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  • Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India since 1947
  • Jisha Menon
Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India since 1947. By Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005; pp. 490. $49.95 cloth.

Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker's Theatres of Independence constitutes the first major study of post-independence urban Indian theatre and demonstrates her prodigious research and analytical skills. Combining textual and performance analysis with archival research of conferences, festivals and other cultural events, Dharwadker's interdisciplinary study renders modern Indian drama a "multi-dimensional critical object" (2). While focusing on the institutionalization of Indian drama, Dharwadker's monograph makes important contributions to theatre history, modern drama, and postcolonial studies.

Dharwadker begins her analysis by locating modern Indian drama within its institutional, cultural, and material conditions. Part one opens with a chapter that considers three pivotal events in the formation of a national dramatic canon by institutionalizing certain plays, playwrights, and directors. By offering close readings of the Indian People's Theatre Association's inaugural conference in 1943, the first all-India drama seminar organized by the newly constituted Sangeet Natak Akademi (the first state-sponsored national institution for the performing arts) in 1956, and the two-week Nehru Multilingual Drama Festival in 1989, she delineates the institutional, conceptual, and concrete terrain upon which the analysis of post-independence urban Indian drama unfolds in the subsequent chapters.

Next, Dharwadker explores dramatic authorship as mutually constituted by text and performance; she argues that post-independence plays simultaneously circulated within print and performative economies. She demonstrates that well-established networks of publication and performance facilitate interlingual and interregional circulation within a multilingual theatre practice.

In chapter four, Dharwadker shifts focus from the literary to the performative condition by exploring questions of theatrical production and consumption. By juxtaposing major directors like Alkazi and Subanna, she complicates urban / rural binarisms and argues, "modernity, cosmopolitanism, and professionalism are not metropolitan preserves" (101). She then moves on to a discussion of the diverse and differential constitution of theatre audiences across a variety of venues in post-independence India. The chapter concludes with a brief and unsatisfactory discussion of theatre's relation to mass-cultural representational forms. While Dharwadker historicizes the gradual dominance of cinema at the expense of theatre, she overlooks the further destabilization of theatre in neoliberalized India. How does theatre negotiate the ubiquitous power of state-sponsored and independent satellite television, and in what ways have these mass-mediated forms intervened into notions of performance in India? The dramatic and uneven political and economic changes wrought during the turbulent 1980s and 1990s are at risk of being flattened out in this cultural account of the formation and establishment of modern Indian drama.

In chapter five, Dharwadker returns with an incisive critique of Orientalist discourses that have subjected the "'modernity' of Indian theatre to ideological erasure" (128). She evaluates the influence of Orientalist discourses on nativist, cultural-nationalist critiques of modernity in India that indicts modern drama for the atrophy of indigenous, so-called authentic theatre. Further, she criticizes interculturalists for disregarding modern Indian dramatic practice in favor of an idea of a dehistoricized and timeless India.

In Part two, Dharwadker carefully delineates the multiple resources (including myth, history, social realism, folk, and Western canonical narratives) that nourished and engendered a vibrant dramatic culture in post-independence urban India. She begins by exploring how theatre employs the analogous discursive traditions of myth and history to narrate the past. Dharwadker discusses three works that draw upon the Hindu epic Mahabharata; she moves from a discussion of Dharamvir Bharati's Andha Yug (1954) to K. N. Panikkar's Urubhangam (1987) and Ratan Thiyam's Chakravyuha (1984). She maintains that these playwrights represent the (Hindu) past, "to scrutinize the dominant tradition in the context of a pluralistic nation" (171). However, historical nuances are collapsed, as Dharwadker does not distinguish how the deployment of myth in the buoyant and confident era of the 1950s differed from its use in the cynical and politically circumspect environment of the 1980s. [End Page 383]

Next, Dharwadker shifts her focus from myth to history, considering the role of historical fictions in the...


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