- Islam in Performance: Contemporary Plays From South Asia ed. by Ashis Sengupta
Readers are likely to come to this edited volume of plays with diverse expectations that mirror the myriad and complex ways that Islam is performed in South Asia. "Islam in Performance" might evoke anything from performances of Islamic rituals (e.g., Metcalf 2009; Boivin and Delage 2016), creative recycling of Islamic material, to political uses of the religion. Sengupta's focus is clearly the latter, offering six contemporary plays from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan that offer commentary on the political—and often toxic—performances of religion (Islam and Hindu) in the region since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Like his last edited book, Mapping South Asia through Contemporary Theatre (2014), Sengupta embarks on an important and under-charted dialogue between the region's diverse contemporary theatres. Offering (mostly) first-time [End Page 250] English translations, largely from Bengali and Urdu writers, certainly fills a vacuum in world theatre scholarship, particularly considering the dearth of published translations from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Undoubtedly, as Sengupta notes, with the increased discourse on Islam, this collection's attempt to trace out the intersecting religio-political frames around "the Muslim subject" in the region is timely.
Sengupta's introduction to the volume offers an informative mapping of political Islam in the region, largely bound up in the divisive religious ideologies of colonial modernity and nationalist projects, leading to and following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. In short overviews of the three countries, he hinges religious-political analysis to theatre history, referencing a range of plays and performances that, for the most part, successfully expand the reader's purview. These works range from Maya Rao's A Deeper Fried Jam (2002) that criticizes violence against Indian Muslims in the Gujarat Carnage of 2002, to Jamil Ahmed's Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Grief, 1991), an adaptation of Mir Mosharraf Hossain's nineteenth-century novel that draws upon Shia Muharram narratives of Karbala to challenge the rising tide of Islamism in Bangladesh. Some of these essays are more developed than others (the Pakistani section, for example, only references two theatre companies)—and the focus remains largely on political theatre by groups working in theatre for development, agitprop, and community theatre, as opposed to mainstream and populist theatre endeavors. The introduction ends with summaries of each play in the collection: these notes are particularly useful in outlining performance histories. What is missing are further details on the writers themselves; biographies are provided at the end of the compilation, but some are more sketchily delivered than others. While understandably outside of the scope of the present project, and recognizing that many of these plays have been performed on multiple occasions, considering the developmental economies in which many alternative South Asian theatre groups are imbricated, I wished for details of how these plays have been funded. In turn, this may lend insights into projects of global governance behind these plays, which on the whole engage in performances of secularism.
The plays themselves draw upon a range of political epochs and exemplify a range of styles. Syed Shamsul Haq's 1976 Bengali verse play Payer Awaj Pawa Jai (At the Sound of Marching Feet, trans. by the author) is set amidst the brutal genocide and rapes carried out by the Pakistani forces during Bangladesh's war of liberation (1971). A group of villagers seeking protection of their Headman against approaching partisan forces, finally lose faith in this leader, whose beguiling use of religious rhetoric proves as slippery as his relationship with the [End Page 251] Pakistani army. Another play from Bangladesh is Masum Reza's Araj Charitamriti (Life of Araj, 2012, trans. from Bengali by Bina Biswas and Sayantan Gupta), which draws upon the biography of the philosopher, Aroj Ali Matubbor (1900–1985). Alternating between the narration of a sutradhar (director) character, a live chorus, and first person enactment, the play tells the story of the poverty stricken Araj's growth from a boy who...