Smita Ray – Expanding the Space of Patriarchy: A Study of Select Plays of Mahesh Dattani

The notable Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani who gave “sixty million English- speaking Indians an identity”, in his plays has portrayed the interiors of various traditional Hindu joint families cohabiting under one roof, dining and worshipping, sharing joys and sufferings together. These joint families attached great values to and respect to the elders, marital fidelity and pre-marital chastity. ).Dattani in his plays sketches the complex, hybrid realities of a fast changing, fast evolving Indian social milieu where traditional markers of thought and action fall critically short of explaining emerging dynamics. He not only problematizes the notion of masculinity but shows the very concept of selfhood to be in flux. Though this family has undergone huge changes since the middle of the twentieth century, but still practices politics of power that “lurks beneath patriarchal constructions of fixed gender identities/ roles and the proliferation of what Judith Butler calls ‘ hyperbolic versions of man and woman.” (Sengupta 151)

The essayist Raichel M. Sylus in his essay Expanding the Space of Patriarchy: A Study of Select Plays of Mahesh Dattani has explored how one of India’s best and most serious of contemporary playwrights, contributed to questioning the conventional themes of family relationships, morality and identity, blending several patrineally related generations cohabiting under one roof.  The essay also points out how Dattani never proposes a solution to all these problems inspite of his claim to captivate the mind of the audiences through his plays.  The author has studied how Dattani sneaks into areas where individuals feel exhausted and are constantly striving to expand the space. For Dattani, to have “shallow cardboard interpretations of women as victims, as self-sacrificial models of virtue or as promiscuous and hence unhappy people” is to miss the truth about half the human race. (Hansen 303)

The author has quoted from Sheila Ruth’s essay The Dynamics of Patriarchy which gives traits of an ideal patriarchal male. Dattani’s plays establishes male as one who can establish dominance over women in all sectors of life and society. In a world designed from the perspective of men for the convenience and comfort of men, patriarchy is more about maintaining a self-image of being triumphant at all steps over women. He showed through his male as well as female characters the stereotype of masculinity which enjoins the male to be brave, daring and dexterous, to be honourable and honest. He must not complain or lose control of his emotions, nor should he practise any art form that is traditionally associated with women. This issue has cropped up in Dattani’s Dance Like A Man where Jairaj’s desire to be a Bharatnatyam dancer was severely criticised not only by the society but his family as well. The essay also brings to the readers’ notice about how Dattani’s aim is to ‘empathise with the characters and not sympathise with them”.

The essay thus examines Dattani’s attempts to voice the voiceless and the unvoiced. Dattani never provides a solution to the themes in his plays and hence the marginalised remains the marginalised. His objective is to make the audience feel more helpless about situations that they are already facing in their day to day lives so much so that it kindle the fuel to the fire that is already burning around. His characters stand apart for endless trials to survive and succeed in a society that has become claustrophobic to them. By selecting the four most important plays of Dattani, Where There’s a Will, Dance Like A Man, Tara and Final Solutions, the essayist gives its reader an overview of Dattani’s intention behind choosing the themes for his plays and his idea behind portraying men and women in a society dominated by socially ordained roles and expectations.

The researcher who has attempted to study the dilemma in the characters of the two plays of Mahesh Dattani, Tara and Dance Like a Man, has also studied how the recurrence of submission to complacency and social hegemony in the characters of these two plays inspite of being initially subversive in their attitudes. The researcher will attempt to study the dichotomy in their nature and the indecisiveness in their demeanour. His characters don’t look for acceptance but are struggling against the oppressive weight of tradition and normative rules of this heterosexual community where each one of their existence is defined by socially ordained roles which restricts their individual actions. The essayist’s claim that in Dance Like a Man ‘the characters battle against the society that prevents them from reaching to the roots.” Jairaj’s inability to take up Bharatnatyam as his profession was due to the fear of being called ‘womanly’- an effeminate man by not only the society, but his own father and wife. This submission to heteronomativity which establishes dance to be a tabooed profession only meant for devdasis and prostitutes, has been questioned in my research. In the other play, Tara which is based on gender bias, the voice of the female characters have been subjugated and oppressed now and while for Dattani has shown how in most of the Indian families, a son is preferred over a daughter. These notions of heteronormativity have been ti e and again questioned in Dattani’s plays and as has been established by the essayist Raichel M.Sylus that his characters need to come out of the dilemma and enjoy their individualities, is also a message to his audiences and readers of how they can expand their claustrophobic domestic spaces and establish freedom and free will through their strong will to ascertain their individual importance.


Sylus. M. Raichel. “Expanding the Space of Patriarchy: A Study of Select Plays of Mahesh Dattani”. Indian Drama in English: Some Perspectives. Atlantic Publishers & Distributors (P) Ltd.  11.2 (2013). 112-120



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