Contesting capital: A history of political theatre in postcolonial Delhi
Table of Contents ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS v ABSTRACT ix LIST OF FIGURES xiv LIST OF APPENDICES xvi INTRODUCTION: CONTESTING CAPITAL: A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THEATRE IN POSTCOLONIAL DELHI 1 Political Performance: Preliminary Functions 3 Towards a People’s Culture 7 Political Theatre in the European Intebellum 12 Indian Theatre Since Independence: the Politics of Nation 32 Contesting Capital: A Brief History of Delhi 52 CAPITAL CHALLENGES: PROGRESSIVE CULTURE AND THE DELHI IPTA 78 History of the all India IPTA 81 Delhi IPTA: The Early Years 109 The Echoes of Revolutionary Song 122 IPTA Delhi post 1957 Conference 131 THE (IM)POSSIBILITIES OF A HINDUSTANI NATIONAL THEATRE 145 The Limits of National Theatre 148 Habib Tanvir: Towards a ‘New’ Theatre 161 Reimagining Urdu in Islamic Education 165 “Agra Bazaar” 171
Oral Narratives and Alternative National Histories 194 The Possibility of a Hindustani Theatre 201 REFLECTED RADICALISM: THE DIASPORIC BENGALI THEATRE OF DELHI 220 Marginal Minority: Bengali’s in Delhi 222 Maoist Persuasions and the Ferment in Bengal 234 Remembering the Revolution 242 The Politics of Diasporic Drama 261 VIOLATING PERFORMANCE: WOMEN, LAW AND THE STATE OF EXCEPTION 270 The Women’s Movement: A Question of Naming 271 Women’s Political Performance: Two Models 276 “Om Svaha” 281 “Main Hoon Ladki Kuwari” 299 “Sati” 308 Violating Performance 319 Legal Performance – Aspirations, Contradictions, Achievements 322 SAFDAR HASHMI: REMEMBRANCE, REPRESENTATION AND REVOLUTION 334 A Brief Biography 341 Jana Natya Manch: The Early Years 346 Street Theatre and the Experiments with Theatrical Form 356 The Intellectual Performs 372 PERSISTENT POLITICS: JANA NATYA MANCH AND THE IDEOLOGY OF PRAXIS 376 The Personal is Political: A Brief Memoir 376 “Artanaad (Anguished Scream/Cry)” 403 Committed to Play 421
Conclusion 437 APPENDICES 439 BIBLIOGRAPHY 461
List of Figures F IGURE 1: M EMBERS OF SAHMAT IN 1989, S OURCE : SAHMAT 1989: 45 67 F IGURE 2: S ECOND IPTA N ATIONAL C ONFERENCE IN A HMEDABAD , D ECEMBER 1947. A RTISTS FROM DIFFERENT REGIONS IN A PEACE MARCH . R EKHA J AIN HOLDS THE FLAG ON TOP OF THE TRUCK . C OURTESY N ATRANG P RATISHTHAN A RCHIVES , N EW D ELHI 84 F IGURE 3: U NITY D ECEMBER 1951. C OURTESY A NAND G UPTA 91 F IGURE 4: T WO ILLUSTRATIONS ENTITLED "D ANCE " BY C HITTOPRASAD . C OURTESY A NAND G UPTA 104 F IGURE 5: CW FROM TOP LEFT : U NITY J UNE 1951, U NITY M AY ‐J UNE 1953, U NITY J ULY 1953, U NITY D ECEMBER 1953. C OURTESY A NAND G UPTA 107 F IGURE 6: S ONG "D ANKA B AJE " ("T HE D RUM B EATS ) FROM S ARLA S HARMA ’ S NOTEBOOK , DATED J ULY 4, 1945. T HE IMAGE , BY C HITTOPRASAD , WAS INSPIRED BY THE SONG AND BECAME THE LOGO FOR IPTA. N OTEBOOK COURTESY S ARLA S HARMA , IMAGE COURTESY A NAND G UPTA 127 F IGURE 7: IPTA 1958 C ONFERENCE P ROGRAM . C OURTESY A NAND G UPTA 138 F IGURE 8: N EHRU ' S MESSAGE AT 1958 C ONFERENCE . S OURCE IPTA' S G OLDEN J UBILEE B ROCHURE , 1994. C OURTESY A NAND G UPTA . 140 F IGURE 9: T HE S HAYAR AND T AZKIRANAWIS OUTSIDE THE K ITABWALLA ’ S SHOP , A GRA B AZAAR , PERFORMANCE DATE UNKNOWN . C OURTESY N ATRANG P RATISHTHAN A RCHIVES , N EW D ELHI 175 F IGURE 10: T HE K AKRIWALLA AND THE T ARBOOZWALLA , A GRA B AZAAR , PERFORMANCE DATE UNKNOWN , BUT OF A MORE RECENT SHOW . T HESE ARE N AYA T HEATRE ACTORS AND THE ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPH IS IN COLOR . . C HAITRAM AS KAKRIWALLA (R). C OURTESY N ATRANG P RATISHTHAN A RCHIVES , N EW D ELHI 176 F IGURE 11: S PLIT STAGE , K OLKATA SKYLINE , AND MOVIE AND POLITICAL POSTERS . A MRA K OLKATA 1971. C OURTESY D ILIP B ASU 250 F IGURE 12: M ORNING SCENE IN K OLKATA . A MRA K OLKATA 1971. C OURTESY D ILIP B ASU 250 F IGURE 13: T RADERS IN K OLKATA . A MRA K OLKATA 1971. C OURTESY D ILIP B ASU 251 F IGURE 14: P OSTER TEARING SCENE . A MRA K OLKATA 1971. C OURTESY D ILIP B ASU 251 F IGURE 15: C ENTRE : A NURADHA K APUR , O M S VAHA , CA .1980. C OURTESY M AYA R AO , P HOTOGRAPHER D ILIP V ARMA 290 F IGURE 16: O M S VAHA , CA .1980. C OURTESY M AYA R AO , P HOTOGRAPHER D ILIP V ARMA 290 F IGURE 17: C ENTRE : M AYA R AO , F AR R IGHT : A NURADHA K APUR , O M S VAHA , CA .1980. C OURTESY M AYA R AO , P HOTOGRAPHER D ILIP V ARMA 291 F IGURE 18: L TO R : U RVASHI B UTALIA , M AYA R AO , A NURADHA K APUR , O M S VAHA , CA .1980. C OURTESY M AYA R AO , P HOTOGRAPHER D ILIP V ARMA 292
F IGURE 19: U RVASHI B UTALIA (L) AND M AYA R AO (R), O M S VAHA , CA .1980. C OURTESY M AYA R AO , P HOTOGRAPHER D ILIP V ARMA 293 F IGURE 20: P OSTERS MADE IN REACTION TO S AFDAR H ASHMI ' S DEATH , CA . 1989. C OURTESY : SAHMAT 339 F IGURE 21: S AFDAR H ASHMNI ’ S OWN ARTWORK . C OURTESY : SAHMAT 340 F IGURE 22:
(L TO R):
R AKESH S AXENA ,
S HEHLA H ASHMI , AND D EBU C HAKRAVARTY ,
B HARAT B HAGYA V IDHATA ,
C OURTESY :
S HEHLA H ASHMI G REWAL 350 F IGURE 23: (L TO R):
S HEHLA H ASHMI ,
R AKESH S AXENA , AND S UHAIL J AFRI ,
B HARAT B HAGYA V IDHATA ,
C OURTESY :
S HEHLA H ASHMI G REWAL 350 F IGURE 24: (L TO R):
S HEHLA H ASHMI , AND S UBHASH T YAGI ,
B HARAT B HAGYA V IDHATA ,
C OURTESY S HEHLA H ASHMI G REWAL 351 F IGURE 25: (L TO R):
U DAY C HATTERJEE ,
R AKESH S AXENA ,
S HEHLA H ASHMI ,
K AJAL D AS ,
N ARESH ,
S UBHASH T YAGI , AND S AFDAR H ASHMI ,
B HARAT B HAGYA V IDHATA ,
C OURTESY S HEHLA H ASHMI G REWAL 351 F IGURE 26: B AKRI , 1974. C OURTESY S HEHLA H ASHMI G REWAL 352 F IGURE 27: M ACHINE , FIRST SHOW , O CTOBER 14, 1979. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 367 F IGURE 28: M ACHINE , CA . 2000. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 367 F IGURE 29: DTC KI D HANDLI , CA . 1980. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 368 F IGURE 30: C ENTRE : M OLOYASHREE H ASHMI , A URAT , CA . 1980. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 368 F IGURE 31: L ATHI CHARGE , A URAT , CA . 1980. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 369 F IGURE 32: C ENTRE : M OLOYASHREE H ASHMI , A URAT , CA . 2000. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 370 F IGURE 33: M OLOYASHREE H ASHMI WITH FLAG , A URAT , CA . 2000. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 370 F IGURE 34: S AFDAR H ASHMI IN M ACHINE , 1988. P HOTOGRAPHER : E UGENE V AN E RVEN . C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH 371 F IGURE 35: O PENING POEM , THREE MASKS , A RTANAAD , CA 1997. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 407 F IGURE 36: D UPPATTAS IN THE AIR AT THE END OF OPENING POEM , A RTANAAD , CA 1997. C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 408 F IGURE 37: V ARIOUS SPACES AND AUDIENCE CONFIGURATIONS FOR J ANAM SHOWS . C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 427 F IGURE 38: V ARIOUS SPACES AND AUDIENCE CONFIGURATIONS FOR J ANAM SHOWS . C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 427 F IGURE 39: J ANAM PERFORMERS ON A STAGE MADE WITH CAMEL CARTS PUSHED TOGETHER . C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 428 F IGURE 40: J ANAM PERFORMERS IN J HANDAPUR , THE AREA WHERE S AFDAR H ASHMI AND THE REST OF THE TROUPE WERE ATTACKED . C OURTESY : J ANA N ATYA M ANCH . 428
List of Appendices APPENDIX I: LIST OF IPTA PRODUCTIONS 439 APPENDIX II: LIST OF PLAYS DIRECTED BY HABIB TANVIR 448 APPENDIX III: SONGS OF THEATRE UNION 455 APPENDIX IV: JANA NATYA MANCH 458
