The play’s the thing! A new collection of plays from the South Asian diaspora

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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.



What I was however most eager to read at the outset was Aasif Mandvi‘s play, Sakina’s Restaurant. (Yes, that Aasif Mandvi, the brown guy on the Daily Show).

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.

(Waiter leaves.)

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 Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, and Hrosvitha’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. Isn’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, “Western” theatre makers and theorists have conceptualized “Eastern” 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 “intercultural” 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 Master’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 encountered—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 Kurup’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 – 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-Ward’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 “mainstream” support for theatre by and about South Asian Americans for a variety of reasons – 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 – 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 – 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.), we’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 there—there is a lot of critical and popular attention paid to novels, non-fiction, and even cinema. We don’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 don’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 side—drama and theatre itself—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 Sakina’s Restaurant, some were never published before, like Anubav Pal’s Chaos Theory, and some were published by presses that don’t exist anymore, like Kriben Pillay’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 – 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 – 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 – like Hanif Kureishi’s Borderline (incidentally Tara Arts is producing an adaptation of his Black Album at the National Theatre UK this summer) or Rajesh Gopie’s Out of Bounds, or Muthal Naidoo’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 – 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 Lahnee’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!

15 thoughts on “The play’s the thing! A new collection of plays from the South Asian diaspora

  1. Thanks for this awesome post, Nilanjana. I saw Sakina’s Restaurant back when it was showing and it still sticks vividly in my mind. There was another take on Shakespeare – The Merchant on Venice by Shishir Kurup which also stayed with me … I wonder if that’s in the anthology as well?

  2. You jerks might be delighted to know that Mandvi is going to be performing Sakina’s Restaurant at the Soho Playhouse in NYC as part of their Summer Solo Series. Check out their website for the exact date and time. The same venue also has a show called D’Arranged Marriage by these losers. It seems like it might be worth checking out. If Flight of the Conchords was any indication of New Zealand’s potential of comedic talent, then it should be a pretty good show.

  3. Thanks Nilanjana, for writing about this!

    Do all exciting things happen only in NYC? Does anyone know of any events in the Bay Area?

  4. You jerks might be delighted to know that Mandvi is going to be performing Sakina’s Restaurant at the Soho Playhouse in NYC as part of their Summer Solo Series. Check out their website for the exact date and time. The same venue also has a show called D’Arranged Marriage by these losers. It seems like it might be worth checking out. If Flight of the Conchords was any indication of New Zealand’s potential of comedic talent, then it should be a pretty good show.

    Other Brown Meat — why so cranky? You obviously are well versed on the desi theater scene in New York, so why fling insults?

    Incidentally, I checked the web site following your helpful (but insulting?) comment, and it looks like Aasif is on for Tuesday July 28 at Soho Playhouse.

  5. Nila, this looks amazing! Thanks for sharing the scoop on this. I remember seeing Mandvi perform part of “Sakina’s Restaurant” at UMichigan last year.( I had read it for the food research but never really went anywhere with it–not because of the play’s limitations but my own:) This was after he earned Daily Show fame and it was interesting that the audience some how felt that they were being ‘cheated’ that it was so serious. But I’ve always loved “Sakina’s” and glad to see it is included in this volume. Can’t wait to get it!! Anita

  6. Armadeep – It’s only way I know to show people that I love them. It probably explains why I have no friends. I’ll tone it down. I’m a helpful little troll at heart. If you order tickets via the website, enter the promo code SOLOS and you can get the tickets for $25 instead of $35. I believe you can use it for any of the shows in the Summer Solo Series.

  7. Amardeep – Sorry for butchering your name. I’m just not on my game today.

  8. Ocotillo, Anita, Other Brown Meat, (and Amardeep) thanks for chiming in. I’m so glad to know that Mandvi is still performing Sakina’s restaurant. (If he does it in your area, don’t miss it!) There are exciting things that happen even in Denver (just wait till you hear about what I did tonight in my next post!), so I’m sure there must be something going on in the Bay Area. Sudipto Chatterjee, Neilesh’s mentor, was until recently at Berkeley, after all. Let’s hope the West Coast mutineer network will kick in to answer your question.

  9. Wanderer, given that the works are all originally written in English, it will probably take a while before it’s translated into other languages.

