Feedback About Us Archives Interviews Book Reviews Short Stories Poems Articles Home

ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2017



South Asian Diasporic Theatre: A Critical Overview

Dr. D. Sudha Rani, Associate Professor, VNR Vignana Jyothi Institute of Engineering and Technology (Autonomous), Hyderabad. (TS)

After a three –week run in a city where Asian Americans comprise 24.5 percent of population, this remarkable production has also remained beyond the narrow scope of the press and has gone un-reviewed and undocumented. (324)

Roberta Uno, a theatre critic from United States of America, writes about the patronization of Asian American theatre in Introduction: Asian American Theater Awake at the Millennium in Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing . This is the condition of the genre of South Asian diaspora theatre across the globe for a long time. This reminds us the situation of Indian English theatre in India till recent times. Indian English drama did not establish it self for a long time before it is recognized and patronized by the urban, English speaking middleclass Indians. Only when the size of the audience increased and the society began to accept theatre as a decent art form, the change in the perspective towards this art form took place. Though the genre began to develop, the criticism of this genre of literature is in its nascent stage.

While South Asian diaspora literature is rich and well established, South Asian diaspora theatre is not developed as much.  Critics point out several reasons for such dwarf stage of the branch of literature.  Aparna Dharwadkar a noted critic analyses the situation in her research article,

Diaspora and the Theatre of the Nation” (2003), “Moreover, while novelists often employ diaspora as the enabling condition but not the subject of narrative, immigrant playwrights can create original theatre only when they distance themselves from their cultures of origin and embrace the experience of residence in the host culture, with all its problems of acculturation and identity (303).

Nevertheless, this branch of literature is currently growing and slowly establishing itself in the host countries. It is also essential to note the significance of this critical study, which is two-fold. To begin with, South Asian Diasporic community is gaining greater importance in these countries owing to its population and their contribution to the immigrant countries. Second reason is that, theatre is a more authentic form of art that expresses the human element and the issues of the human society. This paper attempts to give a critical overview of the South Asian diaspora theatre.

South Asia refers to the seven nation-states—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives Islands. Denoting the term ‘South Asia’, historian Neilesh Bose writes, “Clearly the term South Asia serves only as a geographical boundary marker and not as a description of the various cultures that are included in the region” (5).  And thus the theatre of this stratum of society is highly diverse as the cultures, societies, and political scenario of so many countries are involved. It is quite obvious, the volume of the globe is huge and so also so the parts of the globe to which South Asians continue to migrate. Unable to incorporate details of South Asian diasporic theatre in all the countries, I have concentrated on nation-states where the South Asian theatre is quite active and the publication of these plays is available like, United States of America, Canada, United Kingdom of Great Britain and South Africa. Narrowing down the search further, I will consider only those plays written in English and those theatre groups which have produced sizeable productions and those playwrights (from South Asian origin) writing about the community of South Asians which is in focus.  Since this paper presents a critical overview of the genre, the author will not be able to go into detailed analysis of any one play and all the plays mentioned in this paper. An attempt to understand, basic developmental stages, the issues presented,  the formation of their hybrid identities and the ‘self” of South Asian diaspora on the stage in the host countries is done in this paper.
South Asian migration to United States of America started in nineteenth century but the initial migrants were labourers in majority. After the Indian independence, when the young English educated Indians were looking for opportunities of migration i.e. during 1950’s and 60’s USA has taken their attention. Thus, from 1960’s onwards the student community and the professionals’ community from South Asia started migrating to America. Basically this community in America is engrossed in earning dollars; their primary aim in coming to a rich country like America. After a considerable time is taken by this community in consolidating their position,  a section of them, largely young, second, third and fourth generation South Asians whose permanent settlement is in America and who identify themselves more as Americans, started opting for alternate careers in theater, radio, television and cinema industries. While opting for theatre, two possible reasons would have prompted, one being  eagerness to express their ‘self’ on American stage, second is that this group of youngsters do not consider America as only a place to earn dollars, but they made it their home.

A group of theatre companies like, Chicago’s Rasaka’s theatre, Boston’s South Asian America theatre, Chicago’s Silk Road theatre, Minneapolis’s Pangea World theatre, Pennaatak theatre, Lark theatre, Salaam theatre, Disha theatre, Shunya theatre and many others constantly produce plays of South Asian Diaspora across the vast area of America. New York is the epicenter of this theatre activity but the whole of America is entertained by these theatre groups. Playwrights are writing plays from 1950’s onwards. Playwrights from this community have been producing plays like Asif Mandvi- Sakina’s Restauarant, Bina Sharif- Afgan Woman, My Ancestors House, Another Journey Home, Rehana Mirza, Gargi Mukherjee-Our Voices, Anuvab Pal- Chaos Theory, Shishir Kurup- Merchant  on Venice, Assimilations, Alldin Ullah-The Halal Brothers, Taniya Hossain- Mother in Another Language, Neighbors, Bridge & Tunnel Deception, Rohina Malik- Yasmina’s Necklace, Unveiled, Dolly Dingra- Unsuitable Girls, Sarovar Banks’s- The Moral Implications of Time Travel etc. The list is quite big and same is the issues discussed and presented on the American stage.

