For those of you who are still looking for something interesting to read this summer, I’d like to call your attention to a fantastic new collection, Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora. I learned about this collection after having the editor, Neilesh Bose, as my colleague in Colorado this past year. (You should know that although he’s not that much younger than me, Neilesh has distinguished himself as being the only person Stateside who calls me Nilanjana didi to my face, which is mildly annoying but also endearing.) Neilesh bhai moonlights as a modern South Asian historian focusing on Bengali Muslims from the 1920s through Partition, and leaving his elder "sister" behind in the alpine desert, he’ll be joining the history department at the University of North Texas next fall.
Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora will be officially launched August 10-11 at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (CUNY) in New York with many of the playwrights in attendance, so do save that date if you’re in the city.
The collection includes three plays from the United States, two from Canada, three from the United Kingdom, and three from South Africa. Even if I hadn’t met Neilesh this year, I would consider the collection a must-read for those of us who groan at the news of yet another novel evoking the heady scent of mangos. The plays from the United States include a seering sendup of two desi academics (identity politics, the postcolonial condition, etc.) in Anuvab Pal’s Chaos Theory and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice set in 21st-century SoCal by Shishir Kurup. The other plays cover broad territory including the Bhopal disaster, absurdist theater, the hypothetical meeting of epic heroes Odysseus and Ram, domestic violence, Gujarati British youth culture, South African apartheid, and Indo-African relations. The plays are divided into sections by country, and for each country, Neilesh provides a detailed (but very readable) introduction to the historical, social, and cultural factors that distinguish South Asian migration and settlement there. There are also helpful comments on the development and role of theater in each setting. I’m always suspicious whenever people start talking about the South Asian diaspora as something that can be lumped together in a coherent whole, so I particularly appreciated these introductions. At the same time, there are recurring themes across these different diasporic locations, and these introductions direct our attention to them.
In 1998, Mandvi produced a brilliant one-man show, Sakina’s Restaurant, which I caught at the American Place Theater in New York. At the time, I was blown away by Mandvi’s ability to inhabit a dizzying array of characters—from Azgi, a young man who’s just arrived from India to work at an Indian restaurant on East 6th Street; to Farrida, the restaurant owner’s wife who used to be a dancer before she was married; to the restaurant owner Hakim, to his teenaged daughter, Sakina; to her Gameboy-obsessed little brother, Samir; and a young medical school student, Ali, who reveals his betrothal to Sakina as he visits a prostitute. It was Azgi, standing with his suitcase center stage, who opened the show: "Hello, my name is Azgi. I like Hamburger, Baseball, and Mr. Bob Dylan." Adopting different mannerisms and voices, Mandvi segued from one character to another in literally mid-sentence, with few if any props. To give you a sense of how this worked, in this excerpt from the written play, Azgi sits at a table at one point and suddenly morphs into the teenaged Sakina — with the aid of a hand mirror.
(AZGI moves over to the table stage left and sits down. We are now in the presence of SAKINA. She primps and preens in a large hand mirror, until she is suddenly surprised by the presence of Tom who is sitting across the table.)
SAKINA: Oh my GOD!!! (Embarrassed) I didn’t see you come in.. Wow you look great, I got your message. I can’t stay long… ‘cus I gotta get upstairs by 7:30.— Well we’re having this religious festival at our house and all these people come over and we make this food called Biriani and.. Never mind, I just gotta get back upstairs by 7:30 to help my mom get ready for it. (Pause) So, what’s up?— I’m surprised to see you because last time we talked you were like, "Sakina we are broke up"… and then you hung up the phone. What?— That’s not true!— Is that why you came here, to tell me that?(She turns and takes a deep breath and then turns back to him). No, I’m fine, I’m fine, first of all Tom, first of all, Stacey and I are the ones who started this band and Stacey and I are the only ones who can—
(She looks up at the imaginary waiter.)
Hi!–No, I’m not eating.. no neither is he, thanks, OK? —Thanks.
And Stacey and I are the only ones who can kick anybody out of this band, which is not even a band yet, because Stacey still needs to learn how to to play the piano and so you are kicking me out of a band that does not even exist yet!
After speaking with Neilesh about my memories of the performance, Neilesh reminded me that for those who weren’t able to make it to its performances over a decade ago, all of this was lost. Without its being published, there was no chance of its being performed again—or ever being acknowledged as a significant literary work. And then I understood why this book was so important.
In the midst of my unpacking my house and his traveling from the States to London, I asked Neilesh a few questions over email about the project, and he was extraordinarily generous about sharing his thoughts a few hours later.
Nilanjana: Neilesh, I confess that I haven’t gotten through all the plays, but I’m looking forward to savoring each of them, one by one, throughout the summer. Let’s run through a few basics first. You’re the only South Asian historian I know who’s also comfortable on the stage. Have you always been bitten by the drama bug, or did you become interested in drama at a particular point ?
