Urban Indian plays removed from roots'

Print edition : September 10, 2010

Jisha Menon: The violence in Gujarat in 2002 also informed my research greatly.-

Interview with Jisha Menon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama, Stanford University.

JISHA MENON is an Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Theory and Performance Studies at the Department of Drama, Stanford University, United States. Her research interests lie at the intersection of religion and secularity, gender and nationalism, cosmopolitanism and globalisation.

Jisha, who completed her postgraduate education at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and, subsequently, at Stanford University, has published essays on India's partition, transnational feminist theatre, and sexual and political violence in South Asia.

Her current project, Bordering on Drama: Community and Nation in Postcolonial India, is an interdisciplinary book-length study that considers embodied political performances to examine the theatricality of nationalism in South Asia. Excerpts from an interview she gave Frontline:

To begin with, can you tell us how you chose performance studies as an area of research? What sort of research areas have you focussed on as an academic?

When I was a graduate student, I was actively involved in theatre in Bangalore. One of the most interesting moments for me was when I did Mahesh Dattani's Final Solutions, acting as Daksha, who is one of the young protagonists. The play is set in post-Babri Masjid India. It is a comment on borders between Hindus and Muslims. It was an interesting moment for me to think about the ways in which Partition continues to inform our contemporary ethnic identities. I went on to do my postgraduation at JNU, which was very politically engaged, and I continued doing theatre there.

I was moving more towards theatre and drama, and I was also getting frustrated with the literary fetishism that happens in many English Departments, so I did my PhD in drama at Stanford University. For my PhD thesis I came back to the question of Partition as it allowed me a way to think about contemporary India. For me, that moment in 1992-93 [Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath] was a big blow.

My earlier research was on cross-dressing in Kathakali [a classical dance form of Kerala]. One of the influential people I was thinking through was Judith Butler. One of the things she talks about is the way in which one's gender gets consolidated by a series of repeated performances so that one eventually gets this sense of a stable gender identity. Those performances are what constitute the core of the identity.

I started wondering how we can think about national identities as similarly performed. Is there any core or essence to that kind of identity or is it something that is given coherence or a sense of stability through a repetition of performances? So that is how I started thinking about Partition, and, of course, my sense of what was happening in India was also dramatically informing why I wanted to study Partition, so that became my point of entry.

Having been so affected by the communal violence in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, what was your response to the post-Godhra riots in 2002?

The violence in Gujarat in 2002 also informed my research greatly. I felt that the outrage that people felt was much more subdued in 2002, and I was surprised because I remember the visceral shock that a lot of us felt, a sense of offence to our humanity, and I would prefer to say that it was that rather than my sense of secularism that was impacted because I think it was a much more emotional kind of thing rather than cognitive. It wasn't something that I thought constitutionally we should support the secular, but it was really a sense of violation of what was human.

I felt surprised that post-Godhra even my friends did not feel the same kind of shock and outrage; I feel that there is a gradual desensitisation to ethnic or religious violence and ethnic conflict. So that's disturbing. It felt like there has been a kind of normalisation of violence to an extent where it's alright though banal, whereas in 1992-93 there was still a greater sense of outrage.

As part of your research you have looked at Wagah [the road border crossing between India and Pakistan] as a theatre of nationalism, infusing it with a generous performative theatrical aspect. It is interesting that you chose to study Wagah because, I would imagine, that it would be beyond the realm of performance studies.

Well, I was reading about the retreat ceremony at Wagah as a performance and a sort of theatre and it is really uncanny that both Indians and Pakistanis reflect each other. It is like a mimetic because they do identical things at identical time. I was playing with the idea of theatre and trying to see how far you can extend that. Wagah becomes a theatre of nationalism because, as theorists of nationalism have argued, one of the ways in which the nation is imagined is through print. In a way, my research on Wagah was a conversation with that idea.

Looking at how nationalism is very much an embodied and affective way of imagining your identity as a Pakistani or an Indian so that there is not just this intellectual thing happening through print...but there is also this very physical, embodied, emotional what we can call performative aspect of nationalism as well.

That is why I was looking at Wagah, to see what sort of drama goes on there. I was looking at the ways in which that can be read as theatrethe costumes, the music, the audience, all of that and see how that mimetic relationship between India and Pakistan tells us something that is a little bit ludic and absurd.

What do you have to say about contemporary theatre in India? Do you think it reflects the nation's concerns?

Some plays still look at the nation's concerns but most of them do not. Mahesh Dattani has reworked Final Solutions after Godhra and has also worked on gay/lesbian issues, which are political. Delhi has far more interesting work [that reflects the nation's concerns], but when you compare it with the creative ferment of the 1970s when theatre was more political, theatre now is apolitical and is driven by market logic.

How was theatre in India different earlier? You mentioned the 1970s.

Earlier, theatre in India offered a fertile terrain to reflect on questions of social justice. Historically, several plays have been explicitly political. A play that depicted unequal power relations between landlords and peasants and offered a direct critique of the abuse of power by the landholding elite was Neel Darpan by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1860. It depicted the abuse of peasants in Bengal by British indigo planters. The play created a furore, eventually leading to the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876. Bijon Bhattacharya's Nabanna, which portrayed the politicisation of peasants in the wake of the Bengal famine, was another powerful political play that the IPTA [Indian People's Theatre Association] produced in 1944.

