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  • Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage
  • Brahma Prakash
Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage. By Erin B. Mee. Calcutta: Seagull, 2008. 412 pp. Paper, Rs 495; hardcover, Rs 547.

In Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage, Erin B. Mee discusses a theatre movement that seeks to create a new Indian theatre by deriving inspiration from traditional roots. Suresh Awasthi (1918–2004), the general secretary of the Sangeet Natak Akademi1 and former chair of National School of Drama, Delhi, coined the term "theatre of roots" and advocated it against Western-inspired modern theatre in India (Awasthi 1989). In her book Mee has not only challenged critics like Aparna Dharwadker,2 who in Theatre of Independence (2005) attacked this movement as "anti-modern" (pp. 5, 198), but also criticizes such writers for being (literally) pro-Western. Mee's book offers [End Page 175] a detailed and at times persuasive argument, on the theatre of roots, a movement which began in the 1950s against the hegemony of Western-inspired modern theatre in India. She argues for the use of traditional forms as a major step toward decolonization of contemporary Indian theatre, but she ultimately falls short in articulating what is a large and ongoing debate regarding decoloniaization and neocolonial patterns in Indian theatre in more nuanced ways.

Mee has largely divided Indian theatre into two conspicuous categories: modern theatre inspired by the Western stage (with an emphasis on text and an exclusion of dance, music, and spectacle), and roots theatre inspired by the Sanskritic tradition. It should be noted that there is much theatre beyond these two categories, and this dichotomization is the major drawback of the text. Nonetheless Mee's work provides the best available account so far of the root movement and exhibits articulated scholarship, especially in the discussion of the work of K. N. Pannikar. But this contribution, while significant, may prove limited to sustain itself against the growing radicalism of postcolonial Indian theatre analysis because the book, with its use of these two categories, does not address the broad questions of inherent hierarchies prevalent in forms of caste, class, gender, ethnicities, and nationalities, which must be manifested in their interconnections. The book should, however, be read as a part of an ongoing debate on the theatre of roots movement.

Mee herself acknowledges some of the problems, especially in her discussion of Sangeet Natak Akademi and other state institutions, but at the same time she maintains that the roots movement has represented the single most significant attempt toward decolonization of the Indian stage. In her praising tone, Mee acclaims that this movement "challenged colonial culture by reclaiming the aesthetics of performance and by addressing the politics of aesthetics" (p. 5). With a clear synthesis, Mee explains the need for the movement, which emerged in response to Western-inspired modern theatre in India. In this context, she correctly argues that modern theatre not only was "developed as part of the colonial enterprise" (p. 2), but also initiated the commercial character of Indian performance, "turning theatre into a commodity rather than a community" (p. 2). But it would have been more appropriate if she had pointed out that the roots theatre is being developed as a part of the neocolonial enterprise.

Mee emphasizes the destruction of local forms that were influenced by Western theatre and its text-based phenomena, which repudiated the aesthetic tradition of the Natyashastra (p. 3). She feels that it was inevitable, in the process of decolonization, to return to that root of an indigenous, nonrealistic style of production that in turn could be defined as Indian theatre (p. 5). Refuting the "anti-modern" charges of Aparna Dharwadker, she vehemently argues that, in fact, this new form challenges acultural definitions of modernity that define modernity and theatre in and on Western terms (p. 5).

Mee uses three significant directors to characterize the movement: Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (b. 1928), who has used Kalaripayattu martial arts and Kathakali forms of Kerala; Girish Karnard (b. 1938), who uses history and mythology to present contemporary plays; and Ratan Thiyam (b. 1948), who is [End Page 176] well known for the use of Manipuri martial...