The role of theatre in shaping socio-political awareness since the late nineteenth century has generated enormous critical reflection and debate. Theatre’s engagement with the themes of colonialism, class, caste, and gender’s, its reimagining of the ‘nation’ and its communities at decisive historical moments: its response to mass media and to the proliferation and influence of western drama; and relationship to actors, scenery, space, and language are some critical issue addressed in this volume. The detailed Introduction by Nandi Bhatia examines the interface between Indian theatre and ‘modernity’, and reveals the multifaceted, hybrid, and contested formation of modern Indian Theatre.
Nandi Bhatia is professor, Department of English, The University of Western Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Performing Women/Performing Womanhood (OUP 2010)and Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India (OUP 2004).
Since Javed Mallick's pessimistic reflections on the poverty of 'Theatre Criticism in India Today,' in 2000/ several studies have been published, which emphasize the inclusion of theatre in the theoretical and critical debates made possible by the increased emphasis on the links between nationalism, imperialism, and literatures from the colonized parts of the world. While suggesting these directions in theatre scholarship, they have also initiated inquiries into what constitutes modern Indian theatre, inevitably locating its changing and contested relationship to modernity in India's colonial and nationalist pasts, and post-colonial developments. Of note among the recently published studies are Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker's Theatres of Independence (2005) and Vasudha Dalmia's Poetics) Plays) and Performances (2006). Dharwadker's book interrogates the trends and developments in post-Independence urban drama in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and Kannada in relation to its colonial past. Dalmia's work is remarkable for providing an in-depth analysis of such concerns as they developed in Hindi drama since the late nineteenth century during the Bharatendu Yug, continuing through the Jayshankar Yug in the 1920s, the modernist phase in the 1960s, and in the work of avant-garde women playwrights/directors of the 1990s. Other studies include Minoti Chatterjee's Theatre Beyond the Threshold: Nationalism and the Bengali Stage (2004), and Nandi Bhatia's Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India (2004), along with anthologies of plays such as Tutun Mukherjee's Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation (2005), Erin Mee's Drama Contemporary: India (2001), and G.P. Deshpande's Modern Indian Drama: An Anthology (2004). Together with earlier work such as Rustom Bharucha's Rehearsals of Revolution: The Political Theater of Bengal (1983) and Theatre and the World: Performance and the Politics of Culture (1992), and Jacob Scrampickal's Voice to the Voiceless: The Power of People's Theatre in India (1994), this expanding corpus of critical work on Indian theatre is important for several reasons. First, it indicates a growing interest in Indian theatre history and points towards the need for more work that subjects this highly pluralistic and diverse field to critical scrutiny. Second, it emphasizes the political side of theatre that has received insufficient attention as compared to its aesthetic dimensions, highlighting modern Indian theatre as a terrain that has the potential to question and contest authoritarian structures through the use of aesthetic forms that have been creatively altered. In addition, it enriches and supplements the treatment of Indian theatre in books such as Gilbert and Tompkins' Post-colonial Drama: Theory) Practice) Politics (1996), J. Ellen Gainor's Imperialism and Theatre: Essays on World Theatre) Drama and Performance (1995), and Brian Crow and Chris Banfield's An Introduction to Post-colonial Theatre (1996), which locate it within the comparative framework of theatrical practices from a variety of sites in Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and the settler colonies of Australia and Canada. While this larger comparative focus is both useful and necessary, it becomes imperative, as Gilbert and Tompkins themselves point out in Post-colonial Drama, that since Indian drama and theatre's 'history/practice is extremely complex, it is impossible to do justice to Indian drama in a broadly comparative study. Moreover, the varieties of drama, dance, languages, and cultures that have influenced Indian theatre are [far] too vast to consider in a text other than one devoted to just India'.
Heeding such calls regarding the importance of theatre, the current volume assembles an archive of critical essays, excerpts, and theoretical and political statements written in English that reflect upon the changing visions for theatre since the late nineteenth century. Such an exercise acquires special relevance because the place of theatre in the literatures of modernity, Indian literature, and colonial and post-colonial studies is marked by ambivalence and marginality. On the one hand, since the late nineteenth century, theatre has remained central to social and political movements through anti-colonial plays that were subjected to censorship under the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876. It was also an important forum for progressive writers and political activists in the early twentieth century in many regions and has helped raise concerns in post-colonial India through institutions such as the National School of Drama (NSD) as well as through the efforts of fringe movements in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s onwards. This is true especially of street theatre. The thematic range of modern theatre includes the politics of the British Raj, conditions prevalent on tea and indigo plantations, workers' rights, famines, the 1947 Partition, psychosocial fragmentation, familial problems and urban angst, concerns with women's issues, dowry problems, and the rights of Dalits, among other issues. These wide-ranging concerns have been addressed in a number of creative ways including mythological dramas, folk forms and rituals, historical revivals, transformed versions of Euro-American plays, notably of Shakespeare and Brecht, and through avant-garde experimentation. On the other hand, within the expanding corpus of literary criticism on the literatures of India, it remains the genre that has received the least amount of critical attention.!
Although it is impossible to cover the entire terrain of modern Indian theatre in a single text, the pieces in the current volume speak about the many entanglements of traditional and European, classical, folk and ritualistic, and rural and urban forms and practices. In addition, they address the overlaps in colonialist, nationalist, and Orientalist positions that characterize and shape modem theatre. While representing a spectrum of perspectives including those of playwrights-directors themselves, important voices in theatre criticism and history, practice, and direction, as well as the less influential interjections that are nonetheless significant for understanding the demands made on theatre in the face of socio-political pressures and developments, the articles reveal the multi-faceted, hybrid, and contested formations of modem Indian theatre. The critical essays range from historical overviews to discussions of specific movements and moments in varied locations, languages, and socio-political contexts. Because of overlapping influences amongst various dramatic practices, they alter ways of seeing theatre strictly along linguistic or regional lines or neat divisions of Sanskrit, traditional, European, or folk theatre. Rather, they point towards the complicity of theatre historiography in promoting discrete and watertight divisions at specific political moments. Additionally, they address theatre's negotiation with the issues of class, caste, and gender, and the ways in which the nation came to be imagined from these varied perspectives at critical historical moments. Since performance constitutes a critical aspect of modern theatre, the articles in the current volume also address issues pertaining to the role of actors and the myriad meanings of scenery, performance spaces, architecture, and language. Overall, the articles confirm theatre's ambivalent and paradoxical relationship with modernity-both in terms of form and content. Remaining tied, as it did, to the national question, it represented contradictory positions, generated highly varied responses amongst practitioners, and developed unevenly across regions, localities, and languages. My introduction aims to provide a contextual history that enables an informed reading of the pieces in the current volume. This demands an unpacking of the changing meanings of modern Indian theatre.
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