The Tragedy of Comedy: Staging Gender in South India

By Weidman, Amanda | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Tragedy of Comedy: Staging Gender in South India


Weidman, Amanda, Anthropological Quarterly


The Tragedy of Comedy: Staging Gender in South India

Susan Seizer, Stigmas of the Tamil Stage: An Ethnography of Special Drama Artists in South India. Duke University Press, April 2005.

There is one enigmatic moment in Keith Basso's classic ethnographic essay, Portraits of the Whiteman: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache. As Basso lucidly explains, Western Apache joking about the Whiteman works by creating the Whiteman as a symbol of all that the Western Apache is not, and thus effecting a humorous temporary inversion of proper social order while allowing Western Apaches to shore up their own social values and community cohesiveness. Joking-in the form of impersonating the overly talkative and inquisitive Whiteman-affords a temporary release by means of which Western Apaches can put a human face on the power that subordinates them and dramatize their encounters with that power. But at the end of eighty lucid pages, Basso suggests that, even armed with all this interpretation, there is something about humor that evades explanation. Lest we get caught up in the endless analysis of these jokes, he writes, we should remember that "the whole thing has been in fun. But, paradoxically, not really. Hello, my friend, how you doing?"(Basso 1979, 82).

No matter how many times I read Basso's book, this ending always haunts me long after I've closed the book. First, because its uncertainty contrasts with the certainty of Basso's preceding interpretations. Basso seems to be saying that the extent to which something is funny is directly related to the extent to which it is completely serious; that the funniest jokes are those that threaten most to slip out of the joking frame that contains them. This ending counters the neatness of the inversion model, according to which the jokes are merely temporary inversions of the social order, that Basso uses throughout the book.

And second, Basso's ending is striking because it marks the point where interpretation gives way to repetition of the joke itself, to its dramatic form. This is where Basso seems to hint at the inadequacy of his symbolic approach for explaining why it is that these jokes take the form of impersonations, why they are staged as little dramas, what kind of enjoyment Western Apache men get out of playing the Whiteman, and how the characters they play in the jokes relate to their real-life roles. In other words, there is a whole realm of experience and "fun" that Basso's focus on the meaning of these jokes, rather than their dramatic form and context, sidesteps. His ending, it seems to me, points to the difference between treating these jokes as a cultural "text" and treating them as performance.

Both of these issues-the blurring of the joke with "real" life and the importance of dramatic form-are at the heart of Suzan Seizer's ethnographic study of the popular South Indian theatrical form called Special Drama. In Stigmas of the Tamil Stage, Seizer presents a remarkably nuanced account of the relationships between the onstage actions of Special Drama actors and actresses and the dilemmas and difficulties of their offstage lives. In doing so, she offers insight into the relationship between staging, dramatic form, and meaning.

In Special Drama, staging can position performers and interpellate viewers, depending on their gender, quite differently. For, as we learn quite early in the book, while the artists who perform Special Drama are a community united by the stigma they bear as low-class actors and actresses, this community is cleaved by gender (349). Stigma attaches to performers of Special Drama because they perform bawdy comedy, but this stigma falls most heavily on actresses because of the gender norms of Tamil society. Actresses, in performing publicly, in interacting with unknown men publicly, transgress the norms for "respectable" Tamil women. Their lives confound the boundaries between public and private, between home and world, which anchor gender norms in Tamil Nadu, as well as in much of South Asia. …

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