The first generation South Asian American playwrights like Bina Sharif exhibit the longing for home and express that nostalgic feeling in plays like My Ancestor’s Home. She writes that she is really amused that she had to leave her Muslim homeland and settle down in a liberal and democratic country, but still labeled as a Muslim woman playwright. The second and third generation immigrants like Shishir Kurup focus on the ‘Self’ entangled in complex identities. Kurup’s Assimilations is a demonstration of impact of racism on South Asian immigrants in the West and Merchant on Venice exhibits his lineage towards the Hindu-Muslim issue. Merchant on Venice also focuses on the common cultural background of South Asians. Sakina’s Restaurant by Asif Mandvi is a comedy play with an inherent indication of the life and ambitions of working class South Asian migrants. A young man from India dreams to reach Ameirca, no matter whatever kind of job is offered to him there. The fascination of Indians to live in America is well exhibited in this play. Anuvab Pal’s Chaos Theory appears to be a love story of Sunita and Mukesh but it also projects the South Asian Academic community along with their post colonial conditions.  

Thus it is evident that the South Asian American playwrights are primarily concerned about the issues of their community in America. They also exhibit their inclination of awareness about the issues related to their countries but the vigour is lacking. As they are away from their home land they lack that seriousness towards the issues of their homelands. One of the most sensitive and important issue like Hindu-Muslim communal clashes is being dealt in lighter vein in Merchant on Venice. Simultaneously racism is given very serious attention in plays like Assimilations. Issues related to their land of migration, migrated community and issues related to identities are given prominence.

South Asian community in Canada is a little different from its counterpart in America. On one hand America has accepted the diasporic community from South Asia; on the other hand Canada was hostile for a long time. So, immigrants had to focus on consolidating their homes and lives in this country. They had to bear the burden of opposition from the administration, people and simultaneously cope with the personal problems of migration and then focus on producing literature. Initially from 1830’s to 1950’s the migrants were by and large labourers. Then gradually after the independence of the South Asian countries, professionals and students started migrating to this country. These young professionals started entering into alternate careers like television, radio and theatre. They wanted to address the issues related to them and voice out their problems, both personal and the concerned to community. South Asian Diaspora in Canada remembers its past experiences where they suffered the racism and colonialism.   After a lot of struggle and outrage from this community, the attitude of the Canada government and people started changing. The population of this community is not only sizeable, but influential in more than one way currently. Analyzing their population, Diana Lobb, a research scholar from Canada writes,

Representing over a million individuals, South Asian-Canadians represented 3% of the Canadian population in 2001, and their numbers were expanding at a rate of 33% since the last census, a rate that far outstripped the 4% rate of growth of the Canadian population (Stats Can). However, while enumerated as a single group, Statistics Canada points out that within this group are individuals with a diversity of religious and ethnic affiliations, mother-tongues, education and economic levels, and ages. This incredible difference-within is the aspect of South Asian-Canadian identity that makes it such an effective lever against not just the ethnography of settler/invader identity but also against the pedagogical narrative of the Anglo-Celtic settlers ‘a priori claim to this place.  (71-72)

Theatre activity of South Asian Community in Canada primarily started with an intention to showcase the community’s dissatisfaction over the living conditions and treatment they received from both the government and people of Canada. This community’s theatre in Canada had a much serious ideological background in comparison to its counterpart in America. It has been playing a crucial role in the identity shaping of this community. Though the negotiation of identities was always at the heart of the genre, it realized that in this process it got transformed a lot.  Writing about the importance of this genre, Ms. Lobb insists on the role played by this art form and writes,

South Asian-Canadian theatre is a particularly useful field for examining the ongoing negotiation between Présence Asiénne, Présence Européenne and Présence Canadiénne. What becomes obvious in examining South Asian-Canadian theatre is the caution that must be taken in attempting to identify the influence of both Présence Asiénne and Présence Européenne. Présence Asiénne, the vector of influence representing the connection to the ancestral homeland(s), needs to be historically situated. Présence Asiénne is never pure — this vector cannot be understood as representing an authentic, pre-colonial South Asian cultural influence. It is always already hybridized with Présence Européenne, which itself needs to be historicized in terms of what aspects (and moments) of European culture can be seen to interact with South Asian cultural realities. (130)           

