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The Colonial Staged: Theatre in Colonial Calcutta

Shayoni Mitra

Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 28,
Number 3, 2008, pp. 562-565 (Review)

Published by Duke University Press

For additional information about this article

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562 discovered, translated, and marshaled by Virani.
The book is refreshingly accessible to lay readers,
it is therefore indispensable to any theater scholar
interested in the region.
as it employs mainly English translations of for- As the title suggests, tracing the history of the
eign titles and terms, with simplified translitera- Bengali stage in the colonial era is not so much about
tions where necessary, and it contains an accessible how the physical performance stage evolved and was
glossary of technical terms and easily read figures, configured under colonial influence. Although ven-
tables, and maps. The last third of the book will be ues did change drastically, from the erstwhile impro-
of keen interest to specialists, as it includes com- vised outdoor, courtyard, or living room theaters to
e prehensive notes with complete academic translit- professional auditoriums, they were in fact symp-
ra ti v
m pa eration and original excerpts from key Persian and tomatic of a larger shift—the identity of the theater
Co Arabic sources, a transcribed index, and a full bib- maker himself (for the ones defining and negoti-
ie so liography. Virani’s book would be excellent for use ating the parameters of colonial self-identity were
S tu d
         ia , in basic and advanced courses in history, historical always male). Chatterjee expertly unravels in each
u th research methods, religion, anthropology of his- instance of dramatic utterance the politico-social
       So he
n dt tory, South Asian and Southwest Asian languages, underpinning of the playwright, director, and actor
     ric and Middle and Near Eastern studies. drawn together in their collaborative enterprise.
as t Theater, and in particular under British occupation
     dle E
d Zahra N. Jamal
theater in one’s mother tongue of Bengali, becomes
     Harvard University a particularly potent medium of expressing, chal-
doi 10.1215/1089201x-2008-032 lenging, and changing collective identity.
Colonial theater, as even this briefest of intro-
ductions indicates, was then by its very nature a
hybrid performance. Chatterjee deploys Michael
Taussig’s theorization of mimesis and alterity as
The Colonial Staged: the containing and illuminating framework for
Theatre in Colonial Calcutta his book, where the colonial subject, through his
Sudipto Chatterjee attempts at mimicking the civilizational/civiliz-
London: Seagull Books, 2007 ing cultural genres of the colonizer, succeeds most
160 pp., $84.95 (cloth), $29.95 (paper) strongly in highlighting his own difference from his
colonial master. The case of performance becomes
Analytical dramatic histories in English are still most poignant in this overall ambition since racial-
relevantly uncommon in the Indian subcontinent. ized bodies onstage are the surest marker of the
Most often it is playscripts that are regularly circu- futility of camouflaging otherness. In an early pro-
lated as literature. Their nonfiction counterparts, duction, when a “native” did appear in an expatriate
biographies and autobiographies of famous actors British performance of Othello in Calcutta in 1848,
and directors, fall into the iconic, emulative modal- as “the real unpainted nigger” with his racial speci-
ities of memoir readership. With a more sinister ficity erased save for his dark skin (59), the burden
bureaucratic purpose, chronicles of “Indian” per- of this taxonomic symbology was too much even for
formances, plays, and groups survey the field as pur- this admittedly talented actor. While reviewers alike
veyors of (high) culture. What are repeatedly elided remarked favorably on Bustomchurn Addy’s acting
in all these renditions are the performative lives of skills, the audacity of the enterprise did not cease to
plays on the stage and the socioeconomic enablers gall. Even the most benign English reviewer could
of theater making. It is not that critical thought has not rid himself of condescension while ultimately
not been applied to performance traditions in the suggesting that theater, in its superior Western
subcontinent. It is that, until recently, even until garb, was simply beyond the ken of the native. The
the last decades of the twentieth century, analysis Bengalis then, summarily excluded from the Brit-
of Indian theater happened regionally in the ver- ish theater of Calcutta, had no choice but to devise
nacular. This is especially remarkable in a region their own theater.
like Bengal, where not only many of the debates This process was not always as progressive
and discussions surrounding the theater but also or redemptive as the exercise suggests. Chatterjee
on occasion the plays themselves were in English, deftly points out that the players at the vanguard of
from the twentieth century on. Sudipto Chatterjee’s this self-fashioning were the babus—the elite, edu-
The Colonial Staged intervenes to fill precisely this cated, wealthy class of feudal Bengal whose patterns
lacuna. As a much-needed, insightful, chronological of dependence on, admiration for, and/or opposi-
look at the formations of modern Bengali theater at tion to their colonial masters were very complicated.
the height of British influence in colonial Calcutta, A straightforward repudiation of British influence
in the cultural realm, often rather obdurately disas-
sociated from the political and economic realm, was
tion such as the sutradhar, or storyteller, who is both
commentator and actor. Put simply, the precepts of
neither possible nor desirable. Even when the the- Western realist theater, notions of Sanskrit drama,
ater passed on from the exclusive purview of babu- and techniques of rural jatra are all equally respon-
dom to a more egalitarian, “secular” (119) domain of sible for the hybridity of modern Bengali theater.
professional theater without patronage, it retained Chatterjee starts and ends The Colonial Staged
many of its upper-middle-class reservations. Ben- by grounding his work in present-day, postindepen-
gali theater could never quite rid itself of its literary dence Calcutta. His introduction is an evocative
aspirations. For instance, even though the greatest thick description of the Minerva theater, the site