Neilesh: I think initially I was drawn to the theatre because of my elder brother, Rajesh, who is an actor and the true thespian of the family. I acted in plays in high school on a whim and I ended up really enjoying it, but as an undergraduate, I started to act in plays across various dramatic canons, like Shakespeareâ€™s Troilus and Cressida, Peter Weissâ€™ Marat/Sade, and Hrosvithaâ€™s trilogy Comedia Sacraea VI. Hrosvitha, by the way, was a 10th-century German nun, poetess, and playwright, and is usually crowned as the first playwright of the Middle Ages. Isnâ€™t it wonderful to do theatre as an undergraduate! Though I have and always will love performing, as an undergraduate I began to veer even farther away from familiar desi territory: I began to delve into the theory, criticism, and history of performance, theatre, and dramatic literature. I delved so much that I wrote an undergraduate thesis on the anthropology of theatre and the ways that modern, â€œWesternâ€ theatre makers and theorists have conceptualized â€œEasternâ€ theatre practices in their own work, so I looked at the politics of individuals like Eugenio Barba, Jerzy Grotowski, Richard Schechner, and many others, in the pursuit of understanding â€œinterculturalâ€ theatre. This interest of mine, I suppose, continues to inform much of my work today. But anyway then I was drawn to large, broad questions (and I still am) but as my undergraduate days came to a close and I went to graduate school and I decided to pursue a line in South Asian studies and South Asian history, I reflected on the rather nascent state of critical studies about South Asian diasporic theatre. What is the political, aesthetic, and socio-cultural environment in which South Asian diasporic theatre workers create their art? In the South Asian theatre field, there are mountains of works addressing this topic. In the South Asian diaspora, we seem to be flooded with work on fiction, essay, poetry, and short story, but precious little about drama and theatre. As a Masterâ€™s student, I wrote a thesis, partially a continuation of my undergraduate work, about Indian theatre traditions in South Africa, as I had done undergraduate research in South Africa on that very topic. I had mentioned to my then advisor the need to document and publish many plays I had encounteredâ€”extraordinary plays written by phenomenal individuals and the products of a variety of aesthetic and political influences. My then advisor, needless to say, was not very encouraging as it was not seen (about 10 years ago) as very feasible to put together an anthology of South Asian diasporic plays by any publisher, academic or not. But how things change! When I began my doctoral studies, one of my first teachers, Sudipto Chatterjee, a specialist in modern Bengali theatre (and with whom I have translated into English a play by Utpal Dutt, Maanusher Adhikare/The Rights of Man, an extraordinary 1969 play about the American civil rights movement in Bengali), and I have collaborated on a variety of projects about Indian theatre. I still do count modern South Asian theatre as one of my research interests, but I am interested in doing more work on South Asian diasporic theatre and doing more substantive research on the theatre traditions in the countries represented in this anthology. One future project includes producing a fully fledged monograph on these countries, rather than simply reproducing plays, though that task is also quite important– both for general exposure and for producing critical and theoretical dialogue about theatre and the South Asian diaspora. I am and will always be quite multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary, but I will always be both a performer and a scholar. This is what perhaps scares my parents the most!
Nilanjana: Yes, many of us scare our parents. I think that’s why we get along. Have you had the opportunity to be involved with many South Asian-themed plays in the United States? I’m curious about whether there is much support for these productions here, as opposed to the other countries from which you’ve included selections.
Neilesh: In 2001 and 2002 I was a part of a group, South Asian American Theatre (SAATh), in Boston, that was formed to bring out the South Asian and South Asian American voice in the American theatre. I have since left Boston and that group, but it was mainly a student venture and much of the energy for theatre and performance by South Asian Americans derives from students. Though in one of my many lives I am a performer and I have performed South Asian American pieces (like Shishir Kurupâ€™s one-person play Assimilation), in recent years my academic work has taken a front-seat. I will return to the stage, though! Though student energy and talent is quite expansive and wonderful, I think that is one distinctive factor of the American theatre, that though various individuals of South Asian descent have leapt into vaunted positions of recognition in the American theatre, we have yet to embrace a messianic playwright, institution, or set of plays by or for South Asian Americans, so we are still a collection of individuals pursuing our self-interest, rather than working in any kind of tradition. And theatre and performing arts professions are radically centered on individual, not communitarian, achievement, so it is a difficult situation to begin with. And one key factor that differentiates North American artists in the US and Canada is that we are not working within the contours of a defined politics against patterns of authority or aesthetic dominance as other groups are. So the British Asian arts movements, as you well know, derive in part as a reaction to the heavily entrenched racism of the 1970s and 1980s â€“ politics built the need for the performing arts which then in turn built the foundations for training professional artists. And in the meanwhile, a specific audience base was formed. This is the Tara Arts story in Britain. This is comparable to the story of African American and East Asian American theatre traditions in the United States, with the Negro Ensemble Company creating plays like Douglas Turner-Wardâ€™s Happy Ending, a landmark play in both its aesthetics and politics.