Introduction: Contesting Capital: A History of Political Theatre in Postcolonial Delhi The following pages can often read like a study in contrasts – singing troupes to dialogic theatre of ideas, productions with casts of twenty or thirty people to theatrical sketches with four or five actors, open‐air performance on hastily erected platforms to intimate basement theatre, carefully scripted drama with meticulous scores to improvised agitational propaganda pieces. One finds all these and more in a history of political theatre in postcolonial Delhi. How do we then study and make sense of a field as vastly variegated as this? What methods do we apply to tracing this history? And does Delhi, a capital city exponentially expanding under the flows of transnational trade even lend itself to such a study? At each step of this dissertation I have had to ask these questions of myself and my material. Yet it is precisely the analytical promise held out by the lens of political performance that has propelled me to persist in my study. Performance is a direct, embodied and interactive way of people relating to each other. The inhabitants of a city make sense, use and changes in their shared habitus through cultural practice. We come closer, as scholars and as citizens, to understanding the experiential realities of our everyday lives by
paying close critical attention to the strategies of entertainment and edification people regularly employ. Delhi, as the capital city of sovereign India, is embedded in concentric circles of international, national and local power, each exerting its particular demands and stresses on its constituencies. In Contesting Capital I examine the intersections and elisions between these force fields through detailing the interaction between theatre and organized politics. I look at the strategies people have adopted in the decades since Independence from British colonial rule in 1947, to negotiate for themselves, under increasing duress, the space for dissent. I trace not only the history of contestatory politics in the nation’s capital but also the ways in which its citizenry has resisted the onslaught of unregulated colonial and corporate capital to argue for a more democratic and equitable environment. Whether it is the Indian People’s Theatre Association in the 1940s or the women’s movement of the 1980s, large‐scale mass mobilization has often characterized and incubated the most potent political theatre. Sometimes painstaking experimentation over several decades of continual participation in the theatre, as in the cases of Habib Tanvir and Jana Natya Manch, has lead to the refinement of a radical aesthetic. Violence, as direct bodily attack on political performers such as Safdar Hashmi, and as ideological maneuvering by diasporic Bengali drama committed to an ultra Left ideology, has impinged on the discourse of radical theatre to highlight its
material and metaphysical stakes. I provide a more detailed account of the specific instances of political theatre discussed in the chapters of my dissertation at the end of this Introduction. I start here with the various contexts – international, national and local – under which such performances occur. Political Performance: Preliminary Functions This dissertation is an examination of what it means to be political at different moments in time under different configurations of power. Through the course of this entire project, and most persistently during my fieldwork interviews with theatre workers, I was asked to clarify what I meant by political performance. In the field, still in the preliminary stages of information gathering I responded by turning the question around to the interviewee – “What do you think is political?” Many of the responses I received, some as tentative definitions and others as illustrations from their own work, are recounted in the chapters that follow. Here I offer some characteristics of political theatre in conventional wisdom; preliminary premises which will be tried, tested and ultimately extended through the course of this dissertation. The constituent feature of political theatre, most hold, is its belief in class‐based society. Material distinctions between different strata are the organizing mechanism of civil society, whereby the class that controls the
means of production – material, moral, intellectual – seeks to dominate the class that is engaged in the everyday acts of production. This definition works not only for the traditional Marxist classification between the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat of peasants and workers, but also, apace with historically changing configurations of political society, between patriarchy and feminist organizations, agents of globalization and survivors of local industry, producers of homogenized Culture and practitioners of indigenous idioms; indeed any configuration of power whereby a group of people systemically suppresses another. Theatre of a political nature relates to its material conditions of production as much as it does to its metaphysical orientation. It is non‐state‐ sponsored theatre. By this is meant both governmental agencies that represent institutional rule and also corporations that have increasing become brokers of power in a globalized world. Ideological opposition to such sources of funding has lead political theatre to tailor its productions to its limited means. This has inevitably meant paring down theatre paraphernalia to focus increasingly on the actors and the words they speak. The spectator is directly addressed, either in the course of the dialogue or through dramaturgical devices such as songs or asides. The fourth wall does not exist in political theatre. This has also meant, particularly in the Indian context, that political theatre is an amateur theatre. They may possess and display professional levels of skill in the theatre, but rarely are they sustained by it. Political theatre has also not resorted to
buttressing its limited financial resources through hefty ticket sales. An ethos of accessibility characterizes all political performance. Whether literally performed in an open space, or metaphorically free through low or no cost tickets, such theatre functions on the premise that anyone can see it should they want to. Political theatre is a specialized and extreme case of performance which functions only through calling attention to its own performativity. Richard Schechner famously described the term thus, “Performance means: never for the first time. It means: for the second to the nth time. Performance is ‘twice‐ behaved behavior (Schechner 1985: 36).’” Political theatre is never the original, which exists only in the realm of class relations, but always a representation. As such it itself becomes a rehearsal for action to be realized by the spectators who are urged to become actors in their own social dramas in the real world. To this end political theatre embraces and manipulates its own disappearance, which Peggy Phelan seminally posited as the ontology of performance, 1 to its own advantage. The performance is per force ephemeral; it must end or disappear for its purpose to be realized. The play gets erased from the realm of the metaphysical to become materialized in the audience. A successful play ensures its own longevity in the minds of its viewers. But the audience does not bear the entire burden of its existence. Even if no follow‐up action were to come out of it 1 “Performance’s only life is in the present… Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance (Phelan 1993: 146).”