Book Reviews
outpouring of dramatic writing happened in the of the first National Theatre of 1873, in its present
pulp form as short playlets, characterized here as state of utter decrepitude. The neglect surround-
the “Battala” plays after the book market they were ing the decaying and abandoned facade that Chat-
most readily available in, these popular, kitschy plays terjee finds at the start of his fieldwork becomes a
were never produced on the stage (148). A more metaphor for the steep archeological task he faces
compelling example of the omniscience of the writ- as researcher/analyzer of the Bengali theater. The
ten word, especially in the colonizers’ language, is “Foregone ‘Conclusion’” returns again to the pres-
the illustrative case of the play Neeldarpan (1860) by ent moment to ask what performance can do in the
Dinabandhu Mitra. The play was ruled seditious to changing scenario under the unrelenting onslaught
British rule, but it was the English translator, James of globalization. Making a number of connections
Long, who was incarcerated for it and not the origi- to contemporary political situations ranging from
nal Bengali playwright or any of the actors involved farmer suicides to the controversy over government
in its first production in 1873 (222–26). land acquisition in Nandigram, West Bengal, Chat-
Yet it would be incorrect to surmise that the terjee shows the relevance of his brand of theater
nascent modern Bengali theater was propelled by scholarship, one that interrogates social and eco-
the word alone. While Shakespeare and Kalidasa nomic factors in cultural formation, to a Bengali,
have been the two abiding touchstones for dramatic and by extension Indian, identity. After all, perfor-
greatness (126) in Indian theater,1 Chatterjee shows mance has always been a means of moving people,
that it was at the structural level—the well-made and we can only learn from past instances to suc-
five-act play—that Bengali drama borrowed the cessfully negotiate the current climate.
most from its counterparts. Even the Sanskritic tra- Chapter 1, “The Staging of the Nation: The
dition invoked by the increasingly strident nation- Russian, the Babu, and the Moor,” faithfully docu-
alists as part of their glorious past to refute claims ments the first spate of Western-style theater in
of native indolence and ignorance was not unprob- Calcutta from the late eighteenth century. These
lematic. The newly excavated and interpreted texts were English drama meant exclusively as a tool and
came to the Bengali babus precisely through colo- product of nostalgia for the expatriate British who
nial intervention—through the work of orientalist had recently come to this newly declared colony.
scholars. Even the Natyashastra, the authoritative By the turn of the century, however, the colonials
treatise on Indian aesthetics, was not commonly dis- developed more than a f leeting interest in dra-
seminated until the twentieth century. Any claims by matic performances and even as amateurs began
the Bengalis of an unbroken cultural heritage from to seriously immerse themselves in the art of the-
the time of Kalidasa were patently constructed. To ater making. For instance the approval and (long-
complicate this question of theatrical influences was distance) collaboration of the famed British actor
the ever-present Bengali folk form the jatra. A melo- David Garrick were the much-publicized facts of a
dramatic, hyperbolic, musical, and widely popular badly needed validation from the motherland. The
genre of narrative drama, the jatra was deemed performances themselves moved away from farces
unfit for the modernist task the babus were under- to more serious drama, with Russian orientalist
taking. Originating in the lower classes, it was too Gerasim Stepanovich Lebedev attempting the first
crass for the babus’ newly constrained realist tastes. “Indian” drama—an adaptation and interpretation
Yet it was to the jatra that Bengali playwrights often of his recent translations from Sanskrit. At this stage
unconsciously turned for their style of prose. It was natives were only permitted to watch some of these
inspiration for their desire to incorporate music productions, contingent of course on their wealth
into their plays, for their abiding penchant for and status. The chapter deftly recreates the early
melodrama, and often for models of characteriza- fascination, debates, and discussions surrounding

