Mee speaks on modern Indian theater

Swarthmore Theater Studies department professor Erin Mee spoke yesterday on the “theater of roots,” a “post-colonial effort to decolonize Indian theater” whose goal is to establish a modern, universal, indigenous national theater in India. Mee’s lecture was the second part of the East Coast Artists’ residency, which will culminate this weekend with the western hemisphere premiere of “Harvest,” a play by Manjula Padmanabhan, directed by Mee. The residency is supported by the Cooper Foundation.

Mee began by tracing the influence of British colonialism on Indian theater. The colonizers, she said, taught the Indians enrolled at the newly-founded British universities in India to reject traditional Indian theater in favor of the English theater. Epic, partially improvised sagas based in religion and often staged environmentally, in the round or on a thrust stage were replaced with the strictly scripted, secular, realistic productions on a proscenium stage familiar to Western audiences. Tickets were no longer free, and the theater became a pastime for the upper crust, who were soon writing their own British-style plays.

India’s independence in 1947 sparked a movement to return to more traditional practices. Mee focused first on Girish Karnad (father of Raghu Karnad ’05), one of the most pivotal figures of the theater of roots. She showed a short video of the beginning of a Karnad play. Though the play was staged in a proscenium theater, it began with a ritual offering, inviting the audience to see the play both as a Western audience would and as a traditional Indian work at the same time, a “double viewing” in which the “spectator sees simultaneous realities at once.” The traditional theater promoted a very different sort of audience from what Mee called the Yertle the Turtle view: “I am the ruler of all that I see.”

She then described the work of K. N. Panikkar, who uses a version of traditional dance-drama to deconstruct a traditional text. Though the script is eight and a half pages long, the production runs around 90 minutes. This is a much abbreviated version on the true traditional drama, which can take up to 40 evenings. The actors spend most of the time describing, often improvising, their character’s back-stories, only actually performing the play at the very end. This non-linear approach aims for a heightened emotional response, an “aesthetic flavor translated through performance.” The actors learn to display emotion, not to feel it themselves.

Unfortunately, Mee finished, the roots movement is mostly dead now. The Indian government supported roots theater with nationalistic intentions, to create India’s own theater, by giving grants to productions using traditional methods. This led to many productions using elements of the practice as mere gambits for grants rather than fully integrating them into an original artistic creation, which had a bad effect on the reputation of all roots theater productions. The grants, Mee said, “made a movement into a style.”

She then took questions, leading to a lively comparative discussion of Indian and Greek theater. A reception followed.


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