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Dramas from the Desi Diaspora

July 2009
Dramas from the Desi Diaspora

Beyond Bollywood and Broadway (Indiana University Press, 2009), a collection of plays, fills a conspicuous gap in the literature of the South Asian diaspora.

As the title implies, these plays shift the spotlight away from the glitzy center—where showbiz hogs the attention—to the less glamorous periphery, where writers toil in obscurity to produce works that are often nuanced and more reflective of the South Asian diasporic experience. Novelists, of course, have already charted this map extensively, with some of them winning major awards and gaining a high profile. But when it comes to playwrights, where are the desi equivalents of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and M.G. Vassanji?

Historian and theatre artist Neilesh Bose, who put together this anthology, left out playwrights like Mahesh Dattani, Girish Karnad and the late Vijay Tendulkar—despite the acclaim they have won—because, as he notes, their focus is India rather than the diaspora. He also left out Hanif Kureishi and Ayub Khan-Din, though they have written successful plays, because the anthology is—inevitably—representative rather than exhaustive. Furthermore, the eleven playwrights included here are drawn only from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa. These four nations, Bose points out, “constitute the core of the English-speaking South Asian theatre world.”

The themes range from the challenges of segregation in apartheid South Africa to the challenges of assimilation in freely democratic North America. Classics of Indian and Western literature provide inspiration for plays as diverse as Jatinder Verma’s 2001: A Ramayana Odyssey (U.K.) and Shishir Kurup’s Merchant on Venice (U.S.). While Anuvab Pal’s Chaos Theory uses cutting-edge science as a launching pad for a look at immigrant lives in American academia, tragedy suffuses the lives of expatriate Canadians in Rahul Varma’s Bhopal. Other works include Sakina’s Restaurant (U.S.), which Aasif Mandvi wrote and performed on Broadway, Rana Bose’s The Death of Abbie Hoffman (Canada), Rukhsana Ahmad’s Song for a Sanctuary (U.K.), and Kriben Pillay’s Looking for Muruga (South Africa).

Strictly Dandia (U.K.) by Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith focuses on Gujarati expatriates and a star-crossed romance between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. In Ronnie Govender’s The Lahnee’s Pleasure and Kessie Govender’s Working Class Hero, the troubling legacy of South African racism—as practiced by whites and Indians, respectively—comes under scrutiny.

Each section in the book has an introduction by Neilesh Bose, in which he provides a concise, historically informative overview of that country’s South Asian theatre.

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