The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Drama Contemporary: India Edited by Erin B. Mee, Oxford, Rs 395

In the true tradition of a multilingual and multicultural country, theatre has evolved spontaneously, and with mindboggling diversity, in India. Indian theatre, in the broader sense, covers a wide arena of performance-oriented activities both of religious and secular origin. Erin B. Mee, while compiling a volume of contemporary Indian dramas, has aptly pointed out, “modern drama is a subset of ‘theater’, but is nonetheless connected to, and influenced by, many of these other performance forms.”

Each of the six plays in the volume is notably Indian in sprit. They do not, however, conclusively sum up the Indian reality or the Indian theatrical scenario. Mee admits that the plays as a whole demonstrate, and not necessarily represent, “the enormous range of playwriting in India today”.

In explaining the background of the plays, Mee highlights the aesthetic movements they belong to, which were in their turn prompted by social or political movements. For example, Girish Karnad’s The Fire and the Rain and Kevalam Narayana Panikkar’s Aramba Chekkan are the products of the theatre of roots movement, Usha Ganguli’s Rudali belongs to the women’s theatre movement, Tripurari Sharma’s The Wooden Cart develops out of the street theatre modality, Datta Bhagat’s Routes and Escape Routes can be put under the rubric of Dalit literature. Mahesh Dattani’s Tara, originally written in English, is exceptional in that it carries no tag of any specific movement behind it. Yet it exemplifies as well as re-examines the convention of English language playwriting in contemporary India.

Of the six plays, Karnad’s is by far structurally the most complicated, with its innovative use of indigenous folk forms and Karnad’s own brand of play-within-the-play technique. Panikkar’s Aramba Chekkan realizes his concept of theatre as drisya kavya or visual poetry, which closely adapts the popular dance-drama from called kuttiyattam. Usha Ganguli’s Rudali, based Mahasweta Devi’s novella, belongs to the school of “realistic” drama.

Of the remaining three plays, Tripurari Sharma’s The Wooden Cart, which explores the social stigma of leprosy, was a production funded by the UNICEF, and it is obvious from this that the play aims at raising social awareness.

The plays brought together by Mee explore the various strata of the Indian reality and record the many voices that dwell within these layers. The purpose seemingly is to discover or retrieve a polyphony out of the cacophony.

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