- The Act of Becoming: Actors Talk ed. by Amal Allana
This formidable volume edited by Amal Allana and published by the National School of Drama (NSD) in association with Niyogi Books covers the vast expanse of contemporary Indian theatre, “across a span of some 150 years” from the dawn of realism in the 1850s to the early 2000s (xviii). As if to represent the immense trajectory that she is covering, the editor includes a vast range of materials to weave the narrative of the act of becoming. For Allana, firsthand accounts from actors are the foundation for further scholarship on Indian theatre. The accounts collated in this volume, according to Allana, “carry the amazing, bristling energy of people who are in the ‘act’ of creating something, making history, so that the story of contemporary Indian theatre then is seen to be in a constant state of ‘becoming’” (xviii). Reflective essays, memoirs, autobiographical writings, interviews, and critical essays all find their place within the covers of this impressively designed and lavishly produced volume with its glossy pages and multiple reproductions of photos and paintings.
Allana attempts to elucidate the sociohistorical “imperatives that have driven and had a bearing on the contemporary theatre movement” (xvii). Focusing on actors, according to Allana, allows history to come alive, since the words of actors “are laden with layers of felt and lived experience” (xvii). Allana divides the volume into three sections: “Staging Desire,” “Staging the Nation,” and “Staging Hybridities.” These correspond with three of the most definitive moments in the history of modern Indian theatre: the introduction of European realism and the beginning of modern Indian theatre, the rise of communism and a people’s theatre movement immediately before and after Indian independence in 1947, and finally the consolidation of a contemporary Indian theatre. Each segment is preceded by an introductory chapter that explains the sociocultural and political climate of the time period. The depth of Allana’s research and her lucid writing style are clearly demonstrated in these introductory essays.
The first section celebrates the erstwhile greats of modern Indian theatre. Allana tells us that, “Theatre, like the newspaper, became a forum where controversial, social, and national issues of import could be played out in materialised form” during the middle of the 19th century after the British had consolidated their rule over much of the Indian subcontinent (11). The eclectic selection that follows introduces the reader to a variety of influences and styles, which resulted in the eventual hybrid modern Indian theatre.
The second section of the book, “Staging the Nation,” picks up the narrative of Indian theatre around and immediately after Indian independence. In the introduction to this section, Allana reminds us of the dominant trends in Indian performance: Rabindranath Tagore’s nritya natyas (dance-dramas) and the contemporary dance practice of Uday Shankar and his collaborator [End Page 162] Zohra Segal. Allana finds echoes of Tagore’s theatre work in Shankar’s contemporary dance practice, which strove “to create a new dance form that would draw substantially from Indian tradition, but one that would be modern in its sensibility and contemporary in its themes” (88). Allana also chronicles the foundation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the staging of IPTA’s iconic Nabanna (New Harvest) in 1944, and the play’s ability to effectively, “touch on an actual contemporary event” (89): the Bengal famine of 1943. Nabanna replaced the glitz and glamor of the royalty and gentry who populated the plays of the early 20th-century Bengali commercial theatre with the suffering, starving masses of rural areas, dressed in their everyday tattered clothing. The play showed the landed gentry for what it truly was — a class of ruthless oppressors — and exposed the public to the reality that the famine was orchestrated by an unholy collusion between the Indian landlords and the British government.
The third and final section of the book, “Staging Hybridities” is the tour de force unit of the volume. This period (1950 onwards) also...