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Bengali Theatre Historiography

communities, it was apprehended, could foster a similar political isolation on community lines that was spelt out in the creation of Pakistan. But the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were justified as a protective economic measure that would ensure equal opportunities for backward classes. She, thus, argues that the idea of secularism in India has not ensured equal treatment of various communities. The minority religious groups, she argues, have been barred from any claim to inequality in the plea of national integration

BOOK REVIEWapril 4, 2009 vol xliv no 14 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30communities, it was apprehended, could foster a similar political isolation on com-munity lines that was spelt out in the crea-tion of Pakistan. But the reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were justified as a protective economic measure that would ensure equal opportunities for backward classes. She, thus, argues that the idea of secularism in India has not en-sured equal treatment of various commu-nities. The minority religious groups, she argues, have been barred from any claim to inequality in the plea of national integration – the cause justified and cele-brated in the Constitution by embracing the principle of secularism. She explains this particular meaning of the term secu-larism as an integral part of the natio-nalist politics where the creation of a liberaldemocracy could not oust the hegemonic rule of the “Hindu upper caste, middle class male” and continues to use secularism as a tool to preserve their political supremacy. The last section offers the reader to look into the politics of Constitution making in its historical backdrop. This perspective provides the reader a better understanding of the usage of the terms such as citizen-ship, rights and reservations in the Indian situation. The stated details of the debates within the Constituent Assembly and the pressure groups outside present a com-mendable matrix that helps us to engage with the complex process of Constitution making in India. In spite of the rigour in-volved in presenting the caste politics of the 1940s, the sparsely mentioned communal angle sometimes seems inadequate to grasp the wider political scenario of that period. The time frame mentioned in this section is perhaps better known for communal poli-tics, rather than caste politics. The idea of “secular” that came into being in the Constitution perhaps could have had a direct relationship to the complex politics of caste-class and religion of that time, rather than to the single category of “caste” alone.In spite of these fuzzy bits the mono-graph in general should be acclaimed as the fruit of a scholarly work which couldbe useful to the students and scholarsinterested in the evolution of widely contested political ideology, such as secularism in a third world situation. For the next edition, I would suggest that a general parity has to be maintained for the transliterated spellings of words like DeshasthaandKonkanasth. Despite these minor yet visible shortcomings, I must congratulate Permanent Black and Shab-num Tejani to take the courage to reinves-tigate the issue of Indian secularism in the present political scenario. Email: urvitinni@yahoo.comThe Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcuttaby Sudipto Chatterjee (Kolkata: Seagull Books), 2007; pp 344, £ 16.99 Bengali Theatre HistoriographyLata SinghTheatre has been an important cul-tural site of hegemonic contest of dominant political forces and counter-hegemonic struggle during the colonial period in India. There have been general accounts on theatre, but a serious scholarly engagement with it has begun only recently. However, barring a few, most of the works on theatre have focused on post-independence phase. This book makes an in-depth study of theatre during the colonial period in Bengal, which has been an important playground of theatre. There is an intimate link between thea-tre and colonial history. Theatre responded to the forces of socio-historical changes during the colonial period, has grown out of the milieu of conflicts between cultures and social hierarchies, between economic and political sectors and among ideo-logical groups. The significance of Sudipto Chatterjee’s work is that it places theatre in a larger social and historical context. Chatterjee looks at performance history itself as “performance” within the larger performative contingencies of history. So the study is not merely a case of reading the social politics of theatre, but the theatre of social politics itself. Teasing out various strands of 19th century Calcutta theatre, the book is a detailed study of the Bengali theatre-makers, who laid the ground for a thriving modern Indian theatre.The book begins by giving a brief ac-count of the colonial theatre, a metaphor of imperial empire. In fact, culture has been an important hegemonic site of colo-nial authority. Colonialism appropriates, decontextualises and represents the “oth-er” culture and legitimates its authority by asserting its cultural superiority. But the major thrust of the book is the emerging modern Bengali theatre. The author, by forefronting hybridity as a conscious choice and an underlying process in the formation of modern Bengali theatre, sheds a significant light on theatre historiography, which generally offers a teleological account of modernisation of theatre by de-fining it as a straight, pre-determined rise from rural to urban. The words “new/ reform” commonly used in the apprecia-tion of this theatre posited it as a “refined” and “high” form suitable for the consump-tion of educated elite and respectable peo-ple. Indigenous popular and professional theatre was projected as degraded and “low” to this “high” culture. The discursive tropes of elite men rescuing theatre from the pits of negligence continue to charac-terise the historiography of theatre. How-ever, recent studies have been highlighting high culture as a construct. Popular forms fed into emerging forms of elite “high” the-atre, marking the tension in the configura-tion of a refined form of entertainment and highlighting the fragility of the respectabil-ity and modernity discourse. But appropri-ation of popular forms was simultaneously marked by the marginalisation of these forms by the elites. Hybrid TheatreRecently the concept of hybrid theatre has come into vogue. Hybrid theatre is being referred to as theatre which combines in varying degrees of synthesis, different ingredients in performance styles and repertoires. These ingredients include
