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  • India's Theatrical Modernity:Re-Theorizing Colonial, Postcolonial, and Diasporic Formations
  • Aparna Dharwadker
The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta. By Sudipto Chatterjee. Calcutta, India: Seagull Books, 2007, distributed by University of Chicago Press; pp. 344.
Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage. By Erin B. Mee. Calcutta, India: Seagull Books, 2008, distributed by University of Chicago Press; pp. 432.
Modern Indian Theatre: A Reader. Edited by Nandi Bhatia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; pp. 528.
Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora. Edited by Neilesh Bose. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009; pp. 520.


As a "modern" institution shaped equally by European influences and indigenous circumstances, urban theatre first appeared in the colonial Indian cities of Calcutta and Bombay (now Kolkata and Mumbai) in the mid-nineteenth century, and has developed since independence into a complex, multilingual, national and postcolonial formation. However, to create "modern Indian theatre" as a field of study, or to define the qualities of modernity that might differentiate it from other periods in theatre history, has been a demanding critical task, because of anomalies in Western as well as Indian approaches to the subject and the problematization of the very idea of modernity in relation to Indian theatre and performance. Where Indian theatre is concerned, scholars and critics in the West have had a decided predilection for premodern cultural forms whose significant histories lie between 200 and 1700 ce, and that consequently predate the cultural interfusions of colonial and postcolonial modernity and modernization. From the late-eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, Orientalist criticism privileged classical Sanskrit literature over the postclassical vernacular traditions, and gave drama a preeminent position among Sanskrit genres, making Indian theatre virtually synonymous with the poetically exquisite "national theatre of the Hindus" exemplified by Kalidasa. In the later twentieth century, classical textuality as embodied in Sanskrit drama has ceased to be the primary locus of Indian theatre studies in the West, and the interest among anthropologists, historians of religion, area-studies scholars, and interculturalists has shifted to genres of premodern or nonmodern performance, such as Raslila, Ramlila, Kathakali and Nautanki. These new disciplinary perspectives are not concerned with theatre as a commercial urban institution, but with the place of performance within the ritualistic, religious, or social life of particular communities; concurrently, the artistic involvement with traditional Indian performance genres on the part of playwright-directors like Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba, and Richard [End Page 425] Schechner has had a transformative effect on Western intercultural theory and practice. Modern and contemporary urban Indian theatres, however, continue to be largely excluded from the circuits of Western scholarship and performance.

In Indian theatre criticism, modernity and the modern have proved to be problematic for other reasons. Even if we consider only the criticism written and published in English since the 1920s (which represents a small fraction of the total body of Indian criticism on drama, theatre, and performance), until quite recently, there has been no clear historicization or periodization of the modern, and very little discursive engagement with the paradoxes and ambivalences of Indian modernity across the colonial/postcolonial divide. The field of criticism has consisted mainly of "nationalist" theatre histories that seek to establish the antiquity, unity, and continuity of Indian theatre and performance traditions through broad chronological overviews, studies that focus on theatre in a single language and region, and collections that present "Indian theatre" as the simple sum of descriptive histories covering fourteen or sixteen major modern languages. All three models elide the historically unprecedented nature of the mid-nineteenth-century "modern revolution" in urban theatre, its unpredictable evolution under colonial and postcolonial conditions, and the connections it has generated across theatrically vital languages and regions over a century and a half. A fourth, overtly decolonizing strain in post-independence theory and criticism has characterized Westernized conventions of representation in urban theatre (especially the proscenium stage) as damaging colonialist legacies that must be countered through a return to pre-colonial, indigenous traditions of performance. Within these discursive polarities, definitions of theatrical modernity are usually under- or over-determined: they denote either a hazy set of qualities with uncertain historical coordinates or practices that must be...


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