A study of the lives of popular theater artists, Stigmas of the Tamil Stage is the first in-depth analysis of Special Drama, a genre of performance unique to the southernmost Indian state of Tamilnadu. Held in towns and villages throughout the region, Special Drama performances last from 10 p.m. until dawn. There are no theatrical troupes in Special Drama; individual artists are contracted “specially” for each event. The first two hours of each performance are filled with the kind of bawdy, improvisational comedy that is the primary focus of this study; the remaining hours present more markedly staid dramatic treatments of myth and history. Special Drama artists themselves are of all ages, castes, and ethnic and religious affiliations; the one common denominator in their lives is their lower-class status. Artists regularly speak of how poverty compelled their entrance into the field.
Special Drama is looked down upon by the middle- and upper-classes as too popular, too vulgar, and too “mixed.” The artists are stigmatized: people insult them in public and landlords refuse to rent to them. Stigma falls most heavily, however, on actresses, who are marked as “public women” by their participation in Special Drama. As Susan Seizer’s sensitive study shows, one of the primary ways the performers deal with such stigma is through humor and linguistic play. Their comedic performances in particular directly address questions of class, culture, and gender deviations—the very issues that so stigmatize them. Seizer draws on extensive interviews with performers, sponsors, audience members, and drama agents as well as on careful readings of live Special Drama performances in considering the complexities of performers’ lives both on stage and off.
“Susan Seizer’s moving and unique perspective on the fate of popular cultural practices in an age and society dominated by the norms and prescriptions of bourgeois modernity makes her work important and insightful not just for scholars of South Asia but for all those who are interested in the general problematic of popular culture, performance traditions, and modernity globally.” —Sumathi Ramaswamy, author of The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories
“Susan Seizer presents rich and intriguing material about a dramatic performance tradition at the same time that she provides smart, insightful, and sophisticated interpretations linking it to wider discussions. Stigmas of the Tamil Stage deserves to be read, discussed, and used to further debates in many fields of study.” —Paula Richman, editor of Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
Amanda Weidman, Review titled: “The Tragedy of Comedy: Staging Gender in South India”, Anthropological Quarterly v78n3, Summer 2005
William Mazzarella, Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 62, 2006, pp. 414-5.
Shanti Pillai, The Drama Review 50:4 (T192) Winter 2006, pp. 185-6.
Hanne M. de Bruin, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 2006, pp. 991-993.
Lakshmi Subramanian (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta), South Asia 29:2, August 2006, pp 319-320.
Book publication information:
Stigmas of the Tamil Stage
An Ethnography of Special Drama Artists in South India
Duke University Press
Box 90660, Durham, NC 27708-0660
Stigmas of the Tamil Stage: An Ethnography of Special Drama Artists in South India. 2007. Calcutta, India: Seagull Books.