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Reviewed by:
  • Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader
  • Neilesh Bose
Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader. Edited by Nandi Bhatia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009. 496 pp. Cloth $50.00.

A large reference collection inclusive of an introductory essay, twenty-one academic essays, and nine primary source documents, Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader functions as the first collection that combines history, theory, and primary sources for the student of modern Indian theatre and performance. The book features essays from theatre practitioners, literary critics, and theatre historians, along with manifestos by theatre luminaries ranging from nineteenth-century stars like Rabindranath Tagore to contemporary practitioners and critics like Suresh Awasthi, Anuradha Kapur, and Ananda Lal. Regarding the contemporary period, its section on television and mass media places the book into the real world of Indian theatre practitioners, as opposed to the secluded world of performance and criticism of dramatic literature, usually the province of a small group of purists and scholars.

Modern Indian Theatre is an excellent addition to the general and regrettably undertheorized literature on modern Indian and South Asian theatre history. The professor of world theatre history will finally find an accessible yet specialized text for Indian theatre portions inclusive of primary and secondary sources. Graduate student theatre historians eager to delve into Indian theatre historiography will find this a useful reference that collects both essential primary sources and a few now classic analytical essays into one book.

This book is organized into five sections of academic essays and one section of primary source documents. The first section contains four essays that review the historiography of modern Indian theater, with a focus on nineteenth-and twentieth-century theater. Inclusive of scholars based in India such as Ananda Lal and US-based scholars like Aparna Dharwadker and Rakesh Solomon, this section provides a mix of descriptive review and criticism. Solomon’s essay “Towards a Genealogy of Indian Theatre Historiography” provides an overview of the field for the general reader, and Dharwadker’s “The Critique of Western Modernity in Post-Independence India” assesses for the specialist the place of tradition, nostalgia, and the distinction between print and performance in post-1947 theater history in India.

The second section, “Colonial Influences, Nationalist Self-Expression” includes four essays, by Jyotsna Singh, Sudipto Chatterjee, S. Theodore Baskaran, [End Page 592] and Malini Bhattacharya. Through a variety of important inquiries, this section gives the reader snapshot analyses of the major themes that have animated studies of colonial India. With analyses of Shakespeare in the colonial Indian theatre (Singh), nationalism among Bengali theater practitioners (Chatterjee), and nationalist theater in late colonial south India (Baskaran), and a sketch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Bhattacharya), a late colonial anti-imperialist theater and arts troupe that toured India during and immediately after World War II, this section provides a broad picture of colonial Indian theater history.

The remaining three sections of academic essays are organized around themes that showcase the diversity of theater practices as well as the diversity of topics pursued by scholars in the field. The third section, “Interrogating the Nation from the Margins,” features five essays about a variety of topics that challenge normative understandings of nationalism such as Parsi theater, Marathi theater, and the role of the devadasi (the practice of young girls “marrying” a deity, learning traditional dance traditions such as bharatanatyam, and entering into sexual liaisons with temple patrons) in Indian nationalist historiography. Other “margins” covered in this section include the theater of dalits (untouchables) in S. Armstrong’s “The Politics of Translating Indian Dalit Drama with Special Reference to Bali Adagal (Scapegoats).” The topic of who is included and excluded in constructions of Hindu communities features also in Vasudha Dalmia’s “I Am a Hindu: Assertions and Queries,” which details how Hindutva, or right-wing Hindu chauvinistic nationalism, has been dealt with by theater practitioners through a production of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic story Gora. This landmark 1910 novel by the Nobel laureate interrogated both the bigotry of caste Hindu ideologues as well as the arrogance of the reformist Brahmo Samaj in the early twentieth century. Dalmia’s essay investigates a 1991 adaptation of this novel transformed to speak to the rising...