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Reviewed by:
  • Theatre in Colonial India: Play-House of Power
  • Arnab Banerji
Theatre in Colonial India: Play-House of Power. Edited by Lata Singh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009. 354 pp. Cloth $55.95.

This collection of essays edited by Lata Singh draws attention to pre-independence performance practices in colonial India. Despite occupying an important position in India since precolonial times, theatre suffers from a “general oversight” when it comes to serious academic engagements. Serious scholarship on the subject is a very recent phenomenon. This collection, as the editor claims and this reader agrees, is an important step toward creating a body of scholarly material on the subject. The volume is also significant because, unlike most available material, it focuses on the intimate link that theatre had with colonial history from nineteenth century to independence instead of the period following independence, which is better known.

The book is divided into two sections. The first, “Theatre: A Contested Site of Modernity and Appropriation,” talks about theatre being the significant hegemonic site for the emerging middle-class in India. It discusses middle-class appropriation from folk/popular culture and also the high culture/low culture classification propagated by this social group. The six essays in this section talk about newer trends in performance practices, which borrowed freely from both Western and indigenous forms. The essays also talk about the need of the middle class to define itself as a social group that had refined taste and was far removed from “obscene” and “vulgar” popular entertainment forms. Urmila Bhidirkar’s essay, “The Heroine’s Song in the Marathi Theatre between 1910 and 1920s: Its Code and Its Public,” talks about the tension between the need to create a respectable entertainment and the existing taste. This essay discusses the various modes of music that went into creating the music for the Marathi stage between 1910 and 1920 and traces the development of the Sangit Natak genre of Marathi theatre. Bhidirkar demonstrates how the use of classical music helped raise this genre from being regarded as a degenerative art form to a refined one.

The next essay, by Devajit Bandyopadhyay, addresses the role that music occupied in the nineteenth-century Bengali theatre. Bandyopadhyay divides his essay, “Theatre Songs: The Alter Ego of the Nineteenth Century [End Page 588] Bengali Stage,” into sections that resemble the structure of a nineteenth-century Bengali play. He talks about song as always having had a significant role to play in Bengali entertainment and how this trend continued with the development of the proscenium stage in the late eighteenth century. He cites specific examples from the early Bengali theatre to show that, while attempts at creating a theatre used the Western model, the aesthetic largely remained rooted in indigenous forms. Thus Bengali theatre from its very early days becomes a site for cross-cultural exchange and interaction.

The next essay, by Susan Seizer, details the history of the Special Drama of Tamil Nadu. The Special Drama derives its name from the fact that each actor or actress is hired “specially” for a performance, and this makes the popular theatre event a “special” one. Seizer traces the history of this genre of popular theatre in India from its beginnings in the late nineteenth century to its current status. She talks about the progression of the art form from a largely rural performance to an urban one and then the reversal or return to a middle ground referred to by A. K. Ramanujam as the “rurban.” This sparks a tension among senior male artists who fear that this shift will result in a loss of status and respectability for the art form. The fear that the introduction of women and rural performers within the performance leads to a consequent lack of discipline within the genre is also touched upon in the essay. Seizer contends that Special Drama today is a hybrid, rurban form of theatre that defies any straitjacketed definition. It thrives despite a largely dismissive hegemonic attitude about the genre and its artists.

Mangai and Arasu’s essay, “Ushering Changes: Constructing the History of Tamil Theatre during Colonial Times through Drama Notices,” discusses an alternate approach to understanding the...