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Interrogating Social Biases

Radha Chakravarty

Edited by Tutun Mukherjee
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 552, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

While fiction, autobiography and poetry by Indian women have received considerable critical attention in recent years, women’s drama has remained a relatively neglected area. Staging Resistance seeks to redress this lacuna, foregrounding the contribution of women playwrights to the development of a subversive “womanist dramaturgy” in India. Consisting of eighteen short plays in ten different languages, this anthology seeks to demonstrate the versatility of the selected dramatists, as well as their shared preoccupations. The accent, as the title suggests, is on resistance and interrogation of social biases against women; but there is also an attempt to highlight technical innovation and formal experiment.   The useful introduction by editor Tutun Mukherjee outlines broad trends within contemporary Indian theatre, and women’s place within this discourse. In addition, each linguistic-literary segment has a separate preface that places the women writers in question within the theatrical traditions of their own respective languages. Implicit within such a structure is a recognition of the heterogeneity of forms within the broader category of “Indian drama,” precluding facile generalizations.   As Tutun Mukherjee declares in her Introduction, womanist drama occupies an interstitial location between realism and non-realism. In particular, Mukherjee highlights the usefulness of the Brechtian model for the development of an alternative theatre, seeking, not catharsis or equipoise through a tacit endorsement of the status quo in a patriarchal society, but “to roil the equilibrium, to disturb the mind, to resist closure, and deny a therapeutic purging of the mind.” In spite of the diversity of contexts, the plays in this collection reveal a shared preoccupation with certain issues: discrimination against women, denial of voice and agency, the identification of women with the roles of mothers and wives, and their objectification as targets of male desire. Together, the plays interrogate some of these assumptions, but also testify to the spirit of rebellion that continues to motivate women even in situations of extreme oppression.   A sense of history, a desire to retrieve the long narrative of women’s oppression, animates some of these plays. Ambai’s ‘Crossing the River’, Tripurari Sharma’s ‘A Tale from the Year 1857: Azizun Nisa’ and Usha Ganguli’s ‘The Journey Within’ chart this alternative history in different ways, but also affirm women’s determination to chase their dreams in the face of all opposition. The attempt to review the past from a female perspective often involves a retelling of stories derived from myth ...

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