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  • Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India
  • Kathy Foley
Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. By Nandi Bhatia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 199 pp. Hardcover $49.50.

This text explores the place where Indian history, theatre, and drama meet in resistance to colonial authority, class oppression, and patriarchy. The author believes that drama, rather than the novel, is an appropriate site to access evidence of anticolonial resistance. The point is well taken: the popularity of theatre in traditional Indian society and its ability to reach audiences for whom literacy would be a barrier support Bhatia's contention that theatre is a site to look for aspects of the anticolonial struggle. The approach borrows from cultural studies, but unlike some of that discipline's literature, the evidence is presented in clear language, in historical detail, and with awareness of complexities. The reader comes to understand how different groups aligned themselves in struggles for independence, democracy, and women's rights. The author mines historical records, memoirs, correspondence, newspaper accounts, and the judicial record to clarify representative cases.

After a short theoretical opening, five essays explore selected political theatres. "Censorship and the Politics of Nationalist Drama" discusses the nineteenth-century play Nil Durpan by Dinabandhu Mitra. This script attacked British planters, showing them betraying and raping their Indian workers. It was quickly translated by British missionary James Long and published as The Indigo Mirror by the English colonial government. Bhatia notes the outrage of planters that their own missionaries and the officers would print a work that depicted them negatively.

Bhatia shows that the incident elucidates a struggle within the British community over the direction of the colonial enterprise. Translator Long was in India to save souls, and the government was interested in developing the image of benevolent English rule. To these two sectors, Indigo planters, driven by capitalist concerns, were an obstruction that the translation would highlight. Long was imprisoned (albeit briefly), and soon censorship banned this [End Page 415] play and other anticolonial productions, such as Chakar Durpan (Mirror of Tea), which showed adverse conditions on tea plantations, and Gaekwar Durpan (Mirror of Baroda), which exposed the false accusation made against the ruler of Baroda that allowed the annexation of that state by the British. Such plays set up a model of protest plays and caused authorities to impose strict censorship laws on theatre. The popularity of the works clarified that drama could be a valuable tool for Indian nationalists.

Bhatia shows that in response to this censorship, many artists retreated into mythological themes. Hence, the Mahabharata episode, where Kicak attempts to rape Draupadi, who is defended by her husband Bhim[a], was made a metaphor: Kicak was understood to be the British leader Lord Curzon, Draupadi was India, and Bhim was the Indian nationalist. Mythological themes were chosen because they were less likely to draw censorship by the colonial government. The metaphorical readings were not immediately transparent to the British censors.

Another chapter delves into the complexities of Shakespeare production in India, discussing both the potential of the work in support of the colonialist enterprise and the more revolutionary recasting of Shakespeare in vernacular theatres of India, such as Bharatendu Harishchandra's Durlabh Bandhu (Dependable Friend), a version of The Merchant of Venice where the Merchant was identified as an alien preying on the local community. This chapter ends with a discussion of both the company Shakspeareana and their portrayal in the James Merchant film Shakespeare Wallah.

Another chapter addresses the Indian People's Theatre Association, founded in 1942 with their productions that critiqued Gandhi, noting the nationalists' refusal to support the Allies in World War II. Bhatia shows that after the war, as the nationalists rose to power, Indian groups turned to Western works as a way to avoid censorship by the nationalist government. Still another essay is a detailed reading of Utpal Dutt's Mahavidroha (Great Rebellion of 1857) that shows that this twentieth century text mined the history of the rebellion. Dutt's work reflected the class and caste struggle taking place in the 1970s as the...