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  • Théâtre d’Asie à l’oeuvre. Circulation, Expression, Politique ed. by Hélène Bouvier, Gérard Toffin, and Gérard Toffin
  • Kathy Foley
Théâtre d’Asie à l’oeuvre. Circulation, Expression, Politique (Asian Theatre in Action: Circulation, Expression, Politics). Edited by Hélène Bouvier and Gérard Toffin. Étude thématiques 26. Paris: École française d’Extrême Orient, 2012. 255pp.

This volume is a collection of essays on Asian performance (South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and China) that gives access to contemporary scholarship by primarily Francophone scholars (one essay by Dutch scholar Victoria Clara van Groenendael is in English). English abstracts and biographies of contributors are included at the back of the volume. The papers were presented in 2007 at a colloquium at a conference sponsored by the CNRS in Villejuif. The editors, Hélène Bouvier and Gérard Toffin, strive to pull the disparate material together with a well-done introduction that gives a a brief overview and notes some of major issues, including the interrelationships of these theatres, the need to look at them as performance rather than text, cross-area movements (for example, how the Ramayana has been localized, religious links), political impacts, and contemporary changes. The authors are aware of Anglophone scholarship, but the work is also distinctive in that it reflects long-term trends in French research and intercultural concerns.

Taking geographical linkages as a structuring principle, the first essay, by Gérard Toffin, examines the Indra Jātra Festival of Kathmandu as a deriving its ideology from Indian patterns of performance linked to kingship. He shows how it served to bolster the now defunct Nepali royal family. As with Toffin’s 2012 Asian Theatre Journal publication, it opens up his careful, long-term research. Marianne Pasty’s article on mutiyēttu in South India is a well-developed case study of the earlier patronage of this little-documented trance [End Page 545] form of Kerala got from landowners. She notes the changes that the end of such funding under the Marxist government wrought, as troupes with ancestral links to certain shrines were no longer supported. The groups that survived had to appeal directly to audiences for support. Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy addresses the question of sources for the Tibetan ache lhamo. She sees significant Indian influences but rejects the contention by Rolf Stein (1987) that despite some Indian impact on structure, the overall style (songs, gestures, etc.) is more similar to Chinese opera (xiqu). Stéphanie Khoury gives good insight into lkhon khol in Tā Sgar village outside of Phnom Phen, Cambodia. She sees the performance—which tells how the giant Kumbakarna dams a river with his body, only to be routed by Hanuman—as a ceremony that brings blessings for the coming year and is a ritual freeing of water to flow. “Javanese Wayang and Foreign Influences” by Clara van Groenendael is an overview of the historical influences on Javanese wayang (indigenous, Hindu-Buddhist, Muslim, and Chinese). While the essay does not provide much new information, it does draw on the author’s lifelong research and is good at drawing diverse sources together; it also provides a useful bibliography. Michel Picard’s essay on how multiple languages from old Javanese to contemporary Balinese combine in Balinese performance is likewise more a synthesis of literature and his observations of viewing work than a presentation of new research. How multiple languages are fused in theatre, rather than theatre per se, is his topic. His discussion of the panasar (clown servants) and their ability to make the theatre always up to date and accessible through use of local and modern Balinese is valid. Bouvier’s essay on topeng dalang (mask theatre) in Madura is strong and compresses the history and current changes in the face of both Muslim fundamentalist attack and the loss of audience to modern media. She sees the ultimate impulse behind the theatre as propriation of ancestors with links to shamanism. She details the local Madurese veneration of the Baladewa character from the Mahabharata where this brother of Krisna (Krishna) is venerated. She reports on the discontinuation of performances at tombs due to pressure from contemporary Islam...


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