- Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the 'Folk Performance' in India by Brahma Prakash
Brahma Prakash's book, Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the 'Folk Performance' in India, presents new conceptual frameworks that grapple with the complexities of "folk performance" in India. Against the classist and casteist proclivities that linger even in post-colonial Indian theatre scholarship, Prakash centers the cultural labor performed by bodies on the lower rungs of a casteist-feudal society. He argues that like the progressive Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA, 1943–1967) and the "theatre of roots" movement (late 1950s–), post-colonial Indian theatre scholarship has tended to capitalize the artistic and aesthetic value of "folk performances," often ignoring questions of caste and labor, invariably maligning these performing laboring bodies. Prakash gives focus to aesthetics and labor by bringing a performance studies analytic of landscape and memory, materiality, affect and viscerality, and performativity, to a wide range of performance practices. The book's ambitious scope spans bhuiyan puja or shamanistic land worship in Bihar, to Gaddar's political songs performed with Jana Natya Mandali, Telangana.
The work is admirable for its depth and breadth of fieldwork. The preface opens with Prakash recounting his memories of a deity's abode on the outskirts of his own village in Bihar under a peepal tree (pp. vii–viii). While on the surface evocative of early performance studies scholarship and intercultural experiments such as Peter Brook's "discovery" of ta'ziyeh from under a tree in a "remote Iranian village [and witnessing] one of the strongest things I have ever seen in theatre … the theatre form became truth" (Chelkowski 2005: 25–26), Prakash bristles against dehistoricized essentialism. Animating his personal memories and changing evaluations of what the village deity evokes over time, he jostles insider and outsider positionalities and weaves into his text archive, secondary sources, and ethnography. His accounts are textured, resisting the liberatory impulses that categorize early performance studies scholarship and move beyond simply valorizing a culture from below. The shamanistic figures evoked under the peepal tree both enslave and empower, subverting and/or conforming to the strictures on body, space, and movement in the caste-based societies in which they are situated.
Both the introduction and the first chapter on historiography offer an extensive (perhaps too much so, with the introduction running [End Page 604] at 60 pages) outline of the field of Indian "folk performance" and its methodological and conceptual shortcomings in neglecting social hierarchies of class, caste, and gender. As Prakash illustrates, the disassociation of culture from labor was pronounced with colonial modernity, heralding culture over menial work, colluding with caste anxieties that have longer genealogies. He retells the allegorical tale from the Natyashastra of the descent of drama from Heaven to Earth, when a group of performers caricaturing the sages were punished for not following moral and aesthetic prescriptions and were demoted to the worker caste category of Shudras. Prakash illustrates the persistence of these tropes; with Brahmanical purity held as canonical, while manual labor a disgrace. The abhorrence of the laboring body is given graphic description in a nineteenth-century review of an actor in Bengali jatra, wielding a broomstick: "their sooty complexions, their coal-black cheeks, their haggard eyes, their long-extended arms, their gaping mouths and their puerile attire, excite disgust" (p. 29, cited from Chatterjee 2007: 120). Prakash attempts to go beyond these representations, exploring the laboring body and its creative and productive processes in making and remaking culture.
The subsequent chapters are organized around key performance concepts, through contemporary case studies of cultural labor largely taken from the northern Indian state of Bihar. Chapter two, underscores the importance of landscape to folk performance, exploring how bhuiyan puja (land worship celebration), while often castigated as superstitious practice, transforms space into place. The next chapter engages case studies of bidesia (theatre of migrant workers) and its launda nach (dances of female impersonators), exploring the materiality and hybridity of the repertoire, which Prakash names an "aesthetics of defilement" working against puritanical strains of Brahmanical high...