or no concrete change in material circumstance provoked, political theatre itself is an intervention in a socio‐political field. Its very enunciation constitutes its doing, and in this regard it becomes a prime example of what J.L. Austin terms the performative utterance. 1 The study of political theatre owes as much to the insights offered by performance theory as it does to conventional political theory. Proceeding from the formulation expressed above, political theatre first and foremost aims at exposing the functionings of class domination. It always adopts the approach of historical materialism as its dramaturgical technique, to lay bare the constructed, impermanent and therefore changeable structures of human society. 2 Political theatre ascribes to a collective rather than an individualistic conception of human history. The relations between social classes can only be changed if people of the suppressed classes band together. To this end political 1 “The term performative…indicates the issuing of an utterance is the performing of an action – it is not normally thought of as just saying something (Austin 1962, 1999: 6-7).” 2 While Marx himself never used the terms historical materialism, they are widely attributed to him based on his urgings to develop a historically informed mode of cultural criticism and knowledge creation. For example in his discussion on the evolution and appeal of machinery in capitalist society, Marx writes in Capital, Volume I: A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual. As yet such a book does not exist […] Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations… the weakness of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty (Marx 1976: 493-94, footnote 4).
theatre prods its audience to action, as they themselves are the agents of change. These practices ascribe the capacity for political action to the people, even if sometimes being guilty of subscribing to somewhat idealized notions of the masses. Towards a People’s Culture Political performers demonstrate perfectly what Homi Bhabha describes as the dual nature of the people of a nation, for, “the subject of cultural discourse – the agency of a people – is split in the discursive ambivalence that emerges in the contestation of narrative authority between the pedagogical and the performative (Bhaba 1990: 299).” ‘The people’ emerges as a category that must be depicted and at the same time brought to certain realizations. In the postcolonial situation, the need to think and act politically is especially urgent and political performance activates these constitutive characteristics of once colonized man. In this regard Franz Fanon’s formulation that, “the colonized, underdeveloped man is today a political creature in the most global sense of the term, (Fanon 1961, 2004: 40)” has lost none of its relevance in the near half‐ century since he wrote it. Indeed each successive generation makes the imaginative and cognitive leap to define for itself a political function in tune with its present circumstance. Fanon wrote from the very specific historico‐ political context of his involvement with the Front de Liberacion Nationale
(FLN) in the Algerian resistance to French national policy in the late 1950s‐ early 60s. But since then the postcolonial nations of Asia, Africa and South America have come a long way. Have they really or have old conflicts been recast in new clothes? Bhabha traces the ways in which the starkly split colonial world Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth has been overwritten by the even greater Manichaean divide in income distribution in a globalized economy and says of the philosopher‐psychiatrist’s continued relevance, “Fanon’s vision of the global future, post colonialism and after decolonization, is an ethical and political project – yes, a plan of action as well as a projected aspiration (emphasis in original, Bhaba in Fanon 1961, 2004: xvi).” This “project of futurity” is one that Fanon himself outlined, though he never fully detailed it: The basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anticolonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be (Fanon 1961, 2004: 55). Material transformation in the relations of production is the ultimate goal of political production. But a complete rehauling of the socio‐political system, while a much‐believed in ideology, is usually a distant possibility. It is the task of political performers to bring it closer to reality. It would be naïve to suggest that political performance alone can bring about revolution. Performances work through and in conjunction with larger political movements, and much of their relevance and efficacy is derived from the strength of these broader
movements. But the power of performance is attested by the increasing importance and scrutiny given to cultural work by political theorists, a discipline that has traditionally been dominated by its attention to political economy alone. Antonio Gramsci is by far the most influential of these Marxist cultural theorists. He was the first to articulate cultural work as operating in the plane of ‘molecular’ changes in civil society that continually shift the hegemonic lines of power. In his estimation, one group establishes and maintains control over another not only through the exercise of political power, but also through the imperceptible forces of cultural hegemony. For a political party to come into power, and for that matter for social revolution to happen, there must first be hegemonic activity that establishes the need and means for change in the minds of the suppressed classes. Put simply, cultural work, in our case political theatre, is a project of raising the consciousness of the masses, “the realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge (Gramsci 1971, 2003: 365).” Fundamental to this understanding of hegemony and the use of cultural tools to influence its shifting lines, is the belief that an individual’s conscious ideology might not be consonant with her social standing since the dominance of a social class over another is ensured through the victory of their ideology. It becomes the task of political and cultural vanguards to free the proletariat from
this “false” or “dual” consciousness and bring them closer to revolutionary consciousness. This notion of Gramscian hegemony enables us to dwell on the socio‐cultural specificities of a given political moment, for it is always an examination of where and how the lines of hegemony are maintained in that historical instance. In Marxist philosophy individual consciousness after all is not static, constant nor innate. Gramsci expresses this thus: If man is defined as an individual, psychologically and speculatively, these problems of progress and becoming are insoluble or remain purely verbal. But if man is conceived as the ensemble of social relations, it then appears that every comparison between men, over time is impossible, because one is dealing with different, if not heterogeneous, objects. Moreover, since man is also the ensemble of his conditions of life, one can provide a quantitative measurement of the difference between the past and the present, since one can measure the extent to which man dominates nature and chance (emphasis in original, ibid: 359-60). Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu takes this relational conception of man further, compellingly arguing that works of art are also embedded in a field of power relations. For him, “the essential explanation of each work lies outside of each of them in the objective relations which constitute this field. The task is that of constructing the space of positions and the space of position‐taking … the literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles (emphasis in original, Bourdieu 1993: 30).” What is at stake in these struggles is the fight to establish the “dominant definition (ibid: 42)”of a work of art, which in the case of artists and the representatives of authority they oppose means two conflicting world‐views. Gramsci expresses this same battle over
