Review: Asides by Nemichandra Jain

(L) Asides in hardcover with dust jacket; (R) About the author on the inside of the back jacket

If you have been a regular reader of my blog then you must have noticed a gradual increase in the posts about my experiences of watching theatre. And when you get a book on an interesting topic at 80% off, then it is hard to not buy it.

Asides by Mr. Nemichandra Jain is a book about, as the tag line says, themes in contemporary Indian theatre and was published in 2003. It is a collections of essays written over a time period of several decades. As Mr. Jain writes, "these essays are the outcome of my own responses as a spectator to hundreds of plays during the last fifty years". The author gives a good background on the state of Indian theatre and for me the most rewarding outcome was that I became aware of the rich history of Indian plays, which dates back to thousands of years. Many hold the view that Indian theatre has been influenced by Western ones and there is no difference between the two and no originality in the former. This is true for most of the plays being staged in urban centres of interest - like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, but is definitely not true for the traditional methods which still exist in the rural parts of the country.

The presence and penetration of radio and television, and now internet, has negatively affected the traditional methods of communication - in the past the enactment of plays wasn't for entertainment but for pushing a idea through the fog of illiterate brains - because the illiterates could neither read nor write and the only way of getting to know what was happening around in the world was through such plays. Again, they weren't solely intended for illiterates but for everyone. Mr. Jain doesn't mince words when calling spade a spade. However, his personal biases and preferences do play a strong role in most of the essays - his disgust with the entry of Parsis into theatre for, according to him, all they wanted was profit and hence introduced titillating components in the script.

It also seems that Mr. Jain overestimates the social component of theatre when he writes, ""while some of the theatrical activities on different occasions. While some of the theatrical forms, such as Ramlila, Raslila or Ankia Nat, are exclusive preserves of the upper castes, specially the Brahmins, a large number of others are practised and performed by many castes considered lower in social hierarchy. Indeed, the theatre has been an important integrating force in Indian society". The beautiful differences between traditional Indian play and Western play is explained by him: "the audience participation int he traditional Indian theatre is not a product of any conscious attempt or desire born out of a sense of isolation, alienation, or loss of identity by the people. The participation of the audiences is an expression of a way of life and has an inner validity, whether one likes that way of life or not. It is never playing to the spectators but playing with them". At the same time he writes of 'compulsive audience participation' in Western plays and writes that "it tends to squeeze out all entertainment or pleasure from a performance and makes it so literally and seriously rituatlistic that it becomes real, a kind of substitute for life, and ceases to be a creative activity at all". The author also doubts some concepts like the Cold War, which he writes of as the "so-called Cold War". He writes about the traditional drama once again, "the stories in the traditional drama are always well-known to the audiences. Thus, a performance is not an imaginative innovation, an adventure on an unfamiliar terrain or an exploration into unknown regions. It is a kind of living again a common cherished experience of the community, and both the performers and the spectators have a sense of identity with what is unfolded in the play". This seemed a little bit like a self-contradictory statement because the author has earlier praised the traditional Indian drama by saying it relives the commonly shared thread and stories and not an exploration of the unknown. Hence, the traditional Indian drama should be labelled as uncreative and criticized for being so, but the author, surprisingly, doesn't do so.

Am no expert and will have to read a little more about it to even qualify as a novice, but seems hard to believe that during Mughal period there wasn't any development of any sorts in the dramatic aspect of Indian culture. He writes, "after its golden age lasting about a thousand years and more, with Sanskrit playwrights like Bhasa, Kalidasa, Shudraka, Byhavabhuti, Vishakhadatta and others, there was a period of an almost total absence of dramatic writing of any consequence for another millenium, in spite of very vibrant and imagintive (sic) popular theatre in different regions and languages".

The whole book is peppered generously with photos of the bygone era - and some of them are really rare ones belonging to the late 1940's! A general reader would not only get to know about India's cultural past relic, but also will be delighted to read about various interesting plays of the past. One would also be informed about the origins of IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) and NSD (National School of Drama). On reading about Sakharam Binder of Vijay Tendulkar I was reminded of Amrish Puri's role in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda. This is a book which any serious theatre critic (of course I am not one) cannot miss, and which a general reader (like me) would like to boast of as having read it (but understood not more than half of it). A purely pleasurable experience it is to read this one.

Nemichandra Jain died in 2005.

Buy at Amazon


Post a Comment