Hinduism and Hindi Theater

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Diana Dimitrova
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , August
     2016.
     215 pages.
     $99.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137599223.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hinduism and Hindi Theater focuses on the work of seven male Indian playwrights who composed plays in Hindi between 1880 and 1960. In chronological order, the playwrights are: Bharatendu Harishcandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Lakshminarayan Mishra, Bhuvaneshvar Prasad Shrivastav, Jagdishcandra Mathur, Mohan Rakesh, and Upendranath Ashk. The choice of this period and of these specific playwrights—beyond noting that they have been “influential” (1)—is never fully explained. While it constitutes a useful and necessary device for limiting the discussion to a manageable selection of theatrical works, the choice does mean that more recent playwrights writing in Hindi—including female playwrights such as Shanti Mehrotra, Mannu Bhandari, Mridula Garg, and Mrinal Pande—are neglected. A consequence of this is that issues of gender are discussed exclusively in terms of how men and women have been depicted by male authors.

As delineated in its introduction, the book’s research questions are three, namely: “What are the Hindu myths that the authors have appropriated and reworked in their plays and what are the ideological discourses that we can discern? Why are the ancient myths relevant to the contemporary and modernist agenda of the playwrights? What are the ideological implications of the interpretative discourses and how are they informed by the power structures of society?” (1). In response to the first of these questions, Dimitrova discerns “conservative,” “orthodox,” and “traditionalist” discourses operating in the work of some of the dramatists she considers, and “modernized” and “progressive” discourses in the work of others. She maintains that both types of discourse utilize mythic themes in selective ways that are motivated by ideological agendas. Thus, for instance, Bharatendu, Prasad, Mishra, and Rakesh implicitly model their principal female characters on demure and compliant figures from Hindu mythology such as Sītā and Sāvitrī, whereas “Bhuvaneshvar and Ashk subvert traditional norms of womanhood” by invoking—again implicitly—empowering images such as those of Draupadī and Devī in her warrior forms (144).

In response to the second research question, Dimitrova suggests (or perhaps presupposes) throughout the study that Hinduism’s great mythic narratives constitute the reservoir from which playwrights draw their themes and imagery. And in addressing the third question, Dimitrova proposes that, on the whole, Hindi theater should be viewed as part of a larger field of cultural production—including other forms of literature and, crucially, popular cinema—that has tended to bolster rather than challenge “the values of the upper-middle-class,” especially with regard to issues of gender and women’s rights (145).

Central among the book’s theoretical concepts are those of “mythologizing” and “otherism.” Dimitrova informs us that she coined the second of these in a previous book “to denote the universal discourse of ‘otherness and othering’” (17). By “universal,” I presume Dimitrova means merely widespread, as she goes on to contend that “othering” is not inevitable and that at least one of the playwrights she discusses, namely Ashk, has succeeded in “promoting religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and multiculturalism” (90) through emphasizing a vision of “Hindu–Muslim hybridity” as opposed to the kind of exclusivist models typical of other Hindu dramatists (88).

The terms “mythologizing,” “demythologizing,” and “remythologizing” are used by Dimitrova in various ways. In many instances, to “mythologize” is to represent something in a way that has been distorted by ideological proclivities. For example, modern Indian literary critics have, purportedly, contributed to the “mythologizing and othering [of] India’s Islamic culture and court Urdu drama as foreign and non-Indian,” when in fact these elements have been integral to the development of Indian theater (37). In other instances, “mythologizing” or “remythologizing” is used to mean the appropriation of mythic themes for the promotion of certain norms or ideals, such as ideals of womanhood. In this connection, Dimitrova contrasts “conservative” with “progressive” mythologizing (106), according to whether the appropriated ideals are, in Dimitrova’s view, conservative or progressive. It is occasionally implied that “progressive mythologizing” amounts at the same time to a mode of “demythologizing” when, for instance, it involves demythologizing “the processes of the othering of women” that have been deployed by conservative mythologizers (142).

Although Dimitrova’s uses of the notions of mythologizing and othering are not opaque, the terms could have been more rigorously explicated early on. Instead, what we get in chapter 2 is an overview of multiple theories of myth, accompanied by the claim that all of the theorists “assert the process of mythologizing of contemporary literature and culture and the revival of myth and religion in the twentieth century” (11)—even though some of these theorists were writing in the nineteenth century. And in the case of “otherism,” instead of clarifying the particular sense of this and related terms that she is interested in, Dimitrova aims to “discuss briefly the theories of [multiple] scholars,” including Derrida, Foucault, Lévinas, Edward Said, Stuart Hall, and others (14). The result is, again, a condensed survey rather than a detailed exposition.

Structurally, the book is relatively unadventurous. Three out of the five main chapters are organized around exegesis and analysis of particular plays by the playwrights with whom Dimitrova is principally concerned. The bulk of these three chapters comprises sections on each of the playwrights in turn. Although this makes the discussion easy to follow, it tends to hamper the depth of comparative analysis.

A noticeable weakness is the extent of the book’s reliance on the author’s previously published work. This is not hidden from the reader, as multiple citations of Dimitrova’s own publications occur in the text, sometimes four or more times on a single page. While this practice may offer confidence that the author knows her subject, it also raises questions about whether the present book adds substantially to what Dimitrova has already written in her two previous monographs.

Nevertheless, judged on its own merits, Hinduism and Hindi Theater provides a valuable introduction to the work of seven Hindi playwrights and contributes to our thinking about how their work exploits and feeds into discourses concerning the representation of Hindu religious and cultural motifs, especially those concerning the roles and status of women.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mikel Burley is associate professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Leeds.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Diana Dimitrova is professor of Hinduism and South Asian religions at the University of Montreal, Canada. She is the author of Western Tradition and Naturalistic Hindi Theatre (2004) and Gender, Religion and Modern Hindi Drama (2008). She is also the editor of Religion in Literature and Film in South Asia (2010) and The Other in South Asian Religion, Literature and Film: Perspectives on Otherism and Otherness (2014). 

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