New Postcolonial Dialectics: An Intercultural Comparison of Indian and Nigerian English Plays (Featured Review)

“Sarbani Vengadasalam’s New Postcolonial Dialectics: An Intercultural Comparison of Indian and Nigerian English Plays is a model of comparative postcolonial analysis because she discusses the specific context and history of each colonial and postcolonial experience and each playwright while arguing convincingly for similarities. In other words, she finds important common ground without losing sight of what makes each nation’s history unique and each author’s experience individual. Her overviews of the existing scholarship on postcolonial studies, performance studies, and historical writing on each national experience are exemplary.

In her preface, she claims that “theatre is a crucible for change” and argues for the “urgent need for an intercultural dialectic” in comparative postcolonial and performance studies. This topic is also timely as Vengadasalam breaks new ground in her intercultural discussion of theatrical work in English by Rabindranath Tagore, Wole Soyinka, and Badal Sircar. Vengadasalam sets up her terms with admirable clarity in the preface and first chapter, grounding her ideas of culture and colonialism in the work of Fanon, Said, and Bhabha and detailing the function of the English language in “deracinating and deculturing” in both Nigeria and India, creating an “English-educated elite.” Here, she turns to Sartre’s work on the elite and goes onto discuss the “colonial cringe” created by the British as they devalued local customs and traditions. The work of anti-colonial movements, Vengadasalam explains, was in part to create “a resurgence and revitalization of traditional institutions,” and she compares the Negritude movement in Africa and the Swadeshi movement in India, arguing that nationalism created new problematic myths around issues of identity. Providing context on Tagore, Soyinka, and Sircar, she discusses the tensions around the Nobel Prize awards and reception in the cases of Tagore and Soyinka, and ends the first chapter by arguing for “interculturalism as a critical tool.”

The structure and argument of her book set up two phases for each nation’s interculturalism, with alternating chapters on each phase of Indian and Nigerian drama. A final chapter, “Intercultural Scaffolding—Deductions, Conclusions, and Inferences” brings the extensive work in the previous chapters to bear on a sustained final argument for this kind of comparative analysis. Throughout the sections of the book, Vendasalam uses the specifics of history in the colonial and postcolonial experiences of both nations to contextualize her discussion of the plays. In the case of Tagore’s Red Oleanders, she explains the ways that the East India Company, the First World War, Christianity, and British education in India created a backlash in Indian nationalism. Of Tagore, she argues that he was a universalist—or internationalist—at a time when the general mood was militantly nationalistic. In a wonderfully apt turn of phrase, she argues convincingly that Tagore saw colonialism as “organized artifice” and claims that Red Oleanders inspired the audiences in their ideas of revolt against colonialism.

A helpful discussion of the history of Nigeria’s indirect rule as compared to various other methods of colonialism follows, then Vengasalam charts the rise and fall of African Negritude and early rebellions in Nigeria. After praising the goals of this movement as a “counterfoil to white Western myths,” she describes its limitations and the ways that Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel provided a critique of both Negritude and Neo-Negritude as movements that were useful only up to a point. Soyinka’s goal was to offer complex cross-cultural understanding with inner, mental liberation as the result. Her discussion of Sircar’s 1972 play, Micchil, or Possession, begins with a brief history of Indian Independence and the cultural and the material ramifications of that shift, the attendant “transitional trauma.” She describes the influence of Sircar’s international travel and his interest in communism and a public theater that is not commercial. Vengasalam sums up the tensions in post-Independence India as reflected in Possession, and in her summary of the events and characters not only in this example but in the many plays she discusses, the book comes together in the service of her larger argument about interculturalism. She manages to explain to a reader who has not seen these plays nor lived through these historical moments how theater strengthens her argument.

This ability to write about performance in context makes the book both a convincing and an enjoyable read. New Postcolonial Dialectics provides a theoretical framework that is both succinct and far-ranging enough to provide the tools for an intercultural discussion of two phases in the theater and histories of India and Nigeria. Her discussion of each of the three playwrights animates both the colonial and postcolonial experience that produced each play. At the same time, her intercultural analysis argues convincingly for connections and patterns in the experience of the writers and the plays they produced.”

Our heartfelt thanks go to both the author, Elizabeth Brewer Redwine (Seton Hall University), and to African Studies Quarterly for allowing us to reprint the review in full. The issue in which the review appears, Volume 18, Issue 4 (October 2019), can be found here.

To read an extract of the book, to find out more information about its author, or to purchase your copy, you can follow this link.

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