definitions as, “the diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their ‘socialization’ as it were, and even making them the basis of vital action (Gramsci 1971, 2003: 325).” Dealing in truth must of course be treated with Foucouldian caution. Political theatre balks at universal assertions and deals instead with the specifics of a historical situation. Audiences are encouraged to think not in terms of replacing one truth with another, but rather to question the basis of what they perceive to be true. Effective political theatre aims in instilling a spirit of critical inquiry about the truth. Foucault urges us to remember that after all “truth isn’t outside power or lacking in power (Foucault 1994: 131),” but rather constituted by regimes of power. He explains further: In societies like ours, the “political economy” of truth is characterized by five important traits. “Truth” is centred on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions that produce it; it is subject to constant economic and political incitement (the demand for truth, as much for economic productions as for political power); it is the object, under diverse forms, of immense diffusion and consumption (circulating through apparatuses of education and information whose extent is relatively broad in the social body, notwithstanding certain strict limitations); it is produced and transmitted under the control, dominant if not exclusive, of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media); finally it is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontations (“ideological” struggles) (Foucault 1994: 131). For Foucault, 1 as for Gramsci, it becomes the task of the intellectual to work to explore and expose these regimes of power and their truth producing 1 Foucault writes of the position and work of the intellectual in relation to his social class larger society as such:
mechanisms to their constituencies, that is the general public of the socio‐ political class they belong to. Political Theatre in the European Intebellum Political theatre practitioners are therefore always engaged in trying to challenge the status quo, change the lines of hegemony, mark gains for left ideology in the general populace, and work to exposing the constructed nature of social truths for their audiences. Various artists and their methodologies have met with varying degrees of success. Many contemporary theorists and practitioners are discussed in the various chapters of this dissertation for the comparative models they provide for the concomitant development of Indian performance. I speak of Ngugi wa’Thiongo’s experiences with the Kenyan National Theatre and his Kamiriithu collective in relation to the theatre of Habib Tanvir in Chapter 2, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the Chapter 3 on diasporic Bengali theatre and Augusto Boal and his models for The intellectual has a threefold specificity: that of his class position (whether as petty bourgeois in the service of capitalism or “organic” intellectual of the proletariat); that of his conditions of life and work, linked to his condition as an intellectual (his field of research, his place in a laboratory, the political and economic demands to which he submits or gainst which he rebels, in the university, the hospital and so on); finally, the specificity of the politics of truth in our societies. And it is with this last factor that his position can take on general significance, and that of his local, specific struggle can have effects and implications that are not simply professional or sectoral. The intellectual can operate and struggle at the general level of that regime of truth so essential to the structure and functioning of our society (Foucault 1994: 131).
forum and legislative theatre in Chapter 4 on the theatre of the women’s movement. My focus in this Introduction is different. I wish to set the stage for the development of political theatre in India after national Independence in 1947 and therefore offer selection here of political cultural theory that precedes it. How do political artists in India interact, complicate and adapt the Western canon of radical performance? A discussion of specifically European theorists and practitioners also allows us to be more attentive to the postcolonial interventions of Indian political theatre. I discuss three key practitioners of political theatre in the twentieth century, who through their own sustained practice, have significantly altered and impacted the ways we think about the relation between aesthetics and politics. Roughly contemporaries who redefined the parameters of modern political theatre, I speak of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874‐1940), Erwin Piscator (1893‐ 1966), and Bertolt Brecht (1898‐1956). A majority of their important works occurs after the First World War up until immediately after the Second World War in the context of the left cultural movement in their home countries and abroad. They were each outspoken and articulate about their own theatre practice and soon news of their innovations spread through the networks of the international left movement. In the 1920s and 1930s, under the backdrop of the newly constituted Communist Party in India such debates on the utility of aesthetics in social revolution were particularly urgent. Accounts of the works
of Meyerhold, Piscator and Brecht started reaching India through the conduits of the Comintern, or the Third Communist International, to which India sent its representatives starting in 1927. At this moment, before Indian independence, the promise of the Indian Left, oriented toward the Soviet Union, coming into power was far more real than the state sponsored soft socialism Jawaharlal Nehru pushed for during his tenure as the first Indian Prime (1937‐64). The Second World War fundamentally altered the balance of power for the International Communists with the Comintern dissolving in 1935. So in a sense wide‐spread influence of the Communists and its corollary Marxist cultural theory was at its height in the interbellum period. Vsevolod Meyerhold crafted large‐scale productions working closely with playwrights such as Vladimir Mayakovsky. Erwin Piscator created short agitprop pieces for the proletariat and started an epic theatre that utilized multimedia to create a composite language for the theatre. Bertolt Brecht wrote his own plays and worked with a fixed ensemble of actors, theorizing extensively on the relation between the popular and the pedagogic. These three directors devised and elaborated on specific techniques and approaches to text, actor and audience. Their theatres offer different models of political theatre, each a specific equation and resolution of the relation between politics and aesthetics, which were successful in their own time. Yet Meyerhold, Piscator, and Brecht had anything but an easy or undisputed success precisely because of
their complex relation to organized political institutions; all three having been imprisoned, exiled or having sought asylum at some time. In this regard they embody, in their lives and their careers, the stakes of political theatre in both ideological and corporeal terms. Vsevolod Meyerhold was an actor at the Moscow Art Theatre started by Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski from 1898‐1902 and left to start his career as a director, first in the provinces and then later in Moscow. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1918 and Party leadership commissioned him to mount a production for the first anniversary of the October Revolution that same year. Meyerhold chose Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe and in some ways the troubled production history of Mystery Buoffe is emblematic of Meyerhold’s own troubled relationship with the Bolsheviks, which ended with torture, the murder of his wife, and death by facing the firing squad of Stalinist Russia in 1940. Edward Braun, theatre scholar and Meyerhold historian, writes of the production: In September 1918 plans were made to stage the first-ever Soviet play, Mayakovsky’s Mystery Buoffe, to mark the first anniversary of the October Revolution. It was to be produced by Meyerhold with the assistance of Vladimir Solovyov and Mayakovsky himself. However, the Petrograd theatres were still maintaining a position of cautious neutrality and the production was boycotted by the vast majority of professional actors. Consequently, the organizers were forced to make a public appeal in order to complete casting. Eventually all but a few main parts were played by students, with Mayakovsky himself filling three roles in the opening performance at the Petrograd Conservetoire on 7 November 1918.
