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Beyond Bollywood and Broadway PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 15 November 2010 18:30

Neilesh Bose

Indiana University Press

Not many in South Africa will know or appreciate how highly some of  our own local Durban  playwrights rank in the international arena. Reading Neilesh Bose’s Beyond Bollywood and Broadway [2009],  which includes  representative plays by  Ronnie Govender [Lahnee’s Pleasure], Kessie Govender [Working Class Hero] and Kriben Pillay [Looking for Muruga], I am  reminded of the power and import of some of the  plays that have emerged from the belly of South Africa. The plays selected depict admirably the quintessentially vibrant energy of protest theatre during the apartheid era. The plays also turn the gaze inward, and expose the conflicts and contradictions  of working-class Indian life within South African society under apartheid.

It is good to appreciate the value of our South African plays through the vigilant and critical eye of an outsider such as  Bose, a historian and theatre  critic and scholar of note, working in the United States. Through his impressive comparative scholarship, Bose shows how our South African plays augment and modulate reflections on  South African society primarily, and only tangentially  on the South Asian Diaspora.  [I would have liked to have seen at least one play by Muthal Naidoo included, but I am happy to note that her work  was recognized and recorded in the book.] And yet, when you come to think about it, these plays were relegated to the “fringe” in South Africa. A case of [some] prophets and [some] playwrights not being recognized in their own country!

Bose provides astute critique of the different levels at which the plays work. Of Lahnee’s Pleasure, for example, he observes : “This aesthetic choice of inputting a specific patois and sensibility into the world of South African drama in no way detracts from the political, class-based message of racialised consciousness. Govender’s particular focus on the Indian situation easily and fluidly merges with a critique and reflection of South Africa at the time. Because of this unique combination, The Lahnee’s Pleasure commands a space in the archive of diasporic South Asian dramatic literature” [2009:370].

It was good to read Bose’s description of  Kessie Govender’s Working Class Hero as “a classic of South African Indian, and diasporic South Asian, theatre” [2009:372]. And Kriben Pillay is accorded deservedly admirable praise  for Looking for Muruga, a play that “enlivens our concept of South Asian diaspora by placing South Asians in a contexts of dizzying complexity” [2009:375].

How many South Africans appreciate that Kriben Pillay’s Looking for Muruga is a play for all South Africans [The composition of theatre audiences in South Africa is notoriously shaped and influenced by apartheid divisions based on race and ethnicity and language]? Bose rightly  points out that although the characters “have their Tamil, their dance routines, their Hindu mythology, and their South Asian names, their lives and struggles primarily relate to race, class, and apartheid” [2009:375] [my emphasis].

The field of South Asian Diaspora Studies  is a wide and sprawling one.  While there are many scholarly treatises that have extended and enhanced our understanding of this Diaspora, Bose’s  collection offers a unique approach, through the lens of drama. The very first of its kind, the collection focuses  on the power of performance in dramatic literature, and shows how drama  offers a particular interpretation, away from discursive, clinical analyses,  of diaspora. The plays bring compelling aesthetic power to the usual analysis of diaspora, capturing its aesthetic, ideological and practical considerations in a way that is quite singular.

The collection is well-structured, with a broad historical overview of the South Asian Diaspora and of its theatre, followed by  four distinct sections, each dealing with a  selected locale and selected playwrights, with a representative play for each.  Bose  does not succumb to the temptation of covering  too much ground cursorily. The strength of the book is its judicious balance between breadth and depth.

Against the  global spread of the South Asian diaspora, Bose’s selection of the United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, and Canada is instructive. By choosing four very specific case studies in the South Asian Diaspora, Bose is able to delineate both broad similarities across regions, as well as the specificities of each country.  Bose provides insightful and informative analysis of the contexts of each country, and moves away from bland generalizations.

Bose provides informative historical background.  From the pre-modern trade routes and ancient exchanges of culture, ideas and texts, to the modern era’s migrations of indentured labourers in the 19th century,  to the middle-class professionals in the 20th [after 1947, when Indian Independence was attained, and after 1960, when a new wave of secondary migration took place], Bose weaves a rich tapestry. He points out that from the early 1830’s to the end of the World War 1, hundreds of thousands of South Asians were sent as indentured labourers to plantations in various parts of the British Empire, “filling holes in the labour force” left by the Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1834. He shows how the interaction of the different strands of histories in the South Asian Diaspora have influenced and shaped the dramatic literature that has emerged and evolved.  He rightly points out that “postcolonial Indians’ history , their sense of the present and of what they should/should not be in the present, comes from a complicated sense of colonialism, racialism, and political struggle” [2009:12].

I found all the plays very instructive indeed. Bhopal, by Rahul  Varma in the US, was among the most compelling.  The scale of the human tragedy is heart-wrenching, with  the play foregrounding  the relationship between the powerful multinationals and the subaltern workers in a specific incident. The wider theme that underlines  much of diaspora history - that of global capitalism in its different  forms - is poignantly depicted.

The many other faces of   diaspora, with the usual postcolonial themes of  longing and identity, of homeland and exile, are articulated variously in specific contexts. In countries like the United States and South Africa, for example,  the intersection  of  class and race is pivotal.  I was pleased to see that the concerns of  women and of gender justice [as in Rukhsana Ahmad’s Song for a Sanctuary] were highlighted, at the same time as the political and cultural context of South Asian Britain was  evocatively and tellingly presented.

Bose shows a critical competence in his reading of the plays, whether he is pointing to the fault lines between “mainstream” or “white”  theatre and diasporic drama,  or exploring  the differing modalities of  western or classical influences in conversation with  Indian/Asian influences.  His rendering of Jatinder Verma’s 2001 – A Ramayana Odyssey is a relevant interrogation here, set in the unique maelstrom that diaspora is.

Throughout the collection, Bose’s strength lies in his exacting and careful appreciation of the local, and the way he deploys this to  cast light on the complex dynamics of the South Asian Diaspora.  Yet Bose, responsive to the very plays he critiques [see for example, Chaos Theory, by Anuvab Pal],  is able to escape the lure of the “identity machine” , and  illuminate the universal.


Reviewed by Betty Govinden