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 4, 2009 vol xliv no 1431elements and performance structures of indigenous expressive genres and melo-dramatic performance conventions and proscenium stage techniques gleaned from the western Victorian theatre. It can be seen as a distinct and a historical phe-nomenon. The newly-emerged hybrid cre-ations represented an important and en-during phase in the history of the theatre in India. In the words of Chatterjee, “Ben-gali theatre historians fail to perceive the hybrid combinations that were the foun-dations of Bengali theatre. What is elided in such colonial histories is the relation-ship connecting the coloniser and the col-onised and the creation of a hybrid space through cultural experimentation and ne-gotiations, through the active agency of creating alterities, while engaging in si-militude at the same time.” However, Chatterjeealso points out that there is no generalised theory of hybridity as its na-ture is complex and responds to the spe-cificities of a geo-temporallocation. The first fruit of hybridity, as the study throws light on, is the emerging western style Bengali theatre of native intelligent-sia, which has been the decisive formative epoch before the beginning of “really mod-ern” Indian theatre. The theatre of native intelligentsia intersects theoretically with socio-historical and cultural specifics of the Bengal renaissance, which involved not only a question of cultural “regeneration”, but an idea of racial self-fashioning as well. The first prodigy of modern Bengali drama, Michael Madhusudan Datta’s work exem-plified the creative possibilities of the hybridity that could breed in the colonial set-up. The hybrid articulation of identity fashioned out of the binary strains, i e, Sanskritic revivalism and westernisation. Chatterjee highlights that the large number of Bengali version of Sanskrit plays in this phase was an attempt to reclaim a past to define the present. However, the past would be India’s glorious Hindu past. In fact, a study of spawning of theatre in native quarter of Calcutta in this phase of 1850s is worth exploring as it would add a new dimension to 1857 revolt. DemocratisationThe book further highlights how with the emergence of bourgeois public theatre in Bengal in 1870s theatre moved away from the clutches of babus to the broader, more democratic level of the ticketed theatres. The democratisation was fos-tered partly by the theatre companies, the need for money forced them to seek larger audiences that, in turn, made them lower the prices of the tickets. Bourgeoisie were also evoking theatre as an expression site of national taste. It was said that the money earned through theatre would be used for the cause of improving the thea-tre community – a happy alliance of com-merce with “nation’s civilisation”. Propo-nents of public theatre, despite the disdain for popular form, were forced to reckon with jatra and popular culture in its endea-vour to attract larger audiences. In effect, public theatre was scuttling anxiously be-tween several binaries, that is, high and low art/culture, upper and lower classes, foreign and indigenous forms, colonial and native forms, purity of the self and its contamination by the other. In other words, it was a balancing act at several levels – culture, class and commerce. Girish Chandra Ghosh, a playwright, ac-tor, director and theatre manager, who was in the centrestage in this phase fore-fronted hybridity in his work. The study highlights how this new theatre of the last quarter of the 19th century was responding to the larger socio-political situation, intersecting with the idea of the nation. Theatrical performance was a site for identity formation and rep-resentation of a national cultural con-struct. However, staging the nation exem-plifying the ambivalent quality of colonial discourse was ridden with the inherent paradoxes and contradictions of claiming an “identity”, while supplicating the order of the empire. Representation was a com-munalised and gendered construction of nation nurturing “Indianness” culturally and politically promoting “Hindu” renais-sance. The configuration of the “woman” was in terms of the nation, which placed the nation at an interesting genderised position within the power circuitry of the empire and the native subject. Women in TheatreThe work has a particular focus on the complex and problematic issue of the place of women in theatre. One of the chief results of the transformation of Bengali theatre from a site of non-profit pri-vate entertainment into a venue for a com-mercial enterprise was the employment of actresses to fill the female roles. The study underscores that the first actresses came from prostitute’s section and how the pro-ponents of “high” culture negotiated with its morality by giving the actresses roles in divine and historical plays, but not dome-stic women’s roles. The argument given by the author for this is that since the actress-es were prostitutes, they could not be allowed into the inner-most sanctum of domain that enshrined feminine domes-ticity. The two worlds – private and public – had to be kept apart. The author further highlights that although theatre gave edu-cation to actresses and made them fa-mous, it did little more for the prostitute-actress than turn them into actress-prosti-tute. However, the reference to prostitute actress and actress prostitute somewhere slips into respectability discourse of mid-dle class, without the overt intention of the author. In the mainstream discourse, any woman from an anonymous quarter and leading an unconventional sexual life falls under the umbrella of “loose” and “prostitute” women. The actresses came from diverse backgrounds. All did not come from prostitute’s quarters. Besides, many whose mothers may be prostitutes, cannot themselves be called prostitutes as prostitution is not a heredi-tary profession. Besides, the assignment of divine roles and not domestic roles to the actresses has to be looked in a more complex way. Despite this the signi-ficance of this study lies in highlighting the betrayal and humiliation of the actresses and their exclusion in the nationalist project.Thus this work through an intensive analysis of Bengali theatre during the colonial period problematises theatre historiography by bringing out the signifi-cance of hybridity in the making of mod-ern theatre. The work also takes perform-ance out of the narrow definition of crea-tivity and links it up with the broader question of class, gender, nationalism, colonialism and also commerce. Culture has been brought to the forefront of politics and power.

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