Through studies of colonial and post-colonial literature and theatre, English professor Nandi Bhatia is helping to raise the curtain on the past.
“We really need to uncover the voices of ordinary people who are largely absent in historical documents,” she says. By looking at the role of theatre and performance in the context of nationalism and colonialism, Bhatia hopes to shed light on British imperial practices as they related to race, class and gender in India throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Literature and theatre can provide valuable insight into substantive issues across socioeconomic and cultural lines because they provide space for alternative voices and underrepresented perspectives.
“They are important because they provide us with understandings and views we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise since they reflect social contradictions being expressed and articulated at the time,” Bhatia says.
To limit these alternative views, the British India government imposed a variety of laws aimed at censoring performances it deemed seditious and counter to the status quo. “Theatre was more threatening to them because it allowed for a different viewership and dialogue, often in different languages,” she says.
Research in the area can be particularly challenging, however, because many colonial-era scripts weren’t written down for fear of reprisals, including fines and imprisonment. Circumventing this lack of documentation, Bhatia, who earned the Polanyi Prize for her research in 1999, turned to reading between government rhetoric in censorship documents and in the English and vernacular press from the time, which are rich with debates about theatre.
She is also working on a project that examines women’s contributions to debates about colonialism and nationalism through theatre. “Women coming to the stage was contentious in and of itself,” Bhatia says.
“The position of the actors got caught up in both debates of gender and nationalism – women were seen as the upholders of the home and upholders of the nation.” This research looks at the role women played in negotiating public-private roles, how they came to be constructed in the theatre as actors and playwrights, and at the formation of female-led theatre companies.
“Historical writing has largely silenced the voices of ordinary people,” Bhatia says.
While memories of colonialism and of the country’s 1947 partition were still relatively fresh when she grew up in India, personal representations of partition – which was one of the largest forced migrations of the 20th century – are limited. “It’s a moment that is very much a part of popular memory for an entire generation,” she says. “For many, life began with partition.” Some of these personal stories have been captured by the country’s theatre and writings.
“It’s ironic that the canon of Indian literature is assembled in English,” Bhatia says, but by understanding performances and texts from a tumultuous period in India’s history, we can help preserve memory and better understand the past.