Deepti Priya Mehrotra

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year and eight months

Deepti Priya Mehrotra has a doctorate in political science from Delhi University. She writes in two languages: English and Hindi, and is interested in feminist thought, education, theater and people’s movement. She has a number of publications to her credit. Some of them are Ekal Maa, Bharatiya Mahila Andolan, and Western Philosophy and Indian Feminism. 

Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s interest in the Nautanki theatre of North India developed through a personal involvement with Nautanki performers as she documented a collaborative project between members of ‘The Great Gulab Bai Theatre Company’ from Kanpur and a contemporary theatre group. At the same time, she had for long been involved in issue-based theatre and had researched and written on subjects like folk culture, women’s issues and education. This project brought together these diverse but related interests and supported research into the social history of Nautanki, with particular emphasis on the role of women in this north Indian folk theatre.

Deepti in her research explored Nautanki’s history, content, aesthetics and politics, and particularly its journey from an artistically complex and popular folk form to its present ‘degenerated’ version.  Her focus on Gulab Bai also reflected her interest in the development of the form during the 20th century. Further, for Deepti, women performers are a significant point of reference in framing the history of Nautanki. “Women entered the form for the first time only in the early twentieth century – Gulab Bai being the pioneer. Soon the form came to be identified with women performers”, says Deepti.
Deepti’s research inevitably relied on primary data on Gulab Bai. “In the absence of textual material,” she notes, “the creation of an oral history is the only path open to us.”  However, she also studied the available textual material, which she says, is essential for the understanding of the form itself. Her attempt, she says “is to delineate a social, as distinct from technical, history of the Nautanki genre during the twentieth century.”
One of the things that interested Deepti is how Nautanki responded to influences and pressures from other forms of art and entertainment during the 20th century. She sees present forms of Nautanki as corrupted versions of a bygone ‘original’, and wanted to explore how this change actually took place, and how Nautanki artists and their audience dealt with these changes.
The research has resulted in a biography of Gulab Bai published by Penguin India.