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  • Indian Drama in English: The Beginnings ed. by Ananda Lal
  • Sukanya Chakrabarti
INDIAN DRAMA IN ENGLISH: THE BEGINNINGS. Edited by Ananda Lal. Kolkata: Jadavpur University Press, 2019. 243 pp. Hardcover, Rs. 450.00.

Ananda Lal's Indian Drama in English: The Beginnings fills a critical lacuna in the study of Indian theatre history while offering insights into the complexities and challenges of archiving book history in an Indian postcolonial context, as Lal notes the "absence of a culture of methodical library acquisition" (p. 9) in his introduction. Contrary to what a disorganized and sparsely recorded Indian theatre history had confirmed for so long, this meticulously researched anthology, [End Page 428] compiled, edited, and annotated by Lal, corrects some commonly held misconceptions, invalidating the erstwhile accepted theory that Indian theatre in English begins with the English translation of Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Bengali play Ekei ki bale sabhyata? (1871). As such, it is a key volume for scholars of South Asian Drama.

The book, divided into three parts, begins with a general introduction offering a detailed historical context as well as a rationale for the choice of the three plays in the anthology—The Persecuted (1831) by Krishna Mohana Banerjea, Rizia (1849) by Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and Kaminee (1874) by an anonymous playwright. Each play is preceded by an introduction, with an added note on the text, its discovery, and history of its publication. In addition, each section has an image of the title page from the original publication (in the case of The Persecuted and Kaminee) or from the original manuscript (in the case of Rizia). At the end of his general introduction, Lal argues for the need of reviving the three plays. "As a theatre director and theatre critic," he says, "I regard the three plays in this volume worthy of revival because of their content, so relevant to contemporary times. I can visualize them done either in academic antiquarian mode, replicating the social history of their context, or, more easily, edited and revised to suit current stage style and viewing expectations. That would be perhaps the most fitting tribute to these long-forgotten pioneers" (p. 13). Lal performs his own argument asserting the need to revive the three plays because of their relevance in contemporary times by activating and enlivening the long-forgotten and neglected play texts, participating in a bibliographic performance, engaging in a textual dialogue with the playwrights through footnotes, endnotes, punctuations, insertions, and asides. He, quite methodically, corrects typographical errors, transcription errors, adds explanatory notes, and provides accepted modernized spellings within parentheses.

The first play in the anthology, The Persecuted, is inspired by real events. Krishna Mohana Banerjea, deeply inspired by Henry Derozio, a teacher in Hindoo College (present-day Presidency University), was one of the members of the Young Bengal Movement, which was instrumental in raising questions around orthodox rules and rituals of Hinduism and the hypocrisy of upper-caste, exploitative Brahmins. In their display of vehement protest against Hindu prejudices, Banerjea and his friends met at the former's house, on 23 August 1831, to unabashedly consume beef, while throwing the remainder at their neighbor's house, loudly declaring "there is beef!" (p. 18). Consequently, he was evicted from his childhood home, and later when he took shelter in his friend's place, was uprooted again by anti-Banerjea protestors, until he found refuge in the home of the Scottish [End Page 429] missionary, Alexander Duff, who later in 1832, converted Banerjea to Christianity.

The Persecuted, which follows a similar plotline, does not end with any conversions, but the protagonist, Bany Lal, along with his friends and supporters, who identify as "devoted servant to the cause of truth and Hindoo reformation" (p. 69), pledge to hold their ground against orthodoxies of religious beliefs. The exploration of such themes has acquired immediate and compelling meaning in the context of the current politicization of beef-eating and the recent beef ban in India by the ruling government supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Sathyamala 2019: 879).

This section ends with "Notes and Illustrations" (p. 71) compiled by Banerjea himself. Besides explicit references to Shakespearean characters (p. 73), the play adopts a highly...