The Bolshevik Government was more than a little embarrassed by the enthusiastic support it was receiving from the Futurist artists, fearing that their uncompromising brutalist vision of the new mechanized age might prove insufficiently beguiling for the masses… Mystery Buoffe attracted violent criticism both from the left and the right, and it was taken off after three scheduled performances. Despite Mayakovsky’s strenuous efforts it was nearly three years before the play was revived in a new version in Moscow, again with Meyerhold directing (Braun 1969: 158-61). Kazimir Malevich designed “Cubo‐Futurist sets (Gladkov 1998: 11)” for the Mystery Buoffe and the constructivist set became one of the characteristics of Meyerhold’s productions. The scale of these large‐scale structures has seldom been replicated in political performances post Meyerhold. But he also “discarded naturalistic stage settings,” “eliminated the stage curtain in an attempt at breaking down the barrier between spectator and performer,” used “music [which] would become an integral structural and aesthetic part of the production,” and “eliminate[d] the proscenium,” (Gladkov 1998: 4‐9)” and these innovations were to have a lasting impact on political theatre. Meyerhold also revolutionized actor‐training methodology. He fused the discoveries of two Americans working in different fields to device his own system of ‘biomechanics.’ The first was industrial engineer Frederick Taylor who was researching movements to increase efficiency of factory assembly lines. The second was psychologist William James working in the field of reflexology, or the relation between motor reflexes and emotions. Biomechanics is a highly codified physical system where each gesture is part of the larger language of “etudes.” “Every movement is a hieroglyph with its own peculiar
meaning. The theatre should employ only those movements which are immediately decipherable; everything else is superfluous (report on Meyerhold’s lecture ‘The Actor of the future and Biomechanics,’ Moscow 1922 in Braun 1969: 200).” Meyerhold used actors trained in biomechanics for the first time in his 1922 production of Fernand Crommelynck’s Magnanimous Cuckold. Lyubov Popova made a constructivist set which was described as, “a machine for actor’s to play (‘work’ in the Constructivist terms) […] By defining and structuring the spatial limits of the performing area, the construction aided the actors in much the same way that a properly designed machine enables a worker to produce more efficiently (Law 1995: 43).” In 1925 he produced Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant on a revolving stage and in the same year his company also mounted Sergei Tretyakov’s Roar, China!. Inspector General in 1926 marked another signal change in Meyerhold’s oeuvre, where he adapted Nikolai Gogol’s play into a montage of fifteen scenes. He significantly pared down the sets and “began using objects more sparingly and more often for their associative power (Law 1995: 50).” Meyerhold has had his fair share of critics both in his lifetime and after. His name was cleared and he was rehabilitated in Russian revolutionary history in the first wave of de‐Stalinization in 1955. In subsequent years, rather than ideological battles, criticism of his theatre has tended to revolve around the
technicalities of his method. Biomechanics is often seen as too controlling and limiting of the actor’s own creativity, and large‐scale constructivism too spectacular and impractical. But successive generations of directors continue to be hugely influenced by the way he revolutionized theatre aesthetic, even if they do not emulate his methods exactly. In India, as I discuss in detail later chapters, his implicit influence is evident in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) – Shambhu Mitra used a revolving stage in Nabanna and the IPTA also staged Roar, China!. Safdar Hashmi of Jana Natya Manch frequently cited Meyerhold’s production of Mystery Bouffe as the first instance of modern political theatre. 1 Meyerhold’s model of an urban, often open‐air theatre, using a montage of scenes rather than linear narrative, and symbolic props has become almost de rigueur in Indian political theatre. The director/theorist to have the greatest impact on political performance in India is perhaps Bertolt Brecht; his influence in the subcontinent now being well documented. 2 Brecht arrives at and elaborates on the concept of Epic theatre first formulated by his friend Erwin Piscator (1893‐ 1966). Piscator fought and was wounded in the First World War and, newly politicized by his war‐time experiences, 3 on his return to Berlin started the Proletarisches Theatre with Hermann Schuller in 1919. They evolved a mold for 1 “On the first anniversary of the October Revolution, Vsevold Meyerhold produced Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe in which he combined elements of the tent show with revolutionary poetry and put it up in the city square for an audience of several thousand (Hashmi 1989: 10).” 2 C.f. Dalmia 2005; 1153—280. 3 “I too now had a clear opinion on how far art was only a means to an end. a political means. A propogandist means. A pedagogical means (Piscator 1963: 23)
topical, mobile, political theatre, later to be widely known and practiced as agitational‐propogandist or agit‐prop theatre. Reading a description of those early experiments of the Proletarisches Theatre one is struck by how closely they resemble contemporary agit‐prop practices in many parts of the world today: Proletarisches Theatre was conceived from the start as an agitprop group with the sole aim of developing class-consciousness and proletarian solidarity for the struggle ahead, and Piscator pioneered the material which by 1928 was being used by agitprop troupes in virtually every German town: short sketches in brief, simple scenes with typed characters and dialogue larded with direct appeals to the audience to respond to the communist message. He toured the working-class quarters of Berlin with a small group of actors and helpers doing one-night stands in halls and meeting rooms (Piscator 1963: 37-38). By 1925, with the publication and popularity of Hitler’s Mien Kampf, the dangers of Right‐wing ideology were already apparent in Germany 1 and progressive writers and artists were trying to band together to form a united front to counter the popular seduction of Nazism. Piscator gathered his writings on and experiences in theatre in haste and published The Political Theatre in 1929, which he later revised and rereleased in 1963. In it he reflected on the 1 Piscator writes of that period: By 1929 it was already clear that a considerable number of Germans have learned nothing from the FIRST World War. Delusions of national greatness – one of the main causes of that war – were spreading to an extent that gave cause for alarm and were being turned into apolitical formula by the National Socialists. The chaos that would ensue if this “movement” ever came to power was clear beyond any shadow of doubt to anybody who had read Hitler’s Mien Kampf. But how many people had read that tedious rubbish? Was it really as few as was maintained after 1945 in Germany? It seems to me that not a few Germans wanted chaos inasmuch as they wanted Hitler: and not not wanting Hitler was tantamount to wanting him (emphasis in original, 1963: vi).
