Durgabai Kamat was a Marathi theatre actress who went on to become the first actress of Indian cinema. During the early 20th century, cinema was just a rising industry in India and it was a space reserved exclusively for men. It was in considered a taboo for women to be part of cinema. It’s said that Dadasaheb Phalke, now known as the Father of Indian Cinema, could not manage to find even one female actor to act in his movie Raja Harishchandra (1913). Such was the condition that Phalke finally had to cast a male actor to play the role of Harishcharndra’s wife, Taramati. It was during that age that Durgabai Kamat took the courageous step of pursuing a career in acting, paving the way for numerous other women in the industry.
Unfortunately, not much record can be found of Durgabai’s life, except for what her daughter Kamlabai Gokhale has told the media. Durgabai was reportedly born in 1879. She studied up to the seventh standard, and was then married off to Anand Nanoskar, a history teacher at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai. They had a daughter together, Kalambai, but the marriage did not work out. So, in 1903, they parted ways, and Durgabai decided to raise her daughter alone.
There were very little employment options available for women during that time. For a single mother, it was even more difficult to find a job since society ostracised such women altogether. The only choices in front of Durgabai were either to become a domestic servant, or a prostitute, or an actress. Durgabai chose the latter, and her choice made this societal ostracisation even more complete and rigid than before. Becoming an actress was considered a taboo as acting was not viewed as a ‘respectable’ job for a woman. Durgabai was now disowned by her own Brahmin community as well.
Durgabai first joined a travelling theatre company. She roamed around with the company for the most part of the year, performing at various places. Since her daughter Kamlabai had to travel with her, she decided to homeschool her side by side so that Kamlabai could have an education despite living such a nomadic life. It was when Durgabai took up Dadasaheb Phalke’s offer to act in his second film Bhasmasur Mohini (1914), that she made her debut in the cinema. Little did she know at that time that she was also making history and setting the record for becoming the first woman to have ever acted in Indian cinema. In fact, it was not just she who made history with Bhasmasur Mohini, but her daughter Kamlabai too, who acted in the movie, became the first child actress of Indian cinema.
Interestingly, it’s said that the fiercest opposition faced by Durgabai came not from other women, but men. “In those days, only men played female roles. Hence the fiercest opposition to my mother and me came from these men-we were their first natural enemies. Some companies just would not hire women as a rule…” said her daughter Kamlabai in an interview. However, for the sake of supporting her daughter, Durgabai kept persevering. It’s sad that most of Durgabai’s life history has been lost in time. Even her name has remained largely forgotten in the public consciousness. Durgabai Kamat was an incredible woman who forged her profession in fire and fury. She was a single mother who decided to break the patriarchal boundaries created for women. For all of that and more, her life and legacy should be celebrated and remembered.
Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.