- Stigmas of the Tamil Stage: An Ethnography of Special Drama Artists in South India
Susan Seizer's thorough and incisive study of "special drama" artists in South India offers a valuable reading of how this genre survives—and sometimes thrives—in Tamil Nadu, and it also shows how the artists themselves deal with having to occupy the liminal space of being "public" figures who practice an art form whose roots go back to the late nineteenth century but who must, on a daily basis, also face the stigma of being considered people of questionable morals. The author points out that the term murai—propriety—is often invoked to marginalize actors and actresses as a socially and morally inferior group. The issue of moral propriety is a complex one, and one of the major strengths of the book is its ability to comprehend the subjective position of the artists without losing sight of the social and cultural nexus within which they function. Seizer's methodology, which is a combination of academic, objective rigor and a willingness to be an "insider," allows her to discuss in detail the dilemma that special drama artists have faced all along: on the one hand, their profession demands a moral code that will enable them to survive in a world that entails a number of challenges; on the other, the profession requires some measure of flexibility in order to survive. Ironically, the women in particular are called on to take roles that reiterate social and cultural norms while always being vigilant about their ambivalent status. The book, quite rightly, ends with a strong tribute to special drama artists—especially women—who make the best of their situation without compromising their integrity, and with a devotion to the world that has both nurtured and ostracized them.
For the most part, theater historians have all but forgotten the significance of special drama, particularly after its role was taken over by the advent of films in the 1940s, and the move to establish professional theater companies in the urban centers. In fact, some the best-known figures of special drama moved to the film world, thereby signaling the inevitable decline of special drama. Seizer does not make extravagant claims for the contemporary popularity of this mode, but she certainly gives a thorough overview of the ways in which the genre exists in rural areas, largely through private sponsorship. The actors continue to be "special" in that, despite the existence of a sangam (organization) that regulates activities and ensures some measure of fairness, the actors are recruited specially for individual [End Page 521] performances and continue to make their services available on an individual basis. One of the more fascinating aspects of this mode is its capacity to bring together a disparate group of people who would nonetheless give a cohesive performance that would last from sunset till dawn.
Seizer's study offers a painstaking analysis of several plays, complete with names of actors and actresses, titles of plays, the composition of the audience, the location of the performance, and related facts. It also offers a brief history of special drama, from the time of the Parsi theater in the nineteenth century to its heyday with Sankaradas Swamigal, and then the division between the theater companies of artists such as Sambanda Mudaliyar and the emergence of special drama. Sankaradas Swamigal continues to be the guru of this mode, despite his own decision to move away and form what came to be known as boys' companies. While Seizer's account of the changes that took place over time is accurate, it is surprising that the study does not discuss the manner in which special drama came to accommodate carnatic music as part of its repertoire. The ways in which drama in ancient times evolved through various phases and bifurcated into forms of dance and street theater would probably have some bearing on the process by which Parsi theater morphed into special drama as it gradually moved from Bombay...