techniques and lessons of his production of Alfons Paquet’s Flags at the Volksbuhne (People’s Theatre) for which he was stage director from 1924‐27: Flags as a drama represented the first consistent attempt to get away from the established pattern of dramatic action and put the epic progression of events in its place. Seen in this light, Flags is the first consciously epic drama […] Flags was in a sense the first Marxist drama, and this production was the first attempt to make the forces of materialism tangible and comprehensible. […] I was now able to develop a type of direction which, years later, was proclaimed by others to be “epic theatre.” What was it all about? Briefly, it was about the extension of the action and the clarification of the background to the action, that is to say it involved a continuation of the play beyond the dramatic framework. A didactic play was developed from the spectacle-play. This automatically led to the use of stage techniques from areas which had never before been seen in the theatre before. It had started, as has been mentioned, in Proletarisches Theatre. At the Volksbuhne I could see what tremendous possibilities the theatre offered if you had the courage to extend your forms of expression. I had broad projection screens erected on either side of the stage. During the prologue at the beginning, in which the play was introduced with character sketches of the figures were to appear, photographs of the persons in question were projected on the screen. Throughout the play I used the screens to connect the separate scenes by projecting linking texts. To my knowledge, it was the first time that projections had been used in this way in the theatre. Apart from this I restricted myself to staging the play, which had a cast of fifty-six, as clearly and objectively as possible (Piscator 1963: 74-76). In 1931 Piscator moved to Russia and then in 1939 to the United States seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. During this time he collaborated with Lena Goldschmidt on An American Tragedy, a stage adaptation of a novel by Theodore Dreiser, which opened on Broadway for a short run of nineteen shows under the direction of Lee Strasberg as The Case of Clyde Griffiths. While in New York Piscator started the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research,
which trained a host of actors who were to have a huge impact on American theatre such as the screen superstar Marlon Brando, founder of the Living Theatre Judith Malina, Jamaican musician and social activist Harry Belafonte, and prominent playwright Tennessee Williams. Piscator’s return to West Germany in 1951, like his friend Brecht’s eventual return to East Germany after fleeing America in 1947, was prompted by the spectre of McCarthyism, which was ascendant on the American cultural horizon. He became the director of the Freie Volksbuhne in West Berlin in 1962 and in 1963, thirty‐three years after the original publication of his Political Theatre wrote on the continuing need to practice and develop epic theatre: The justification for epic techniques is no longer disputed by anyone, but there is considerable confusion about what should be expressed by these means. The functional character of these epic techniques, in other words their inseparability from a specific content (the specific content, the specific message determines the means and not vice versa!) has by now become largely obscured. So we are still standing at the starting blocks. The race is not yet on … (Piscator 1963:viii). Brecht adopted and extended many features of Piscator’s technique such as a dramatic prologue, character sketches, incorporation of projected text that linked scenes or the practice of titling, etc., but these were in his later plays. Brecht, born in Augsburg, Bavaria and went to university in nearby Munich. The first full‐length play he wrote was Baal in 1918. He followed this with Drums in the Night and In the Jungle between 1922‐24. His early career in the theatre was also influenced by his brief participation between 1920‐21 in a political cabaret lead by Karl Valentin. In 1927 Brecht joined Piscator’s
ensemble and wrote that same year, “It is precisely theatre, art and literature which have to form the ‘ideological superstructure’ for a solid and practical rearrangement of our age’s way of life (Brecht 1957, 1992: 23).” He had already arrived at the means of altering this ideological superstructure, in other words hegemony, through his theatre. In the next sentence he says, “epic theatre is the theatrical style of our time […] The essential point of the epic theatre is perhaps that it appeals less to the feelings than to the spectator’s reason (Brecht 1957, 1992: 23).” Some of these principles are evident in Brecht and composer John Weill’s Three Penny Opera, which premiered at the Theater am Schiffbaurtdamm in 1928. In his adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, Brecht turned Gay’s Baroque satire into a biting analysis of class politics using music as commentary, an episodic structure and memorable characters such as Macheath and Polly Peachum who seem driven to their action by their circumstance and not by the externalization of their inner psyche. In 1930, following Piscator’s The Political Theatre, Brecht outlined “The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre” 1 theoretically fleshing out the concept of Epic Theatre in a way that Piscator was yet to do. Brecht provides the following table of distinction between dramatic theatre, one that functions through empathy by making an appeal to emotions, and epic theatre, whose purpose is to make the audience think. 1 C.f. Brecht 1957, 1992: 33-43.
DRAMATIC THEATRE plot implicates the spectator in a stage situation wears down his capacity for action provides him with sensations experience the spectat or is involved in something suggestion instinctive feelings are preserved the spectator is in the thick of it, share the experience the human being is taken for granted he is unalterable eyes on the finish one scene makes another growth linear developmen t evolutionary determinism man as a fixed point thought determines being feeling EPIC THEATRE narrative turns the spectator into an observer, but arouses his capacity for action forces him to take decisions picture of the world he is made to face somethi ng argument brought to the point of recognition the spectator stands outside, studies the human being is the object of the inquiry he is alterable and able to alter eyes on the course each scene for itself montage in curves jumps man as a process social b eing determines thought reason – Emphasis added, Brecht 1957, 1992: 37. In the box above I highlight some of key characteristics of Brechtian theatre. It as a theatre that appeals to reason through presenting an argument in a non‐ linear narrative form through an episodic structure so that it incites the spectator to think and affect a change in her own material circumstance. Brecht’s vision of the Epic Theatre was to be most fully realized in his own plays. From 1933‐1945 Brecht fled Nazi Germany, living in Sweden and Finland briefly and then in the United States. During this period he wrote some
of his most significant work – Galileo (1937‐38), Mother Courage (1938), The Good Person of Szechwan (1942) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle 1944‐45. Mother Courage was written in reportedly little over a month’s time in response to Germany invading Poland. Set against the backdrop of the Thirty Year War between the Protestants and the Catholics, the play is about the fortunes of Anna Fierling or “Mother Courage,” a canteen woman with the Swedish Army. Through the course of the play her three children – Swiss Cheese, Eilif and Kattrin – are all killed in the war, but Courage trades on saying “I must get back into business,” wheeling her now nearly empty cart at the end of the play. Brecht and Erich Engel first produced Mother Courage at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin in 1949, where post‐war Brecht had returned to set up his own theatre company called the Berliner Ensemble. His wife Helen Weigel unforgettably played the lead role. The production was meticulously documented and photographed as part of the Couragemodell, which serves as a model of the play to posterity. Brecht writes of the concluding bit of stage action in the play, “many actresses playing Courage find it easier and more congenial to play this final scene simply for its tragedy. This is no service to the playwright. He doesn’t want to detract from the tragedy, but there is something that he wants to add: the warning that Courage has learnt nothing (emphasis in original, Brecht 1957, 1992: 221, Note). The comment above I think captures much of the spirit of
Brechtian theatre. Mother Courage is an exemplar of the methodology of historical‐materialism, which Brecht so vigorously adopted in his own playwriting and proposed as the function of all political theatre. This little directorial observation also elucidates Brecht’s formulation of the Verfremdungseffect or the effect of distanciation where the actor at key moments, through gesture, establishes critical distance from the character thereby making strange for the audience an action that was once familiar. Brecht developed his theory of the importance of the verfremdungseffect; misleadingly translated by John Willet as the Alienation effect which has now in English become the common term for the technique, through his observation of the Chinese actor Mei Lan‐Fang. Brecht describes the technique as: The alienation effect intervenes, not in the form of absence of emotion, but in the form of emotions which need not correspond to those of the character portrayed. […] The achievement of the A-effect absolutely depends on lightness and naturalness of acting. […] The A-effect was achieved in German epic theatre not only by the actor, but also by the music (choruses, songs) and the setting (placards, film, etc.). […] Among other effects that a new theatre will need for its social criticism and its historical reporting of completed transformations is the A-effect (Brecht 1957, 1992: 94-99) The object of the A-effect is to alienate the social gest underlying every incident. By social gest is meant the mimetic and gestural expression of the social relationships between people of a given period (Brecht 1957, 1992: 139). Brecht’s influence in the theatre in general derives from these precise techniques that he develops for the theatre. Like Meyerhold’s biomechanics, the