In South Africa, the situation is a bit different, as there was a vibrant anti-apartheid theatre movement (all 3 plays in the book are a part of that) with really wonderful plays, but now without a clear political enemy and with the cultural boycott seeing its natural end, there has now been a lull in playwriting and new works for the stage. But the foundation is there, whereas in the USA, there is money, training programs, and all sorts of resources, but the aesthetic and political drive is still in its formative stages. I think there is a dearth of â€œmainstreamâ€ support for theatre by and about South Asian Americans for a variety of reasons â€“ one, following the idea that theatre here is without a political anchor, the great majority of individuals who pursue theatre in the South Asian American community are actors (and though they are of course necessary!) there needs to be a real infrastructure of directors willing and able to handle South Asian themed work, producers (where are our South Asian MBA brothers and sisters) willing to find funding for South Asian themed ventures, and playwrights who are writing about modern South Asian Americans. This has not happened as such and it will take a few more generations, but this is part of the agenda of the book launch and conference â€“ to investigate the state of South Asian American theatre today and think toward the future. Incidentally, a well-known and highly regarded South Asian American actor, Manu Narayan, recently commented that television is way ahead of theatre regarding casting and inclusion â€“ there are many roles on television for South Asian Americans (small, yes, but growing and not all flat-out stereotypes) whereas out of the 50+ plays in New York that could be cast with South Asian actors, nearly none of them are. Theatre is a business that in many ways is more conservative because it has to cater to a very specific audience. Until South Asian Americans, like African Americans, truly construct their own presence within that specific world (have a repertory of production worthy plays written by South Asians, professional theatres that showcase South Asian work, develop an audience base within the existing American theatre constituency, etc.), weâ€™ll always be on the outside looking in.
Nilanjana: I’ve noticed that the mainstream press pays significant attention to novels and non-fiction works written by South Asian diasporic writers, so why do we not hear more often about what’s going on in the realm of drama– at least in the United States?
Neilesh: I think you hit on it right thereâ€”there is a lot of critical and popular attention paid to novels, non-fiction, and even cinema. We donâ€™t hear about dramatic literature and theatre, and my book is a small start. One of the problems is that plays, unless they are regarded as critically brilliant and absolutely unforgettable, usually donâ€™t hold the attention of literary critics that long anyway. Lynn Nottage, the young African American playwright, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and I am not sure that news reaches mainstream or even many literary circles. How many literary critics know about Suzan Lori-Parks, also African American, who also won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur genius grant for her playwriting? So there is marginalization on one sideâ€”drama and theatre itselfâ€”and the further marginalization or boxing in of South Asian work. One playwright and producer, Rehana Mirza, commented on Slumdog Millionaire recently in such terms, that now such a film is out, just like when Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize, every South Asian American writer was asked to write more about turmeric and cooking, and now with Slumdog Millionaire, playwrights and screenwriters are asked to write about kids in slums. My goal with the book is to at least expose to an academic audience the vitality and history of recent South Asian diasporic theatre and also to stimulate those playwrights and practitioners to get more of their work out. I also have a historical, documentary interest in that I want to make sure these works are accessible to the researcher, student, and general reader.
Nilanjana: Did most of the playwrights with whom you were working expect that their work would be published at some point for anybody to perform, or were they working with a particular performer or group in mind? How did this affect how the book came together?
Neilesh: Like my own set of academic interests, it was a mix. Some of these plays were published before in one-off venues, like Sakinaâ€™s Restaurant, some were never published before, like Anubav Palâ€™s Chaos Theory, and some were published by presses that donâ€™t exist anymore, like Kriben Pillayâ€™s Looking for Muruga, from South Africa. I think many did not expect their work to be published, and it was really my own interest and vision that brought them together. So they have no real connection other than my own historical and aesthetic eye. This is good and bad â€“ good in that I think interesting connections arise (an American adaptation of Western classics, e.g. Merchant on Venice next to a British Asian adaptation of the Ramayana and Odyssey makes for interesting aesthetic and political comparisons). But also as this is a rather wide sweep, we have the absurdist Death of Abbie Hoffman, chosen primarily because it is an adaptation of an avant-garde Bengali play Micchil (Procession) by Badal Sircar, alongside Bhopal, a realist play about the tragedy. Taken just as plays, the plays often have nothing to do with each other, and so someone wanting to produce South Asian diasporic theatre would not be able to just take these plays and do them â€“ they all have very specific cultural and aesthetic-political references. So I think I really wanted to make the book historically relevant as opposed to a collection that any practitioner can produce. But then there is nearly nothing in this field anyway, so this is a start that I hope others will add to. I mention in the book that many writers’ plays were left out â€“ like Hanif Kureishiâ€™s Borderline (incidentally Tara Arts is producing an adaptation of his Black Album at the National Theatre UK this summer) or Rajesh Gopieâ€™s Out of Bounds, or Muthal Naidooâ€™s Flight from the Mahabharata. I hope that future scholars and/or playwrights will take the opportunity to work on documenting and publishing more work in this genre.
Nilanjana: Are there any plans to perform any of these plays Stateside in the near future?
Neilesh: Well, there is hope that Merchant on Venice will be picked up â€“ it was produced by the Silk Road Theatre Project in 2007, considered by many professional theatres, and may occur in 2010. I am trying to promote the South African plays, particularly Lahneeâ€™s Pleasure, for a 2010 festival about the 150th anniversary of Indian indentured labor in South Africa.
Nilanjana: Anything else you’d like to add?
Neilesh: Nothing except my thanks to you!!!
Nilanjana: You’re always welcome!