The journey of this genre of art started as a protest theatre, then it started showcasing the issues of their counterparts in home land (Bhopal) and gradually it consolidated itself as a mainstream theatre and well recognized both by the governmental agencies and people of Canada. Teesri Duniya, a theatre company, is now receiving funding from The Canada Arts Council, The Québec Arts Council, and The Montreal Arts Council. Teesri Duniya publicly announces its role in shaping the target community and its cultural identity, “Teesri Duniya Theatre is dedicated to producing socially and politically relevant theatre that supports a multicultural vision of society, promoting interculturalism through works of theatre, and creating theatrical styles based on the cultural experiences of visible minorities living in Canada” (Teesri). The theatre company also works in collaboration with many Indian counterparts. Similarly, the Vancouver Sath, a theatre company that operates with naxalite ideology and East Indians focuses on the plight of the migrants. Analyzing one of the plays produced by Vancouver Sath, Dian Lobb writes,
The Lesson of a Different Kind that Vancouver Sath's didactic play teaches not just to Resham but to all members of the next generation brought up here is that they can redeem themselves and this society. By actively renegotiating a South Asian Canadian cultural identity grounded in conscious recognition of class oppression, the members of the next generation can begin to reorganize their society into one in which the working class has equal access to power. (151-52)

Plays like, Komagata Mary Incident of Sharon Pollock, Lions of the Sea by Jessi Thind, Lesson of a Different Kind by Resham Gill, Job Stealer by Teesri Duniya, Bhopal by Rahul Verma, My Sita’s Promise and Meera by Uma Parameswaran are frequently produced and patronizes. One remarkable feature of South Asian Canadian Theatre is, after a lot of struggle for identity and respect in the society of Canada, this art form is slowly trying to be a part of mainstream Canadian national theatre. Thus majority of this genre is engaged in social and political change, though they continue to project issues related to this community and their counterparts in homelands.

The case of United Kingdome is different from that of United States of America and Canada. The long standing relationship of South Asian countries with that of European countries is one vital reason in shaping the Diasporic literature. South Asian migration to United Kingdom is much older than colonization and it increased owing to the consolidation of British Empire in these countries. As ever, the initial migrants were servants, labour and ayahs. Development of literature began when educated youngsters started migrating to this country.

Interestingly, South Asian theatre in the UK began to make its appearance in a similar fashion as the English drama in India did. Touring cultural troupes used to perform for migrant Asian communities in the UK. The first one to visit was from Oudh which is arranged by two English brothers, though not much is known about these brothers and the performers. But the theatrical tradition started spreading into various regions of the UK. A theatre group emerged during World War I, namely Indian Dramatic Art Society and produced plays in English with leftist ideology. This paved way to the vernacular theatre of South Asian languages in the UK which basically dealt with internal community dynamics. The mainstream South Asian theatre in the UK is forty years old. Writing in the introduction to the Critical Essays on  British South Asian Theatre 2012,  the documented history of this genre, its editors Graham Ley  and Sarah Dadswell  reason the plight of this genre.

The fact is that, despite its forty years of burgeoning activity, Asian-led theatre in Britain has not figured at all in prominent and supposedly authoritative accounts of the contemporary British theatre. What is remarkable about this absence is that several Asian-led companies and their leading practitioners have been well known to the theatre-goers for the last twenty years, not least because ‘the sector’ (as it is currently known) has been required by the conditions of funding to tour widely throughout Britain.  (1)

The young South Asians were eager to express their discontent over the discrimination they were facing in the society and they used theatre to express their angst. This reminds us of the English drama in India, the way it was used as a tool in the nationalist movement. Thus the esthetic and creative abilities of these youngsters were shaped by the urge for equality. Hence the plays produced during 1960’s and 70’s were a part of popular protest against discrimination.  Interestingly, this genre in England enjoyed  excellent  patronization. According to Graham Ley  and Sarah Dadswell ,“the primary reception of British South Asian theatre in all its varieties by audience and reviewers has not matched by an appropriate level of secondary reception by those who might review achievements at a greater distance, from an academic or critical stand point” (1).

By 1960’s, natives of England started raising their voices against these migrants and there is demarked increase in racist attacks. Tara Arts Theatre Company has toured around Britain to propagate this problem. Sudha Bhuchar (Strictly Dandia), Sanjaeev Bhaskar (Goodness Gracious Me), Ayub Khan Din (East is East, Rafita-Rafita) are the prominent playwrights associated with this theatre company. Tara Arts could spin the vigour in the playwrights like Hanif Khureishi (Borderlines), Farrukh Dhondy, Madhav Sharma (Actors Unlimited) became active.  Rani Murthy’s Rasa theatre group [1998-2000] staged some of her plays like Shades of Brown, Curry Tales, Pooja etc. Ruksana Ahmad produced some of the thought provoking plays like, Black Salwar, Mistaken (2001), Song for a Sanctuary (1990), Annie Besant in India (2007), Kirben Pillay – Looking for Muruga, Jatinder Verma- 2001- A Ramayana Odyssey, Jabine Chandri-My Daughter’s Trial (2013), Shelley Sitas- Calcutta Kosher (2012), Sayan Kent & Tuyen Do- Shared Memories, Azma Dar- Chaos, Sonia Likhari- Behna, Gurupreet Kaur Bhatti-  Behzti  are some of the playwrights and their plays. 

