- The Performance of Nationalism: India, Pakistan, and the Memory of Partition by Jisha Menon
While scholars have written a number of thought-provoking texts on the partition of India and Pakistan and its continued effects on both the lives of individuals and the role of various group identities, Jisha Menon is the first to explicitly embrace performance studies as a methodological approach to the subject. Menon’s book elegantly executes a performative reading of various aesthetic “memories” of partition, focusing on “the affective and performative constitution of the Indian and Pakistani nation” and their continuing effects on the ways in which identities are discursively produced in modern South Asia (pp. 5–6). In particular, Menon intends The Performance of Nationalism to “recover mimetic modes of thinking to unsettle the reified categories of identitarian politics” (p. 6). This novel approach combines close readings of film, literature, theatre, political performance, and ritual. At times, the wide variety of materials the text draws upon comes off as a bit disjointed, but Menon’s pathbreaking methodological approach challenges the reader to consider the performative implications and connections of big and small actions across genres and mediums within nationalist South Asian milieux.
In her introduction, Menon situates The Performance of Nationalism in the larger discussion of Muslim, Hindu, and nationalist South Asian identity politics and the continued reperformance of these politics in the public sphere (both explicitly as history/politics and implicitly as aesthetics). Chapter 2, “Bordering on Drama: The Performance of Politics and the Politics of Performance,” turns to the dramatic performances of politicians around partition and to the Wagah border ceremony. Likening the first Pakistani governor-general Jinnah’s rhetoric to J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, Menon demonstrates the difference between what Jinnah’s words meant (that Muslims needed to be adequately represented in any new nation) and what they actually did (gave birth to the idea of what would become Pakistan). She then moves to a discussion of the nearly identical ceremony performed by Pakistanis and Indians on opposite sides of the Wagah border, invoking the idea of “mimetic relationality” to describe the almost-the-same-but-importantly-different performance of self that the guards on either side of the border offer for their audiences (p. 52).
Mimesis has been a popular concept in performance studies since the inception of the field. Analyses of mimesis tend to reference Plato and his distrust of the theatrical, since it is but an imperfect representation of the world of ideals (and thus a lie). Menon stretches this concept by introducing relationality, the idea that two separate mimetic performances might demonstrate “the doubleness at the heart of political subjectivity that is denied by the unifying discourses of civic and religious nationalism, and of abstract humanism” (p. 52). Mimetic relationality emphasizes the same imperfect reperformance of the ideal that Plato finds so distasteful while also recognizing the political potential inherent in that imperfection. [End Page 687]
Chapter 3, “Ghatak’s Cinema and the Discoherence of the Bengal Partition,” examines three films made by avant-garde Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak: Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), and Subarbareka (1965). Once again, Menon focuses her analysis on the notion of an imperfect mimesis, this time embodied in “twin-like orphans, a brother and a sister, tentatively holding hands” (p. 58). Throughout the chapter, she repeatedly unpacks the metaphor of nation as family/family as nation as it is portrayed in the three films with a particular focus on Ghatak’s Brechtian techniques and on the importance of gender in disrupting the ease of the metaphor. Chapters 4 and 5 address various literary and performance texts, from Nasir’s ghazals to Kirti Jain’s 2001 production of Aur Kitne Tukde. Chapter 6 follows Menon’s 2010 trip to Kashmir, employing an ethnographic methodology to describe bhand pather, a Kashmiri, Sufi, improvisational folk performance (p. 154).
Menon’s discussion of trauma theory and partition may be of particular interest to scholars who are facing the challenge of...