, to the public stage of the Ram Prakash Theatre, to the photographic studios in the bazaar where she simulated “native” dances. But her image as a nautch girl traveled around the world in postcard form. While each actress can be verified from memoirs, newspaper ads, official records, or photographs, the sources are often problematic. Divergences in the accounts, together with the scandals attached to each woman, complicate the project of retrieval and will be duly considered.