Widows, Pariahs, and Bayadaeres: India as Spectacle

Widows, Pariahs, and Bayadaeres: India as Spectacle

Widows, Pariahs, and Bayadaeres: India as Spectacle

Widows, Pariahs, and Bayadaeres: India as Spectacle

Synopsis

This book analyzes how French dramatists reproduced certain images of India such as the burning widow, the lowly pariah or untouchable, and the exotic bayadere or dancing girl in four plays and one ballet written from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. An examination of these recurrent images demonstrates how the representations intervene politically in French society as well as further the aesthetic agendas of the dramatists themselves. India becomes a spectacle, both literally and figuratively, on the French stage. Addressing questions of Orientalism, the book also argues that it was because the French lost their Indian colonies to the British in the eighteenth century that India became a part of the French literary imagination. Finally, addressing broader questions of intercultural performance and artistic collaborations between non-Western cultures and the West, the book illustrates how, in French print and visual culture, India continues to be described as a land of contrasts, where the exotic and monstrous coexist.

Excerpt

Land of spirituality, or land of widow-burning? land of fabulous wealth, or land of dire poverty, the caste system, and untouchability? Western literature has reflected stereotypical and contradictory images of India since antiquity. For centuries, French writers have reproduced images of India such as the widow immolating herself according to the custom of sati, the pariah or the untouchable, and the bayadère or the dancing girl, in various forms of theatrical representations—tragedies, ballets, operas, and exhibits in world’s fairs. the examination of such recurrent images of India in four French plays and one ballet written from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries demonstrates how these dramatic representations intervene politically in French society as well as further the aesthetic agendas of the dramatists themselves. India becomes a spectacle, both literally and figuratively, on the French stage. Moreover, some of these very images of India, albeit more nuanced and sophisticated, persist in contemporary French dramatic and other print and visual culture.

Edward Said’s analysis of the close ties between the consolidation of Western imperial power and the production of a discourse on the Orient in the West provides a crucial point of departure for our own understanding of the construction of India in French theater. in his groundbreaking 1978 study Orientalism, Said labels Orientalism as the “enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.” Said draws the analogy between the Orient and theater, claiming that the Orient is a “theatrical stage affixed to Europe.” a unique means of disseminating alien cultures, theater offered the ideal framework for the “spectacle” of India presented to the French public. While the texts and their settings in geographically distant lands showed the fertile imagination of the dramatists, the nontextual elements of the performances were as important as the text. Angela C. Pao in . . .

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