  10. I saw Merchant on Venice twice my first summer here in Chicago at Silk Road Theater – they put on great, multi-cultural themed plays. Also saw a travelling production of A Mid-Summer’s Night’s Dream @ Navy Pier with the entire cast speaking different Indian languages.

    Yoni Ki Baat is another great one – Indian version of Vagina Monologues – played here in Chicago as well.

    Anyone ever seen any of Anosh Irani’s plays ? Bombay Black and Matka King ? I saw the latter in Vancouver, BC when I lived there and it was the first, real non-western themed play I had seen and was blown away. He is really talented (pick up The Cripple and His Talismans if you can).

    Are they included in this book ?

  11. GurMando and all, the eleven plays included are listed below. It’s a thick volume!

    Part I. The United States 1. Chaos Theory Anuvab Pal 2. Sakina’s Restaurant Aasif Mandvi 3. Merchant on Venice Shishir Kurup

    Part II. Canada 4. Bhopal Rahul Varma 5. The Death of Abbie Hoffman Rana Bose

    Part III. United Kingdom 6. Song for a Sanctuary Rukhsana Ahmad 7. 2001: A Ramayana Odyssey Jatinder Verma 8. Strictly Dandia Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith

    Part IV. South Africa 9. The Lahnee’s Pleasure Ronnie Govender 10. Working Class Hero Kessie Govender 11. Looking for Muruga Kriben Pillay

  12. I saw the program at the MES theatre and was so disappointed.The only worthwhile readings were those of the South African playwrights. The worst reading was that of Pal’s Chaos Theory. The poor thing obviously doesn’t understand the concept. It was an amateurish, clownish piece of rubbish. It had the appeal of a very bad sitcom crossed with a Bollywood romance.The woman’s character is a know-it-all shrew smug though stupid. The man is a feminized buffoon. Pal’s work is worse than most undergraduate workshop creations. He should heed the advice given to junior high students; write about what you know about. The characters are cartoonish stereotypes.The jokes are predictable.

    Varma’s Bhopal was boring and uninspired. The characters were flat. They were as one-dimensional as the dialogue. Can anybody make it in Montreal? Are immigrants so desperate for anything that is written by someone who is desi. This author cannot have had any formal writing education. He would have known better than to have reduced such a rich and complex topic as Bhopal into trite tutti. The Merchant on Venice was just contrivance. The author is no Shakespeare and the Muslim Shylock character doesn’t work. The puns are dumb and vulgar and there is nothing clever in this reinterpretation.

    The audience laughed just like trained seals at all the dumb, predictable gags in several of the plays but the only truly funny part of both evenings was this over-acting witch whose face was frozen in a contortion often seen on the face of those smelling something super foul. Her name is Bina Sharif and she is truly awful. It is obvious she thinks very highly of herself and her horrible acting. It was great fun to watch her. There is a saying about a person’s face after 40 (before that it is the face you were born with and after that age it is the face you have created). What awful, horrid expressions must this woman have held . She would be perfect (even sans special effects makeup) for a South Asian reworking of the Wizard of Oz as the wicked one. The Margaret Hamilton character looks absolutely delicate and dainty compared to this beast.

    Everything South Asian is hot. So many subalterns now have expendable income and are buying or seeing anything related to India. But the quality of this material is poor. Just like Bollywood productions, most of these plays are shallow reproductions of what has been done by the white folk. What a shame- with a population of more than a billion, did this culture really only have this infantile stuff from which Bose could cull his sample?

    Now, for the motti and heera in the dung heap: the South African plays were superb. Though written I the seventies, the themes are relevant and the writing still fresh.The actors were fabulous.Ronnie Govender and his cousin’s daughter Ms. Jones spoke eloquently and intelligently. Mr.Govender read a poem which said more about questions of identity than all the other productions put together. What a shame when artists of his calibur have a tough time paying the bills and those of Varma and Kurup’s level receive kudos.

    All the rotten playwrights had some things in common. They were confident, egotistical and clueless about good literature. Neilesh Bose, have you ever read “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? You seem bright and your opening address touched upon so many interesting issues.But most of the plays didn’t. Perhaps the title of the book should have been “Trapped in the Bollywood Aesthetic, the Colonials Grovel and Jest”.