1.  See Vasudha Dalmia, Poetics, Plays, and Performances: The Poli-
tics of Modern Indian Theatre (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,
2006), 28.
564 the British-style theater through a rich tapestry of
theater reviews from newspapers. Chatterjee is able
nineteenth century by bringing the religious and
reform movements into the fray of the discussion.
to extrapolate from these often-prescriptive pieces Ghosh was hugely influenced in later life by the
the essential racial anxieties surrounding perfor- charismatic priest Ramakrishna, a devotee of the
mance in the colony. Goddess Kali, and his particular brand of religios-
Chapter 2, “Mise-en-(Colonial)Scène: The- ity through bhakti to the divine couple Krishna and
atre of the Bengal Renaissance,” looks at the defini- Radha. Chatterjee shows dramatic denouement to
tive moments of Bengali identity formation flowing be not only a technique of storytelling inherited
e from what has been called the Bengali Renaissance. from the West but also an indigenous mode of
ra ti v
m pa Driven by the force of literature and new trends in reconciling questions of spirituality and mortality.
Co readership, it was a self-conscious movement result- Modern Bengali drama, even in its secular garb, is
ie so ing from the native’s induction into a colonial edu- infused in many complex, intricate, and sometimes
S tu d
         ia , cation system. Michael Madhusudan Dutta is both troubling ways by the Hindu pantheon.
u th an example and a symbol of the extent and com- While religious reform was a fiery debate in
       So he
n dt plexity of this clash, and his influence is most clearly Bengal in the late nineteenth century, another cause
     ric felt in the dramatic realm. In converting to Christi- gaining currency was widow remarriage. Chatterjee
as t anity, Dutta emulates more than just the colonizer’s charts the dense and convoluted terrain of women’s
     dle E
religion. Propelled by the emerging egalitarianism rights in colonial Bengal in chapter 4, “Mother(s) of
     of Europe, a humanitarian ethos underpins the Invention: Prostitute-Actresses and Late-­Nineteenth-
first Bengali scripts in the Western mold. Dutta’s Century Bengali Theatre.” He anchors his exposure
most acclaimed work, Sarmistha, is loosely inspired of the contradictions of women’s uplift in the intro-
by (perceived) notions of Sanskritic mythology but ductory moments of women on the Bengali stage.
is ultimately a paragon of the colonial encounter. While the innovation was not without its detractors,
Chatterjee in this chapter situates the generative the debate was finally won (for women did become
tension of the Bengali Renaissance, especially as an abiding feature of Bengali professional theater)
characterized by the theater, in the contradictions of by touting a version of the argument for women’s
the Benagli babus’ position over the Great Rebellion emancipation in other realms. Women not only
or the First War of Independence (1857, designated added significantly to the dramatic realism of the
as the Sepoy Mutiny by the British). The ignominy stage, a generally accepted aim of Western drama
of colonial subjecthood clashed with the dearly held then, but as recruits from prostitution they also fit-
belief by the Bengali’s in the benevolent mission of ted into an ideology of social betterment. This argu-
the British, and Bengali theater as a result became ment is but lip service to the women, like Binodini
a hybrid that articulated native identity but through Dasi, who actually appeared on stage, devoting their
the lexicon of a colonial cultural language. lives to performance. Chatterjee intertwines the per-
These contradictions become clearer with sonal saga of this famed actor in being denied her
time as the varnish of colonial admiration begins own theater with the larger problematics of rights
to wear thin. Chapter 3, “Twixt the Twain: From discourse and the patriarchal stewardship of iden-
Colonial Jatra to Native Theatre,” recounts the pro- tity formation in Bengal. Women, in this reckoning
cess of the secularization of performance with its as actors, are the objects and never the subjects with
subsequent commercialization. As professional Ben- agency in the colonial theater.
gali theater takes hold in the guise of native theater Chapter 5, “The Nation Staged: Politics and
groups writing for, constructing, and operating their the Nation in Late Nineteenth-Century Bengali
own theater, the secluded world of babudom with its Bourgeois Theatre,” charts the rise of social drama
British inculcations is traded for a panoply of influ- in the late nineteenth century among the middle-
ences, which begins to include the commonplace class playwrights and theatergoers. Plays like Neel-
jatra. Girish Chandra Ghosh embodies this amal- darpan that adopted a rigorous ethic of mirroring
gam of genres, as he was influenced in equal part by societal evil effectively highlighted the injustices of
the workings of Western touring drama companies particular classes of people, like indigo plantation
and the spirit and idiom of the local bazaars. He workers, indentured laborers, and mineworkers. But
was a prolific playwright as well as a talented actor as Chatterjee shows, theirs was often empty rhetoric
and director, credited with the increasing empha- since they were unaccompanied by a call for radical
sis on performance training. Ghosh authored more exchange. They were, in other words, pure descrip-
than forty full-length productions, which run the tions of social reality without any analysis of the
gamut of generic possibilities from mythic drama mechanisms of social injustices—a classic ploy of
to social reality plays. Chatterjee captures well the assuaging bourgeois guilt. And they invariably never
larger imperatives of Bengali drama in the late reached the audiences they wrote about but, rather,
stayed moribund in the middle-class audiences who
were complicit in the systemic inequities. Yet these
Rimli Bhattacharya, has been available only since
1998.2 The Colonial Staged is therefore invaluable to
plays could not escape colonial censure. The “mir- historians of Bengali drama for its gold mine of fac-
ror” plays eventually brought about the infamous tual information drawing on meticulous research.
Dramatic Performances Censorship Act of 1876. The author’s analysis of the sociopolitical field in
Read another way, the chapters of The Colonial Staged which performance is imbedded makes the book
are an account of the buildup to this one drastic act a useful addition to the library of any South Asian
of colonial intervention in the process of native cul- scholar interested in the modalities of cultural for-
tural formation. The act betrays through its resort mation in the Indian subcontinent. And perhaps

