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  • A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, and: Poetics, Plays, and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre by Vasudha Dalmia, and: Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India Since 1947 by Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker
  • Erin B. Mee (bio)
A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan. By Fawzia Afzal-Khan. Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2005; 143pp. $25.00 paper.
Poetics, Plays, and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre. By Vasudha Dalmia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006; 366pp.; illustrations. £19.99 cloth.
Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India Since 1947. By Aparna Bhargava Dharwadker. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005; 478pp.; illustrations. $49.95 cloth.

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In these three powerful new books on modern Indian and Pakistani theatre, authors Afzal-Khan, Dalmia, and Dharwadker focus on theatre that reflects, embodies, challenges, and constructs narratives of the nation and national culture. Afzal-Khan analyzes secular alternative theatre in Pakistan and its role (both actual and potential) in the current social and political landscape; Dalmia traces the genealogy of modern Hindi theatre in the context of an emerging idea of a “national” “Indian” culture; and Dharwadker documents the formation of a modern dramatic canon in post-Independence India. All three books argue persuasively that these modern theatres have shaped and been shaped by contemporaneous national political movements.

Afzal-Khan grounds her book—the first on this subject—in the historical and political contexts that gave rise to the work of the three companies she focuses on: Ajoka, Punjab Lok Rehas, and Tehrik-I-Niswan. Ajoka (“Dawn of a New Day,” founded in 1983) led the street theatre movement in Pakistan with protests against the cultural repression of General Zia-ul-Haque and has since performed plays such as Barri (Acquital; 1987) about four women imprisoned during Zia’s regime; Aik Thee Nani (There Was Once a Grandmother; 1993), a “secular critique of the official Islamist doctrine that forces all women to accept its repressive regime (62); and Dhee Rani (Daughter/Queen of the House; 1990), a play about the need for female education. Punjab Lok Rehas was founded in 1987 by former members of Ajoka who wanted to perform exclusively in Punjabi as a way of reaching specific communities of villagers and slum dwellers. Their work has dealt with the plight of rape victims, causes and consequences of the Gulf War, and child labor. Tehrik-I-Niswan (which literally means “Women’s Movement”) functions as the cultural wing of the [End Page 181] women’s movement in Pakistan and is at the same time “the premiere alternative theatre group of Karachi” (137). Afzal-Khan details their performance of Aurat Ki Kahani (A Woman’s Story; 1997), which “highlighted the theme of injustice, maltreatment, and discrimination against women in every area and at every stage of life” (98) not by focusing on women as victims but on women overcoming obstacles.

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By foregrounding these three groups, Afzal-Khan successfully demonstrates that there is a “people’s national theatre movement” in Pakistan that is used for “education, enlightenment, and action” (72), and which is organized and run by small theatre groups to serve as a forum for debate on national issues.

Afzal-Khan focuses on actual performances rather than hypothetical performances or texts, which allows her to analyze a complex set of audience reactions rather than positing a utopic outcome for every performance—her stance is interrogatory rather than celebratory. She also writes from the standpoint of a practitioner-scholar; she acted in several of the productions she describes, which allows her to measure the distance between the intent of a production and the complexities of its receptions.

However, the book is a compilation of individual lectures and conference papers, which results in quite a bit of repetition between chapters and a regrettable lack of depth and detail. The reader is left wanting more detailed descriptions and analyses of the companies, the productions themselves, and the audience responses. In addition, because it is...


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pp. 181-184
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