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  • Reading against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics Entwined with a Buddhist Strain
  • Kathy Foley
Reading against the Orientalist Grain: Performance and Politics Entwined with a Buddhist Strain. By Syed Jamil Ahmed. Calcutta: Anderson House Publishing, 2008. 351 pp., 126 illus. Cloth.

This is an ambitious book that looks at selected Buddhist performance genres from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, Sikkim, and Sri Lanka. The work has the scope found in relatively few works of the contemporary period but that was more the norm when Fabion Bowers (Theatre in the East [New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1956]), James Brandon (Theatre in Southeast Asia [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967]), and others were establishing Asian theatre studies, introducing multiple theatre genres to an English readership in the post–World War II era. In that research, authors visited diverse countries and did not normally undertake language or performance training in the genre they discussed. By contrast, research in which the author is more narrowly focused and linguistically, culturally, or theatrically grounded is more the norm in the last decades. Yet Ahmed's culture-crossing text, which introduces forms barely mentioned in theatre literature, reminds me of the joy with which I read those earlier works, which made me realize how little I knew of the diversity of theatre. Broad sweeps have virtues of their own.

This text exposes the reader to underreported forms (in English) and describes clearly and specifically what is happening with them today. Because the author, a noted director, looks with the eyes of a theatre practitioner, he sees things that are often missing in reports that come from area studies scholars who often miss movement, spatial, or visual details as they focus on religion [End Page 179] or text. And Ahmed has done his homework. We get a good bibliography (albeit largely in the English language) as he draws from historians, anthropologists, and other scholars to give his own interpretations.

Ahmed usefully gives a sense of what the audience is doing as well as what is transpiring on the stage. Textual exegesis and history draw on local experts and performers the author interviewed. Ahmed's writing gives a good sense of these genres (largely from 2000–2007 performances). He places them in political and social histories, providing information on when the forms were originally generated, what changes they have experienced, and their present practice. Ahmed adds his own theoretical analysis (Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, Turner, Schechner, etc. are used) and gives interpretations of how the works correspond to or vary from Buddhist ideals. His writing shows a command of different Buddhist strains, from the Sahajayana tantrics of Bengali Buddhist history to contemporary Tibetan or Sri Lankan ideas. He writes from his perspective as a contemporary academic schooled in Western thought, but not subsumed by it. This makes the series of essays evocative and of interest to all academic readers. I did not always agree with the author, but continually found that his ideas pointed in important directions. He highlights ongoing dilemmas of ethnic tensions, gender dynamics, power differentials, and religious rivalries that infuse even the most seemingly enlightened forms.

The work covers some of the terrain that Kenneth George did in Buddhism as/in Performance (D. K. Printworld, New Delhi, 1999), but George looked more at the theory of Buddhist theatre from a religious studies stance, and this is more about performance practice on the ground and covers more genres in their actual social and political context. For theatre in the South Asian region this is an important resource.

In his introduction Ahmed states that his intention is to read the forms against traditional orientalist essentialism and, instead, to look for how the forms are used to support or promote political and social viewpoints. Ahmed, while sympathetic to Buddhist thought, often calls forms on supporting patriarchical and political constructs to serve certain groups (i.e., monks), ethnicities, or sects. Ahmed highlights performance as constructing an order, as well as reflecting it.

The first form he examines is the Indra Jatra festival in Nepal. He gives a clear breakdown of the eight-day event. He sees three separate strands: an Aryan harvest rite of Indian origin that confronts a...