- Diaspora, Nation, and the Failure of Home: Two Contemporary Indian Plays
Locating the Indian Theatre of Diaspora
We may speak metaphorically of the “drama of the diasporic” in the writing of displaced Indian authors, but in a literal sense the genres of drama and theatre are nearly absent from it. This is increasingly evident in the bibliographical and critical work that has begun to chart the field of diaspora literature. In his editor’s preface to Writers of the Indian Diaspora: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (1993), Emmanuel S. Nelson lists fiction, poetry, formal essay, travelogue, biography, and autobiography as the forms in which “the artists included in the study express themselves,” excluding theatre altogether. 1 Among the fifty-eight “representative” figures profiled in Nelson’s sourcebook, only two Indo-British authors—Hanif Kureishi and Farrukh Dhondy—have produced a recognizable body of plays for stage, radio, and television. Both, however, are better known for their work in other genres, and neither can be strongly associated with a “theatre of diaspora.” 2 In North America, anthologists and critics [End Page 71] have approached immigrant theatre through such categories as multiculturalism, ethnicity, diversity, and color, and in the resulting descriptions playwrights of Indian origin are either missing or eclipsed by their Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, and European counterparts. 3 When the focus is exclusively on writers of South Asian origin in a specific host country, the subordinate position of drama in relation to poetry, short fiction, and the novel becomes even clearer. 4 Jatinder Verma’s London-based Asian performance group, Tara Arts, and his directing work at the Royal National Theatre may well be the best examples of sustained work in the theatre by an immigrant Indian practitioner, though ironically Verma emigrated to England not from India but from the embattled Indian diaspora in East Africa.
Given the large scale of Indian emigration to Britain, North America, Australia, and West Asia since the 1960s, and the success with which authors of the new diaspora have practised the genres of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in English, the marginality of theatre to diasporic experience suggests a complicated relation between genre, language, and location. Major contemporary Indian playwrights and theatre directors have remained unusually resistant to the possibilities of departure, choosing instead to develop lifelong associations with particular Indian cities, theatre groups, and academic institutions. 5 Most of them write and direct plays not originally in English—which “travels” best by virtue of being both an Indian and a Western language—but in one or more indigenous languages that address local, regional, and national rather [End Page 72] than international audiences. 6 Over the past four decades, their practice has also followed a nationalist (though not necessarily a pro-nation) agenda, focusing on the invention of a characteristically “Indian” theatre that assimilates indigenous textual and performative traditions particular to various regions within the country while maintaining the qualities of modernity appropriate to a contemporary urban performance genre. Conversely, migrant authors appear to have chosen the privacy and relative self-sufficiency of print genres like fiction, non-fiction, and poetry over the complications of a collaborative, public, commercial, and performance-based medium like theatre. Theatre’s dependence on institutional networks and validating cultural contexts may in part explain why leading Indian practitioners have not identified with the diaspora, and why diaspora authors have only sporadically turned to theatrical genres. In the Indian case, the fundamentally double-edged experience of migrancy—with the loss and recovery of home as its central figures—may be easier to narrate than to perform.
However, the features of modern diaspora, mediated further in the case of India by a complex postcolonialism and a contested nationhood, suggest a need for rethinking the relation between diaspora and the postcolonial nation-state, which would also lead us to reconsider the sites of performance. The dialectic of “longing” and “belonging” which often defines diasporic relations misrepresents the experience of diaspora as well as the status of the nation-as-home. Peter van der Veer argues that “the theme of belonging opposes rootedness to uprootedness, establishment to marginality. The theme of longing harps on the desire for change and movement...