Book Reviews
to legislative action the dangers of letting colonial most important, because of Chatterjee’s convincing
subjects articulate their own identity. As Chatterjee and unrelenting theorization of Bengali theater as
amply substantiates, the history of modern Bengali a hybrid entity, The Colonial Staged in its refusal to
theater is a slow panorama of the native using the succumb to the polarization of master and native
tools of the master in a fitful fight against him. narratives serves as an important interjection in the
Colonial Bengali theater then is a hybrid form field of postcolonial studies. Modern Bengali drama,
that challenges by its very existence the fundaments because of its inception in colonial times, refuses, as
of colony. While The Colonial Staged is successful in Chatterjee shows us, any easy categorization.
its analysis of the genesis of modern Bengali drama
against a backdrop of social, cultural, and political Shayoni Mitra
changes under the British yoke, the book can be cri- New York University
tiqued for its insular narration of the development doi 10.1215/1089201x-2008-033
of theatrical technique in India as a whole. The
reader cannot help but often wonder what was hap-
pening in the rest of the country at the same time.
While Calcutta’s position as the British capital in
India in the nineteenth century amply justifies Chat- The Scandal of Empire:
terjee’s choice of focus, he gives the city an almost India and the Creation of Imperial Britain
hermetic air. Colonial Calcutta was interfacing not Nicholas B. Dirks
only with its own immediate hinterland but also, by Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006
virtue of its being a crucial port, a confluence of xviii + 389 pp., $27.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper)
many other regional and international influences.
In the dramatic sphere a contemporary can be most Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scan-
easily found in the Parsi theater, centered in Bom- dal details the fabulous deceptions and witticisms
bay but drawing the entire country into its force of English high society in the late eighteenth cen-
field through its extensive tours. From these differ- tury, a time of unprecedented scandal during the
ent performative genres, what if any were the cross- growth of capitalism. Sheridan was a close friend of
overs into Bengali theater? Also, although Chatter- Nathaniel Halhed, orientalist par excellence, and
jee’s extensive research into his subject is evident, a contemporary of Warren Hastings and Edmund
he should be alerted to the pitfalls of the cult of per- Burke, the main actors in Nicholas B. Dirks’s The
sonality that often holds Indian theater scholarship Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial
in its sway. His chapters can sometimes be read as a Britain. Dirks frames his book in dramaturgical
consecration of the trio of Dutta, Ghosh, and Dasi; terms befitting the time period, such as the epic
it is important to reserve this canonizing impulse roles of Burke and Hastings and the twists and turns
for a more critical approach to their contributions. in the performances of those justifying empire. At
Yet Chatterjee’s mastery in drawing a vivid times, he mentions Sheridan, the dandy of late-eigh-
picture of nineteenth-century Bengali theater is teenth-century British theater, as a part of his vast
undisputable. Such an account was unavailable to drama of Scandal. Sheridan’s play, written and first
readers in English until the 1997 translation of Shei produced in the late 1770s, illustrates Dirks’s con-
Shomoy (Those Days) by the famed Bengali novelist tention that scandal thematically encapsulated the
Sunil Gangopadhyay, in which he provides a rich fic- time period. Sheridan’s characters show an England
tive account of the same period Chatterjee studies full of unscrupulous businessmen, suitors, playboys,
in his work. Binodini Dasi’s memoir, translated by moneylenders, and questionable women reflecting

2.  Sunil Gangopadhyay, Those Days, trans. Aruna Chakravarty (New

Delhi and New York: Penguin, 1997); Binodini Dasi, My Story and
My Life as an Actress, trans. Rimli Bhattacharya (New Delhi: Kali
for Women, 1998).