In the 1950s, Kerala had people like Thoppil Bhasi who made Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist), which was credited with helping the election of the first communist government in Kerala in 1957. Kesava Dev's rejoinder Nhanippo Communistavum (I Will Become a Communist Now) attempted to bring back voters to the Congress fold. More recently, Civic Chandran's Ningal Aare Kammunistaaki (Whom Did You Make a Communist?) made in 1995 are all examples of how plays have attempted to politicise audiences.

I mentioned the 1970s particularly because you had people like Habib Tanvir, Badal Sircar, Satish Alekar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar and Usha Ganguly. Safdar Hashmi was doing his work in the 1980s.

There was a clear attempt to use theatre for political ends. Theatre was viewed as a strong medium of expression to reach the people. Some of these people are active even today but the time around the 1970s was far more political.

What do you attribute this change to?

Well, I'm not entirely certain, but it could be a combination of two factors: mass-mediated forms thoroughly pervading our lives making theatre irrelevant, and a kind of political apathy among the youth today.

What about indigenous forms of theatre? Have they been political as well?

Indigenous theatre offers its own array of dramatic tools to grapple with the asymmetries of class, caste and power. For instance, several folk forms have used theatre to mock and ridicule those who subjugate. For instance, Jatra of Bengal, Tamasha of Maharashtra, Burrakatha of Andhra Pradesh and Bhand Pather of Kashmir are forms that use humour to mock and ridicule those in power. These folk forms reveal the subversive power of comedy, its ability to question and de-naturalise figures of authority.

While proscenium comedies are often coopted by the entertainment industry to reinforce or consolidate the norm or the status quo, humour in folk theatre is potentially much more subversive.

Many theatre directors have recognised this and have employed and adapted folk forms. Habib Tanvir worked from within the idiom of Chhattisgarhi folk forms, Utpal Dutt and Sombhu Mitra worked with the Jatra form, Annabhau Sathe worked with Tamasha, and M.K. Raina has worked with Bhand for nearly 30 years.

Compared with other forms like cinema, there is still a true subaltern theatre that exists in India. In Assam you have the mobile theatre, which is alive and connected to the people.

Having looked at theatre in America and India, what differences do you see between the two?

One of the things that struck me when I went to Stanford was that the state of theatre in America is even more depressing than it is here because theatre is just about entertainment in America. It is a kind of elite and bourgeoisie experience whereas here there is still space for a people's theatre. A group called Maraa in Bangalore, for example, has broken out of the proscenium format.

Theatre in America is totally corporatised. Thematically, if you look at something like comedy, in America it is so much about reinforcing the norm in a way while in India it is very subversive. There is a big difference in the way in which the entertainment industry markets comedy as this sort of cheerful disposition and be happy kind of thing, this mandate to be cheerful all the time, as opposed to the possibility of comedy being very subversive in India.

The problem in India is that we have a lot of rich material but I think it is getting ossified, getting institutionalised by places like the National School of Drama, or becoming more the province of entertainment.

Do you think urban Indian theatre is removed from its roots?

I think urban Indian theatre is removed from its roots but there was also this whole movement called Theatre of the Roots a term coined by Suresh Awasthi to describe the work of modern directors, such as B.V. Karanth, K.N. Panikkar, Mohan Agashe and Ratan Thiyam, who have actively incorporated traditional genres in their theatrical productions. Theatre of the Roots advocated that these big NSD directors, Ebrahim Alkazi's time onwards, should attempt to do a kind of total theatre rather than do a highly bourgeoisie proscenium only sort of talking on the stage kind of theatre', they should do a different form of theatre, a total theatre', where you use indigenous forms or you use dancing and music and locate it within some traditions.

That movement actually got people like M.K. Raina to work with the Bhands or Ratan Thiyam to work with the Manipuri folk theatre and then Habib Tanvir to work with the Chhattisgarhi folk performers so they all were very cosmopolitan directors who had their training in a modernist kind of programme but went back to much more folk traditions to revive their forms, so there was a kind of deliberate move.

Now there are people who are trying to integrate their modernist understanding of theatre with traditional forms, but you have to wonder whether this attempt actually reinvigorates the story you are telling, with King Lear and Bhand Pather, for instance. Using it through Bhands gives it a sort of dynamism, but does it also fetishise it into a kind of orientalist thing, which sometimes happens with certain performances, is a question that needs to be asked.

Some of the work of this sort that I have heard about makes me wonder to what extent people are cashing in on the exotic value of classical high cultural traditions of India.

Your comment on some of the fresh talent in Indian theatre.

I like some of the experimental work that is being done, which is exciting, like the solo shows of Arjun Raina and Maya Rao. What is getting more interesting is that more people are thinking that theatre should not happen in the bounded proscenium space and [are starting to] to take it to the streets or to just re-imagine site-specific theatre. Maraa is a good example of what theatre should do interrupt public spaces with performances. Theatre should be vibrant so that it does not become ossified and does not become this entertainment event. It should retain some of its potential to unsettle.

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