principles of acting Brecht underlines became much used by actors in the later twentieth century and beyond. But Brecht’s contribution to world theatre extends beyond scripts, acting techniques and directorial insights. His theory of theatre represents a paradigm shift in the discussion of political performance. He resuscitates the notion of enjoyment to the practice of didactic theatre, arguing that the activity of teaching and learning that the actor and audience is engaged in can and should be fundamentally pleasurable. “Theatre remains theatre even when it is instructive theatre, and in so far as it is good theatre it will amuse (Brecht 1957, 1992: 73).” Theatre as an embodied, social art is predicated on entertainment, and when it ceases to engage its viewer and descends into a harangue it looses its effectiveness. Brecht made his argument for pleasure in and as learning in the larger arena of Left cultural ideology. Successive Communist leaders of international prominence such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong have strived to define a clear role for culture in realizing the socialist revolution. Cultural theorists have taken these discussions further, enriching them with their own cultural practice. The most memorable of the debates on culture within the Left itself is perhaps between Georg Lukacs (1885‐1971), the Hungarian Marxist literary critic and Brecht. Lukacs, writing in reaction to Ernest Bloch’s Erbschaft dieser Zeit (Heritage of Our Times, 1934), critiqued what he saw as the rise of
German Expressionism in modern literature. Lukacs position was that Expressionism operated from a subjectivist standpoint and therefore obfuscating the objective reality of social conditions. He urged German writers to reread and emulate canonical writers such as Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. His critique did not stop at the German Expressionists, but also extended to the “‘bourgeois refinement’ of Thomas Mann and with the Surrealism of [James] Joyce (Lukacs in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 34).” In other words Lukacs was critiquing the forms of modernist writing that were emerging in the early twentieth, which shared in his estimation the feature “that they all take reality exactly as it manifests itself to the writer and the character he creates (Lukacs in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 36).” Against this indulgent practice, Lukacs argued for a more stringent and penetrating analysis of social reality through Realism: What has all this to do with literature? Nothing at all for any theory – like those of Expressionism or Surrealism – which denies that literature has any reference to objective reality. It means a great deal, however for a Marxist theory of literature. If literature is a particular form by means of which objective reality is reflected, then it becomes of crucial importance for it to grasp the reality as it truly is, and not merely to confine itself to reproducing whatever manifests itself immediately and on the surface. If a writer strives to represent reality as it truly is, i.e. if he is an authentic realist, then the question of totality plays a decisive role, no matter how the writer conceives the problem intellectually. Lenin repeatedly insisted on the practical importance of the category of totality: ‘In order to know an object thoroughly, it is essential to discover and comprehend all of its aspects, its relationships and its “mediation.” We shall never achieve this fully, but insistence on all- round knowledge will protect us from errors and inflexibility’
(emphasis in original, Lukacs in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 33). Lukacs himself rigorously practiced this in his own writing and in his seminal works History and Class Consciousness (1923) and The Historical Novel (1937) made the first sustained and systematic efforts in literary criticism to show the relation between ideology and literary form. Brecht agreed with Lukacs on the need for Realism in the modern arts but took the latter to task for his “formalist” approach, that is his focus on the novel as the only viable vehicle of Realism. For Brecht the validity of the authorial voice and the relevance of a work of art must be judged afresh in each instance, rather than succumbing to formulaic arguments of genre for, “Criticism, at least Marxist criticism, must proceed methodically and concretely in each case, in short scientifically (Brecht in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 78).” Realism becomes a question of content and not of form, an end which can be achieved through various means. In his argument Brecht makes a valuable defense for experimentation in the arts, saying that a few failed examples is not reason to dismiss the method behind these practices. In doing so he also dispenses with Lukacs’s basic advice of turning to the classics as a source and model for literary inspiration: We must not derive realism as such from particular existing works, but we shall use every means, old and new, tried and untried, derived from art and derived from other sources, to render reality to men in a form they can master (emphasis added, Brecht in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 81).
The last sentence provides us the key to Brechtian philosophy of artistic practice. His quibble with Lukacs over an overly formalistic approach, is a springboard to a much larger question than methodology. It is about the basic character of socially revolutionary art. Proceeding from his own experiments in developing a total language of the dramatic arts through his concept of the epic theatre, Brecht expands the boundaries of Realistic practice beyond the private written page of the novel to the world of the stage. Theatre is a democratic art form, unlike practices of readership that presuppose literacy, The conceit that anyone can view and enjoy theatre holds strong for Brecht. It also ties in with the fundamental purpose of Realistic art, which is to portray socio‐economic conditions in a manner that can be easily apprehended by all, and hence changed. For him, Realistic art, to be effective and realized, must be popular, that is gaining the widest possible audience. Brecht defines and relates the two concepts thus: Popular means: intelligible to the broad masses, adopting and enriching their forms of expression/assuming their standpoint, confirming and correcting it, representing the most progressive section of the people so that it can assume leadership, and therefore intelligible to other sections of the people as well/relating to traditions and developing them/communicating to that portion of the people which strives for leadership the achievement [sic] of the section that at present rules the nation. […] Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society/unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power/writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up/ emphasizing the element of development/making possible the concrete, and making possible
abstraction from it (Brecht in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 81-82). The debate in aesthetics gets carried on beyond the Brecht‐Lukacs exchange, most notably in the dialogues between Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. These philosopher critics of the Frankfurt School, the informal name given to the collective of scholars at the Institute for Social Research from the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s, were engaged in applying and extending traditional Marxist theory to the newly emerging discursive fields of the twentieth century, such as physchoanalysis, avant garde art, cinema and modern musical trends like jazz. Benjamin on the one hand was fascinated with the revolutionary capacity of cinema to reach unprecedented masses of people thereby making it a truly popular artform. Adorno on the other hand aligned with the new avant garde represented by writers such as Kafka, placed critical faith in post‐generic experiments in artistic expression. Brecht too was not without critics who detect a “definite populist strain” in his work, most notably with Adorno complaining of “the ‘trivialization’ of fascism effected by Arturo Ui, the willful crude ‘analyses’ of plays like Saint Joan and Mother Courage, the constant recourse to archaism of different kinds (Adorno in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 147).” Yet his work provides us with some of the most compelling historical examples of the union of genuine popularity with a robust Realism on the world stage. Frederick
Jameson, Marxist cultural scholar, writing in 1977 has this to say about Brecht’s lasting relevance to the theatre: The process of ‘knowing’ the world [beomes] a source of delight or pleasure in its own right; and this is the fundamental step in the construction of a properly Brechtian aesthetics. For it restores to ‘realistic’ art that principle of play and genuine aesthetic gratification which the relatively more passive and cognitive aesthetic of Lukacs had seemed to replace with the grim dilemmas of a didactic theory of art (to teach or to please?) are thereby also overcome, and in a world where science is experiment and play, knowing and doing alike are forms of production, stimulating in their own right, a didactic art may now be imagined in which learning and aesthetic, indeed the idea of realism is not a purely artistic and formal category, but rather governs the relationship between the work of art to reality itself, characterizing a particular stance towards it (Jameson in Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno 1977: 205) Brecht’s demands of experimentation, evolution, education and entertainment in political theatre have propelled the field to grow and explore in different ways. This Brechtian ethic underlies the fundamental premise of this dissertation, which is that different political configurations of power require and demand different responses from political theatre practitioners. There can be no structural uniformity in the forms political theatre takes. Some are more successful, some more long lasting; but failure and brief life spans cannot be used per se as disqualifiers of the political enterprise of culture. As Brecht says, each case must be examined separately. This dissertation also hopes to restore the joy of political theatre, both in creating and viewing it, to academic discussions of it.
