What is the significance of modernity in India? The question is quite old and has fostered diverse debates. But the answers have varied. A historical view of the debate on the status of modernity in India may trace various positions. For a long time the debate basically took a pro and anti stance. There were also questions about the form it takes in India. In the recent past, sociological theories of modernity have been quite influential. Increasingly people have been undertaking micro studies insisting on the diverse ways in which modernity has been accessed and practiced in India.
Recently Akshara, who is a theater scholar and a major figure in the Kannada literary scene, wrote an interesting piece on the ‘contradictory multiplicities within Kannada modernity’. He argues that the story of theater history is imprisoned in colonial categories and has not sufficiently attended to the diverse negotiations that Kannada theater has made with modernity. He indicates that the urge for coherent and linear narrative is the reason why the contradictions are not adequately incorporated in the story of modernity in India. He recommends a fragmentary, non-coherent historiography to develop a nuanced theater history. Akshara presents such a fragmentary narrative in his essay “The Contradictory Career of the ‘Modern’
in the Kannada Theater”. In this essay he grapples with the issue of ‘modern Kannada theater’ and asks how one can constitute a category such as this. He enacts his own recommendation by presenting micro-stories of Kannada theater to comment on the categories of historiography of theater in Kannada. He suggests ambitiously that if such a study is successfully carried out, it is possible to discover a ‘desi modernity’.
Here is an excerpt from this very fine essay. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Seminar here.
How do we account for these contradictory instances of ‘modernity’ while we write our history of Modern Kannada Theatre today? – This seems to be the key question to me, and this is the reason with which I set out to write my essay, invoking the contradictory multiplicities within Kannada modernity, that is perceived to be one single body. It is generally accepted by critics in Karnataka today, and elsewhere, that the term ‘modern’ denotes not only different things in different contexts, but is also defined by the particular context it emerges from. Today, we are also aware that the future of this concept, especially in the desi languages/cultures in India is an intricately woven multifaceted narrative. On the one hand, it is a fascinated acceptance of Western modernity (as it was perceived), and on the other, there are various attempts to adapt, alter, and even parody it, consciously or unconsciously. But what we have still not been able to do is to develop a nuanced narrative that captures the contradictions, ambivalences, multiplicities within the Kannada theatre traditions, without resorting to simplistic stereotypes generated about it. Or, in other words, we have still not been able to create new ways of conceptualising the contradictory career of our modern theatres and instead, we are stuck with the imported and imposed categories like ‘folk’, ‘urban’ and ‘commercial’ and the like in almost all our narratives on the history of regional theatres.
Akshara is a fine playwright and an all encompassing theater personality. He currently heads the theatre school NINASAM. Read an interview with Akshara here. He is not an intellctual pretender. He writes with deep commitment. Not easily swayed by current fashions, Akshara’s views are always refreshingly practical and uncluttered.