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The Rediff Interview/Susan Seizer, anthropologist
June 01, 2005
Susan Seizer knows too well that the two-hour humourous acts which precede the all-night plays in rural Tamil Nadu are full of double meaning and upfront vulgarity. But she also knows the performers address questions of class, caste, culture and gender during the shows known as Special Dramas.
Seizer, an associate professor of anthropology at Scripps College in Claremont is the author of Stigmas of the Tamil Stage (Duke University Press). The first study of its kind in English, the book not only goes deep into a genre little known even in big Tamil Nadu cities but also looks at the stigma attached to the artists, especially women, who perform in the shows. She has seen them being insulted in public and she knows how at times they are considered characterless and cheap.
Seizer has spent many years since her first visit to India in the late 1980s to study the Special Drama phenomenon. Her book will be useful to anyone interested in the general problems of popular culture, notes author and scholar Sumathi Ramaswami.
She spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais recently.
You, in your late twenties, were alone in India travelling to small towns and cities, watching plays late into the night. How did the men react towards you?
Very respectfully. I had a lot of friends in the drama groups. I spoke good Tamil. People were very protective. They knew my interest was scholarly. I am sure my behaviour counted, too. I tell young men and women going to India for studies or travel the best way to behave. The program I was in, South Indian Term Abroad, had an excellent orientation for us.
What happened at the program?
We were told about the cultural factors, food, abstinence from smoking and drinking, what was the best way to behave and how to dress modestly. The organisation was very strict about enforcing the regulations. It still does.
Didn't you come across Indians wearing revealing saris and blouses?
Sure. Not just in films. What was at stake was that as foreigners, especially as students and researchers, was the image we were creating. It was important for us to have a good reputation. If we wanted to have respect from our hosts, we had to make the right kind of gestures, win their trust and respect.
Doing so would mean what?
We were telling our hosts and others (through our gestures) we were in India to learn, we did not want the doors closed on us because of the way we dressed or behaved. Even today when I hear of someone going to India I tell her the importance of etiquette and dress code. No skimpy clothes. If they insist on doing it, I will tell them they should be prepared for the consequences.
Are you working on another project in India?
Not immediately. But I have planned to visit India in December with my son Keith (who will be about 20 months)
Will your husband go too?
My partner, not my husband. I have a relationship with a female partner.
Do you think you will find it difficult to explain to friends and acquaintances in India about your relationship?
Not at all. Some of my close friends in India know of us. I am sure I would feel very comfortable about this relationship when I visit India. The friendship and bond between women in India is always strong. My female friends understand my relationship. They would have got worried if I had remained single.
Do you have an Indian name?
When I was in Tamil Nadu some of my friends started calling me Chitra. But it did not stick. Susan remained. For some reason some people called me Susai.
Does your son have an Indian name?
I thought of giving him one. But there were too many friends and family members who were coming up with suggestions. It was going to be difficult to convince them of giving him an Indian name.
How did you start studying Tamil and the Special Drama artists?
I came to study anthropology through the backdoor. I had never set out to study stigma, let alone the stigma on actors in Tamil Nadu.
What did you plan to do before you started on Tamil and the Tamil culture?
In the 1980s, I worked as a dancer and choreographer in New York City. I spent a lot of time studying movement. A friend invited me to watch a Bharata Natyam performance at Lincoln Centre. I was overwhelmed. I had not seen anything so graceful before. The movements were subtle and exquisite.
Do you remember the name of the artist?
Malavika Sarukkai performed at the Lincoln Centre as part of the Festival of India in 1985. I still believe it was one of the best Bharata Natyam performances I have seen. It was electrifying. I experienced an epiphany during the performance. I knew no matter how many hours I spent experimenting in a dance studio, I could never come up with anything like what Malavika had performed. I wanted to learn that dance. I knew it was not just the body movements. I knew I had to learn many things to appreciate it.
Where did the epiphany lead you to?
I called the Indian consulate the next day of the performance and got the names of several teachers. I started learning dance under Indrani Rahman. But I knew I was not going to be a professional dancer. I was interested in studying how culture shapes our most intimate selves, our bodies and movements.
Then you started studying Tamil?
After dancing for several months, I learned Tamil was the language to whose sounds we danced. I wanted to learn more. I knew anthropology could help understand the culture that shaped our bodies and movements. I applied to four graduate schools that taught Tamil and Tamil culture along with anthropology and ended up with the University of Chicago.
How did you come across the Special Drama groups?
I was in India in 1989 to study Tamil and lived in Madurai for many months. There was a Tamil Nadu Actors Sangam near where I lived. I knew Dr Mu Ramaswamy of Tanjore University, a scholar. When I asked him about Special Drama Artists, he said the dramas these actors performed were 'boring.'
Why were they boring?
That is what I asked him. I was intrigued by the word. I learned from him soon that the Tamil middle class as well as the upper class dismissed Special Dramas as being too mixed to be pure, too popular to be an art. The artists did not get respect. In many instances, they were ridiculed. Finding a good house for women artists was often difficult. Many people objected to the bawdy acts performed for two hours before the plays opened.
How did you make friends with the artists and producers of the shows?
I attended a Special Drama performance with a friend and we met several artists who invited us to their annual Guru Puja Remembrance Day. I made friends with many artists. I found the women to be very smart. They had the same hopes and aspirations for their children as the middle class and the rich. They wanted their children to be educated.
You have said you found the women artists to be early feminists in India.
Right. Specially the women who had fought for Independence. They were quiet Gandhians. I thought it was remarkable they were taking up the fight against the British despite having their own problems. They had their minds. Even today, these women are quite strong and they want to take their destinies in their hands.
How did the book come about?
The world of the Special Drama artists and the problems and challenges they face was the subject of my PhD thesis. I was attempting to redress the lack of scholarship on Special Drama by documenting the genre. I wanted more people to know about these artists. I hope the book will do it.
Your book has been published by a distinguished university press. What do you expect the book to do for the Special Artists?
I wish the government and private agencies in India realize the importance of the popular art and help its artists and the producers.
Image: Uday Kuckian
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