Vasudha Dalmia is Professor of Modern South Asian Studies in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley. She is a member of the core faculty of the PhD Program in Performance Studies and on the Advisory Committee of the Group in Religious Studies, of which she has also been director. Her research interests may be grouped in three broad thematic clusters: cultural phenomena in early modern India, the politics of literature and of drama in the new nation-state, and the position of women in these transitions. Her monograph, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bharatendu Harischandra and Nineteenth Century Benaras (1997), studies a major nineteenth century writer as the focal point for an examination of the intricate links between politics, language, culture, religion and nationality. Poetics, Plays and Performances: The Politics of Modern Indian Theatre (2006), traces the genealogies of modern theatre as it sought to constitute itself anew after independence. Of her edited works, The Oxford India Hinduism Reader (2007) appeared most recently.
The creation and subsequent theorization of modern Indian theatre was largely driven by nationalist impulses. Though much inspiration was derived from the West, from Shakespeare in particular, it was the indigenous which was at all times emphasized. As theatre canons were set up, however, popular theatre, urban and rural (‘folk’), was largely marginalized. But popular forms made their way back into elite urban consciousness and theatre practice. There were at least two such waves; one in the 1940s, of the rediscovery and use of ‘folk’ forms in particular, for nationalist and anti-imperialist purposes, and then again in the late 1960s and 1970s, largely in order to reinvigorate and revitalize urban theatre, once again deliberating on its origins and reach. My project sets out to look at the politics of the third or late modern wave of urban theatre, setting in the 1980s, which interweaves for its own ends, past practices and connections, particularly the urban popular. This wave is less, if at all, concerned with the ‘national’. I begin my project with a study of the play Begum Barwe by Satish Alekar (1979), which explores the politics of cross-gender performance. At the centre of this play is a male protagonist, who had once played the lead female role in Sangeet-Natak, the 19th century Western Indian urban popular form which was closely allied with, and grew alongside, the sub-continently pervasive Parsi theatre. My interest lies in uncovering and exploring how this play relates past moments to the present, both theatrically and politically.