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Performance, Representation and National Identity

Neelam Man Singh

By Jisha Menon
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 260, Rs. 795.00


Jisha Menon’s book is an incredible inter- vention in debates of nationalist identity constitution through an expansive understanding of the categories of performance. The book challenges conventional definitions of theatre, ritual and performance by situating them in a large semiotic system—the meaning systems running through sacred rituals and spectacular public events, sports, and popular entertainment are not looked at in isolation. The boundaries between performance and national culture are refined and sharpened enough to throw fresh light into the meaning of national identity.   For a generation of people, the traumatic exodus of Partition altered and re-defined their understanding of self and their relationship with nationhood. The scale of violence and its disruptive effects on all that one held precious was immense. Two nations, India and Pakistan, were born on the blood of innocent victims, and many narratives were silenced to cohere with the nation’s ideas of nonviolence. This conspiracy of silence and an obdurateness to not act as witness to the upheaval of Partition found manifested in mindless acts of violence both mundane and heinous in everyday private and public spaces.   Having personally lived my life in Amritsar as a young girl, I found an immediate connect with the reference in the book about the spectacular ceremony that takes place every evening at the Wagah border. Wagah is situated halfway between Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar in India. Every evening a large crowd gathers on either side of the border to see a display of power, and carefully choreographed contempt.   Sounds of ‘Pakistan Zindabad!’ and ‘Jai Hind’ from each side of the border charge the air in a cacophonous display of combativeness. Each side resplendent in their uniform, choosing actors who are robust in frame and height. Towering figures of male strength became for me as a child trope of intimidation. Intimidation that was accentuated by their massive turbans-cum-coxcomb headgear, and furious flowing beards. The ceremony as Menon shares with us is the lowering of the flag of both nations before sunset. But the real reason for this aggression becomes evident on the geopolitical faultline: the baggage of history has created this hostility and resentment between India and Pakistan. The two sides mimic and mirror each other’s movements: thump-thump, martial cries and intimidating stares. This performance of movement and sound, precise and ordered with the crowd on both sides cheering, as if a football match is ...

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