According to Neilesh Bose, it is from 1990s South Asian Diasporic Theatre activity is recognized by British media and society. And it is during this time the playwrights of this sector started staging plays about a multi folded issues like, colonial, post colonial, familial, social, cultural, political, personal to global multiculturalism. South Asian migration to this land started early and the host country enjoyed long standing relationship with these countries as all most all South Asian nations were British colonies. Owing to these two reasons, consolidation of this stratum of society in Britain was natural which resulted in rich artistic expressions. One prominent feature of the British South Asian Diaspora theatre is, it produced considerable number of Feminist plays and popularized the angst of women of this community.

Africa as a nation has more similarities to all South Asian countries than one. The most important being, it is also one of the colonies of British. So the affiliation to this country was always part of the South Asian consciousness. But when it comes to migration, again it was indentured labours who were displaced to Africa by the British rulers. The plight of the migrants was known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi started his freedom movement from here. Thus the emergence of African Indian Congress is recorded but again in case of theatre by South Asian Diaspora, poor documentation and recognition plagues this art form. As the migrants are increasing in population, their attempt to consolidate their homes in dire conditions was essential to practice any art form.  Thus began, multi-racial theatre tradition began to develop, where Indian actors began to perform works by British playwrights (in English) for non white audiences in Durban.  Analyzing this development, Neilesh Bose, a theatre historian writes,

Indian South African theatre then started to reflect both the issues of its communities and started to use local casts. After the visit of India’s Krishna Shah to Durban in 1962(who staged Rabindranath Tagore’s The King of the Dark Chamber), Muthul Naidoo, Ronnie Govinder, Welcome Msaomi, and others formed the Durban Academy of Theatre Arts (DATA). (366)

Gradually these actors started preparing to write, stage their plays and started theatrical companies like Durban Academy of Theatre Arts which staged plays by Muthul Naidoo, Ronnie Govinder, Kessie Govinder etc. The diasporic South Asians identify themselves with native Africans and join hands in voicing against racial discrimination. Their intra community issues and intercommunity issues were suppressed by the fact that all of them were victims of racial discrimination. Playwrights like Rajesh Gopie, Kirban Pillay, Yugan Naidoo, are some others who contributed their plays to this sector. A keen observation of these plays reveals that these plays deal with a panorama of issues ranging from local South African society to global identity problems. One significant factor about all these plays is, the playwrights are haunted by discrimination and not displacement. Lahnee’s Pleasure is a play by Ronnie Govinder which is staged in many locations across the country from 1972 onwards. This play exhibits the condition of Indian working class which is not even allowed to sit along with English men in a bar. Kirban Pillay’s Looking for Muruga presents the Indian working-class life and race relations and politics of South Africa during Apartheid. It focuses on the intra community issues and politics of performance also.

In spite of greater diversity, South Asian diaspora shares a few fundamental commonalities like, all these nation- states are being colonies for a long time and they got independence after a lengthy and painful struggle.  They all got independence almost during the same time and started their journey of development simultaneously. The migrants from these nation-states to the specified host nation-states began with labourers and then followed by professionals and students. The journey of their theatre in the host countries began with the issues related to cultural identity, displacement and their encounters with the host nation and the citizens in the case of those who are first generation writers. In the case of second, third and fourth generation diaspora theatre personalities, the issues are more serious and certainly related to the host nation and dynamically varied but progressing towards the global issues. But this sector of literature is making its mark in the world literature and is worth paying serious attention.

Works Cited
Bose, Neilesh, ed. Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian
            Diaspora. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. Print.

Dharwadkar, Aparna. “Diaspora and Theatre of the Nation”. Theatre Research International  Vol. I. 3 (2003): 303-325. Print.

Lobb, Dianna. Canadian Literatures Beyond the Colour Line: Re-reading the Category of South Asian Canadian Literature. PhD Dissertation. Canada: Waterloo University, 2011. Print.

Ley, Graham, Sarah Dadswell, eds. Critical Essays on British South Asian Theatre.  UK: University of Exeter Press, 2012. Print.

James. R. Branden. A New World: Asian Theatre in the West Today. Tulane Drama
Review. Vol-33. No-2. Summer 1989. Print.

Srikant, Rajini. The World Next Door: South Asian American Literature and the Idea of
America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Print.

Asian American Theatre
National Asian American Theatre Festival NYC
Silk Road theatre Project
South Asian playwright’s www.south Asian