Roadwork: Offstage with Special Drama Actresses in Tamilnadu, South India

Susan Seizer
2000 Cultural Anthropology  
The event was absolutely unique, and it was repeated every year. For the event (any event) unfolds simultaneously on two levels: as individual action and as collective representation; or better, as the relation between certain life histories and a history that is. over and above these, the existence of societies. -Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History, 1985 Mise-en-Scene Roads and streets are a common mise-en-scene for enactments of the Tamil popular theater genre known as "Special Drama." 1 The
more » ... obligatory opening comedy scene of these live performance events always begins with a young woman dancing in the middle of a road, a fantastic suspension of Tamil norms of conduct for women. The painted canvas backdrop for this scene displays a wide, generic road stretching off vertically into the horizon. The comic enactment that unfolds rapidly develops into an exploration of illicit love. An unknown young bachelor appears on the road, and all manner of shady business unspools between the young man and woman, including lewd banter, flirtatious spats, boasts laden with sexual innuendo, coy one-upmanship, cooing love songs, and eventually, elopement. This opening scene is a dramatization, in acomedic mode, of the proverbial bad road for women. Its narrative content perpetuates and encourages a dominant association between public roads and the stigmatized reputation of actresses as public women. This essay concerns how such an association o! ideas shapes Special Drama actresses' offstage lives and, in turn, how their practices "on the road" potentially refigure the terms of that dominant discourse. At the core of this essay are five fieldwork narratives These retell specific experiences I had researching Special Drama actresses' roads. Each experience helped me to better understand actresses' actions offstage; these were episodes in which I learned, in particular, how and why actresses create private, exclusive spaces in the midst of the Tamil public sphere. Kach narrative speaks of Cultural Anthropology I 5(2):2I7-2V) Copvripht INDIA Figure 1 The state of Tamilnadu, showing the location of the 16 towns and cities in which actors associations are located. These are (in order of association membership size) Madurai, Pudukkottai, Dindigal, Karaikkudi, Karur, Salem, Sivaganga, Erode, Trichy, Coimbatore, Kumbakonam, Koyilpatti, Manapparai, Perungudi, Namakkal, and Manamadurai. Drawn by Catherine Brennan. female actresses-one in the highly stigmatizing dancer role, the other in the relatively more prestigious heroine role-and four male actors. An all-night Special Drama event comprises two main parts: two hours of comedy that take place from 10p.m. to midnight and an ensuing six hours of dramatic narrative occurring from midnight to dawn. Such dramas are performed in villages and small towns throughout the central portion of the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu (see Figure 1 ). The Special Drama stage is generally a temporarily erected platform with palm-frond thatch for its three sides and ceiling. The plays are generally performed as entertainment for both the local audience and the particular deity being honored at a loeal temple festival. The local sponsors of any given Special Drama event are the villagers and townsfolk who hire 256 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY Chatterjee, Partha 1993 The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton:
doi:10.1525/can.2000.15.2.217 fatcat:msghko4n75cv7bfv33vlksafnu