Mary Fenton

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Mary Fenton
Mary Fenton aka Mehrbai.jpg
Born Mary Jane Fenton
c. 1854
Landour, British India
Died c. 1896 (aged 41–42)
Other names Mehrbai
Occupation Stage actress
Spouse(s) Kavasji Palanji Khatau
Children Jahangir Khatau
  • Mathew Fenton (father)
  • Jannette Fenton (mother)

Mary Fenton alias Mehrbai[1] (c. 1854 – c. 1896) was the first Gujarati, Parsi and Urdu theatre actress of European origin.[2] Born to an Irish soldier in the British Indian Army, she fell in love and married Parsi actor-director Kavasji Palanji Khatau. He introduced her to acting and she had a successful stage career.[1]

Early life[edit]

Mary Fenton was born in Landour near Mussoorie in India to Jannette and Mathew Fenton, an Irish retired soldier of the British Indian Army. She was baptized as Mary Jane Fenton, but there is no further information of her early life and education.[1] Parsi theatre actor-director Kavasji Palanji Khatau was rehearsing for his play Inder Sabha, when Fenton had come to book the hall for her magic lantern show. She admired his acting, met him, fell in love and finally married him.[1][3] Subsequently, she adopted a Parsi name Mehrbai.[1][4] She already knew Hindi and Urdu, and in the 1870s Khatau gave her further training in singing and acting.[1][3]

She created a sensation in the theatre due to her talent and relationship with Khatau.[1][3][5] However, following a dispute between Khatau and the Empress Victoria Theatrical Company owner Jahangir Pestonjee Khambatta regarding Fenton's entry into theatre in 1878, Khatau left Bombay for Delhi and joined Alfred Theatre Company owned by Manek Master who also opposed Fenton. Consequently, Khatau started his own Alfred Company in 1881, where Fenton had a long and successful career.[1][3]

Fenton and Khatau later separated. They had a son Jahangir Khatau.[1][3][6]


She was the first Anglo-Indian actress of the Parsi, Gujarati, and Urdu theatre.[2][6] She became popular for her roles as the Parsi heroine.[2][7] She acted in Nanabhai Ranina's Nazan Shirin (1881), Bamanji Kabra's Bholi Gul (Innocent Flower, 1882, based on Ellen Wood's English novel East Lynne), Agha Hasan Amanat's Urdu opera Inder Sabha, Khambatta's Khudadad (The Gift of God, 1898, based on Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre),[8] Gamde ni Gori (Village Nymph, 1890), Alauddin (1891), Tara Khurshid (1892), Kaliyug (1895)[3][6] and Kalidasa's Sanskrit play Shakuntala.[2] Her role of Jogan in Gopichand was much appreciated.[9]

She had later worked with Framji Apu's theatre company and changed several theatre troupes thereafter.[9]

Mary Fenton is believed to have died at the age of 42, probably in 1896. Hence, she was probably born in 1854 and had met Khatau in 1878.[3][9] Her introduction in the Parsi theatre opened the way for a large number of Anglo-Indian actresses which dominated the early stage, as well as the films of the silent era of India.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

Drama Queen (2018) was a play written and directed by Neeyati Rathode, and produced by Blue Feather Theatre based on her life and other early female actresses. Mehrin Saba played Mary Fenton.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hansen, Kathryn (1 December 2013). Stages of Life: Indian Theatre Autobiographies. Anthem Press. pp. 10, 16, 19, 292, 338. ISBN 978-1-78308-068-7. 
  2. ^ a b c d Jani, Dinkar B. (2004). "Khatao, Cowasji Palanji". In Lal, Ananda. Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195644463.001.0001. ISBN 9780195644463 – via Oxford Reference.  (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Hansen, Kathryn (1998). "Stri Bhumika: Female Impersonators and Actresses on the Parsi Stage". Economic and Political Weekly. 33 (35): 2293. JSTOR 4407133 – via Academia. 
  4. ^ Kosambi, Meera (5 July 2017). Gender, Culture, and Performance: Marathi Theatre and Cinema before Independence. Taylor & Francis. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-351-56590-5. 
  5. ^ Hansen, Kathryn (1993). "3. The Landscape of Premodern Performance: Urban Theatre and the Parsi Stage". Grounds for Play: The Nautanki Theatre of North India. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-8173040566. Retrieved 19 July 2018 – via UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004. 
  6. ^ a b c d Hansen, Kathryn (1999). "Making Women Visible: Gender and Race Cross-Dressing in the Parsi Theatre". Theatre Journal. 51 (2): 141, 143–146. JSTOR 25068647 – via Academia. 
  7. ^ Hansen, Kathryn (17 May 2016). "Mapping Melodrama: Global Theatrical Circuits, Parsi Theater, and the Rise of the Social". BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies. 7 (1): 1–30. doi:10.1177/0974927616635931. ISSN 0974-9276. 
  8. ^ Trivedi, Poonam; Bartholomeusz, Dennis (2005). India's Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation, and Performance. University of Delaware Press. p. 272. ISBN 978-0-87413-881-8. 
  9. ^ a b c Shastri, Dr. Gopal (1995). પારસી રંગભૂમિ [Parsi Theatre] (in Gujarati). Vadodara: Sadhna Shastri. pp. 139–140. 
  10. ^ Bajeli, Diwan Singh (8 June 2018). "Struggle for acceptance". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 30 June 2018.