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Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 383-386



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DramaContemporary: India. Edited by Erin B. Mee. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (PAJ Books), 2001. 361 pages. Cloth $49.95; paper $22.50

Erin Mee's anthology of contemporary Indian drama is a most welcome addition to the available literature on Asian theatre. America's most popular image of an "Indian" character today is probably Apu, the immigrant owner of the all-American, Kwik-E-Mart convenience store in Matt Groening's animated television series "The Simpsons." On the other hand, we have in Erin Mee's new collection six Indian plays, written in the last fifteen years, that offer considerable insight, not only into the aesthetics of successful, contemporary Indian dramatists, but also into the unique and universal concerns of that subcontinent today.

Mee's informative introduction notes that India, the largest and most populous democracy in the world, and one of the world's most culturally diverse countries, has twenty-six states, each with its own political and social history, performing art traditions, and language. Inevitably then, the works chosen can only begin to represent the range of dramatic styles and issues of concern in India today. Moreover, the linguistic dynamics of the original Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, and Marathi texts are largely lost in translation.

Mee's choice of plays is also less than catholic; wary of "light entertainment for the urban elite" (p. 4) and "mindless fluff" (p. 5), Mee has a predilection for works that relate closely to Indian social movements, including the theatre of roots, women's theatre, street performances, and dalit sahitya, or literature of the oppressed. First and foremost is dharma defiance, or willful transgression of the rules, punished with family vengeance as seen in Girish Karnad's magnificent The Fire and the Rain, in which a husband slits his wife's throat, and in the surreal Aramba Chekkan by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, with its wonderful closing stage direction: "The WILD ANIMALS enter and pounce on him. He tries to escape them but is caught and torn to pieces. The lights fade slowly. We hear [the madman]'s laughter" (p. 110). Both of these works are of the "theatre of roots" genre.

In the desolate women's theatre piece, Rudali by Usha Ganguli, the women's impoverished lives are filled with cow dung and head lice, and their only employment is as rudali, women who must weep and wail and beat their breasts over rotting corpses at funerals for their livelihood. Tripurari Sharma developed The Wooden Cart collectively out of theatre workshops based on social issues and local problems. This rambunctious work presents a world of prostitutes and bullock carts, and comes out of the street theatre tradition. Here is a world where everyone at all levels is on the take; even the lepers are persecuted for the putrid stench of their rotting flesh. Mahesh Dattani's bleak Tara finds Dan and Tara, fifteen-year-olds in London, with noticeable limps; originally conjoined twins with three legs, they now sport artificial limbs on [End Page 383] opposite legs and are reviled as freaks; furthermore, Tara needs a kidney. Finally, in Datta Bhagat's discursive Routes and Escape Routes, hardly a day passes for an "untouchable" without reference to caste.

All of this imbues the anthology as a whole with a tract-like flavor and fervor that tends to emphasize the thoroughly useful, uplifting aspect of the drama, and offers a somewhat mawkish view of India's downtrodden. The intensity of the plays' situations, perspectives, characters, actions, and language, however, is such that, though often melodramatic in nature, these "melodharmas" provide audiences, theatre professionals and scholars with much that is essential theatre. Karnad's work should be required reading for students of the drama; his dramaturgy is rich and the beauty of his poetic dialogue shines here in his own translation. For example:

Yavakri: (to Vishakha, his cousin's wife) Ten years ago I had come to your house to bid you goodbye. And you led me quickly to the jack-fruit grove behind your house. You opened the knot of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2109
Print ISSN
0742-5457
Pages
pp. 383-386
Launched on MUSE
2002-09-01
Open Access
No
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