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SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN THEATRE: (UN/RE-)PAINTING THE TOWN BROWN

Abstract

In his second year at the University of California, Berkeley, Arthur William Ryder (1877–1938), the Ohio-born Harvard scholar of Sanskrit language and literature, collaborated with the campus English Club and Garnet Holme, an English actor, to stage Ryder's translation of the Sanskrit classic Mrichchhakatikam, by Shudraka, as The Little Clay Cart. The 1907 production was described as “presented in true Hindu style. Under the direction of Garnet Holme, who … studied with Swamis of San Francisco … [and] the assistance of many Indian students of the university.” However, in the twenty-five-plus cast, there was not a single Indian actor with a speaking part. The intended objective was grandeur, and the production achieved that with elaborate sets and costumes, two live zebras, and elephants. Seven years later, the Ryder–Holme team returned with Ryder's translation of Kalidasa's Shakuntala, “bear cubs, a fawn, peacocks, and an onstage lotus pool with two real waterfalls.” While the archival materials do not indicate the involvement of any Indian actors (barring one Gobind B. Lal, who enacted the Prologue), its importance is evinced by the coverage it received in the Oakland Tribune, the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times.

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ENDNOTES

1. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, none of the English translators of Sanskrit plays was from India. Euro-American Indologists had absolute supremacy in this area, although there were many Indian scholars who translated from the Sanskrit into local regional vernaculars.

2. “Programs in the Greek Theatre,” University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

3. Marcus Wohlsen, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Illuminations (October 2005), online at illuminations.berkeley.edu/archives/2005/history.php?volume=9 (accessed 5 December 2007).

4. “Greek Theatre Events, 1903–24: English Club Productions,” University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

5. Wohlsen mentions a preview of the performance that appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1914, as well as a review published by the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine.

6. “To Produce Sanskrit Play,” New York Times, 4 June 1905, X4.

7. Stark Young, “The Little Clay Cart,” New York Times, 14 December 1924, X3.

8. Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2007).

9. Marianne Messina, Review of Baby Taj (dir. Matt August), Metroactive (Silicon Valley weekly), 5–11 October 2005; online at www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/10.05.05/baby-taj-0540.html (accessed 29 January 2008).

10. Colloquial Hindi word meaning “of the land.” Desh, in Sanskrit, means “homeland.” Although in use since the 1980s, this term has gained much currency among second-generation South Asian Americans for identifying themselves.

11. The ensuing discussion draws to a great extent from a panel on South Asian American performance organized as part of Asia: By Means of Performance at UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies in 2006, under the aegis of the University of California's systemwide Multi-Campus Research Group on Globalization and International Performance. The panel comprised both theatre practitioners from South Asian communities in Northern California and academics specializing in South Asian performance, including myself, Sujit Saraf, Vidhu Singh, Sambit Basu, and Charlotte McIvor.

12. While these concerts are also divided along lines of community, faith, and nationality, it is interesting to note that Bollywood stars have a power to bring South Asians from all communities out together.

13. Meha Gargi, “Shunya Brings ‘The Bronx’ to Houston,” Shunyatheatre.org, 17 July 2004, online at www.shunyatheatre.org/news7-17-04.htm (accessed 4 December 2007).

14. Hedy Weiss, “Worldly Hindus Take on a Strict Muslim: Take Another Look at the Bard's ‘Merchant,’” Chicago Sun-Times, 1 October 2007, online at srtpblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/merch ant-on-venice-is-highly.html (accessed 29 January 2008).

15. Sudipta Bhawmik, interviewed electronically by the author, 2 December 2007.

16. Aparna Dharwadker, “Diaspora and the Theatre of a Nation,” Theatre Research International 28.3 (October 2003): 303–25.

17. Samrat Chakrbarti, interviewed electronically by the author, 2 December 2007.

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Theatre Survey
  • ISSN: 0040-5574
  • EISSN: 1475-4533
  • URL: /core/journals/theatre-survey
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