Indian Theatre Since Independence: the Politics of Nation Indian performance historiography (in English) is a relatively recent phenomenon. Rich regional texts, treatise, commentaries and histories have existed in the South Asian subcontinent for millennia, if one accepts the authorship of the Natyashastra, the seminal Sanskrit tract of performance aesthetic attributed to the person, school, or serial writers (con)figured as Bharata Muni, as dating to the second century B.C.E.. But there are immediate problems with tracing a linear and continuous history of performance from that text. It is symptomatic of a larger 1 rhetorical, if limited strategy that has often been used to construct the contours of a mythic nation ‘Bharat’ or ‘India’ whose inhabitants could then be mobilized against the common colonial enemy through invoking this shared, once glorious heritage. The Natyashastra was literarily discovered and made available to an Indian readership in modern times through the efforts of Western Indic scholars in the nineteenth century. However its fragmentary and uneven excavation, much like Aristotle’s Poetics, has not diminished its importance as a key performance theory text in South Asia. It was only in the twentieth century, particularly around the time of national Independence, that performance scholars and practitioners worked backward, manipulating contemporary practice to conform to the diktats of the 1 For a discussion of the precise mechanisms of the rhetorics of nation formation and it current troubling Hindu nationalist appropriations c.f. Goswami 2004: “Space, Time and Sovereignity in Puranic-Itihas,” “India as Bharat: a Territorial Nativist Vision of Nationhood 1860-1880, pages 154- 208.
Natyashastra. They were aided in their (re)constructions by their readings of Abhinavagupta (ca 950‐1020) and his commentary on the Natyashastra called the Abhinavabharati. As Edwin Gerow argues in Indian Poetics, several such commentaries existed, though few have been recovered. Abhinavagupta’s discussion of rasa, or the essence of aesthetic enjoyment based on nine emotions, has been hugely influential in the performing arts in South Asia. There are several, recent, excellent studies on how this process of shaping practice to theory has been particularly pronounced and premeditated in the various Indian dances that have been formalized and had their repertoires canonized, such as the temple dances of Bharatnatyam (literally the dance of Bharat, India or of Bharata, the author of Natyashastra) and Odissi. For example Richard Schechner’s essay “Restoration of Behavior (1980),” Sunil Kothari’s New Directions on Indian Dance (2004), Janet O’Shea’s At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage (2007), and Arunima Banerji’s doctoral dissertation “Odissi Dance: Paratopic Performances of Gender, Law, and Nation (2009).” Moving from the realm of theory to performance practice, Sanskrit drama is a highly poetic theatrical genre, exemplified in the works of Kalidasa, which were composed in early 400 C.E.. Kalidasa’s plays too were translated and published by scholars from colonial institutes such as the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. The production of
Sanskrit theatre in medieval times is largely unsubstantiated. It is thought to be mostly associated with performances in royal courts and households. One need only look at Barbara Stoler Miller’s Theatre of Memory to realize that the plays of Kalidasa and other Sanskrit dramatists such as Bhasa and Shudraka persist through complex, compound, non‐linear oral traditions rather than through reliable textual documentation. This in itself is a recent insight. Even a cursory glance at the proceedings of the first Drama Seminar organized by the newly instituted Sangeet Natak Akademi (Academy of the Performing Arts) in 1954, show the general acceptance of the idea that Indian drama had incontrovertible roots in Sanskrit drama. The Seminar was a gathering of theatre stalwarts charged with steering modern Indian drama into the postcolonial era, and its accounts now reveal the earnest postcolonial desire to construct a national culture through the erasure of the intervening colonial years and a ‘return’ to a glorious past. S Radhakrishnan, Vice President of India from 1952‐62, in his inaugural speech, set the characteristic tone for the proceedings. For him, as for many of the participants, as I discuss in greater detail in Chapter 2 of this dissertation, “While the film is a modern invention, the drama has been with us for a long period. Indian tradition [is] preserved in the Natyashastra (Sangeet Natak 2004: 8). The internal mechanisms of the Drama Seminar and the ideology of its participants, along with their lasting implications for Indian theatre, have been
extensively explored in Aparna Dharwadker’s 2005 volume Theatres of Independence. Often the dense, diverse and discrete folk traditions of the South Asian subcontinent are seen as derivative of Sanskrit aesthetic theory. In these arguments folk forms are either corrupt versions of Bharat’s rasa theory or systems of oral transmission for it. For example the 1883 essay “Natak (Theatre)” by the Hindu reformist Bharatendu Harishchandra, which was to influence many writers and commentators of Hindi theatre in the early twentieth century. 1 Another approach to the question of the rich and regionally variant histories of folk performances in India has been to trace the influence of the two Indian epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – in their narrative. This is complicated by the absence of any one authoritative account of these epics, different Indian regions having their own versions in their own languages. While the basic story may remain the same, the specific episodes or minor characters of these epics are often locally inflected. This is significant when it comes to performance genealogies precisely because these regional variations are often the grist for performance narrative or improvisation. Regardless of whether the ‘folk’ performances are revered or denigrated by theatre scholars, the urge to reconcile and insert their vibrant performance repertories into the larger rubric of contemporary Indian theatre is undeniable. This has lead to on the one hand highly nuanced and localized studies of indigenous performance 1 C.f. Dalmia 2005: 34-72.
such as Richard Schechner’s “Ramlila of Ramnagar: An Introduction” in Performative Circumstance (1983), Anuradha Kapur’s Actors, Kings and Pilgrims (1990) and Kathryn Hansen’s Grounds for Play (1992). On the other hand there have been scholars administrators like Kapila Vatsayan and Suresh Awasthi , undertaking pan‐Indian studies in which they look for thematic contiguities between the various folk forms in their Traditional Indian Theatre (1980) and Performance Tradition in India (2001) respectively. Rustom Bharucha, in an article where he traces the mechanisms through which the ‘folk’ was interpolated into modern Indian theatre, observes of the near ubiquity of the term: It is not clear when the term “folk” entered the vocabulary of the Indian cultural worker. Certainly, it became popular during the IPTA movement when urban artists were compelled to discover their “roots’ in rural cultures. What needs to be emphasized is that the ‘folk” has become an established category in the Indian theatre today. Actors and directors use it freely without questioning its obvious, yet diffused links to the word “people.” Nor is its assumed to be a “foreign” word anymore so than “tradition,” which is used more readily than the Indian equivalents of parampara or sampradaya (Bharucha 1989: 1909). The folk trajectory in modern theatre, with Sanskrit drama and the epics as its intertextual referents, became instituted as ill‐conceived cultural policy in the 1980s whereby the state awarded incentives and rewards, through its institutional arms such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, to directors willing to recover and revive their “roots.” Officially called the “Scheme of Assistance to Young Theatre Workers,” the program ran from 1984‐1994. The central trope of