A Contrarian View: Race, Representation, and Islamophobia in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced

I thank Neilesh Bose for letting CM publish this conversation on Ayad Akhtar’s play, and we welcome your thoughts and responses– sepoy.

On April 3, 2015 Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Neilesh Bose organized a panel discussion around racialization, Islamophobia, and political power within theater and performance spaces today as well as in popular culture at Princeton University on April 3, 2015, moderated by Professor Jill Dolan.


The panel also included Aasif Mandvi, Ayad Akhtar, as well as theater producer Jamil Khoury of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising (a theater company dedicated to “Silk Road” stories from South Asia and the Middle East). Formal papers were delivered: Fawzia Afzal-Khan’s “Sexuality, Empire, Islamophobia and the Politics of Piety”, Neilesh Bose’s “The Dramaturgy of Political Violence,” and Jamil Khoury’s “Mass Media Muslims: A Three Lens Theory of Representation,”. The last has been subsequently published in alt. theatre: cultural diversity and the stage (summer 2015) as well as Arab Stages Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 2015). All three papers are currently being revised for future publication. The edited conversation below reflects a conversation between the three panelists after the panel.​

Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Professor of English, Montclair State University, specializes in feminism, theatre studies, and postcolonial studies, and has published five books, including A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan (Seagull, 2005).

Neilesh Bose, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair, Global and Comparative History, University of Victoria, specializes in religion and nationalism in modern South Asia as well as theater and performance studies. Publications include Recasting the Region: Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal (Oxford, 2014), and his edited collection Beyond Bollywood and Broadway: Plays from the South Asian Diaspora (Indiana, 2009).

Jamil Khoury, is Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theater company focusing on plays and narratives about the East Asian, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Diasporas, as well as a playwright and documentary filmmaker, whose plays include Mosque Alert and Precious Stones and whose documentary films include Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness.

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Shahid Amin Reviews II: A Few Good Men of the Empire

[Review of Ferdinand Mount, The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India, 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster, 2015) by Shahid Amin]

A couple of years before he lost his mind, Ram Gharib Chaube, assistant to the ICS ethnologist William Crooke, and chief clerk in fellow Irishman and batch mate George A. Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India, persuaded his master to let him collect folksongs about the Mutiny – worth their while as “indicators of the real feeling of the people fifty years after the occurrence”.

As befitting subaltern compositions in the Awadhi and other dialects, a large part of the Chaube Collection turned out to be dirges in the feminine register, as of the banishment of Awadh Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Maita Buruj in Calcutta: “tum bin hazrat, aaj mulk bhayo suuno/ … Angrez Bahadur ain: muluk lai linho” (Without thee, my Lord, our des is now forlorn/ the Great Brits came and snatched away our country!) Another, a sensual longing for Raja Gulab Singh, the Thakur rebel of Barwa Batola, Hardoi intoned in the Dadra mode: “rahiya tori herun, ek baar daras dikkhawa re.” To which from his garhi-fort responded the Raja: Hear my words, Lady, I have slain foot-solders and cavalry, have slain a countless army. Or this love ditty sung by Gujar women of Saharanpur: “Logon ne lute shaal dushale; mere pyare ne lute rumal/ Meerut ka Sadr Bazar hai, mere sainyan lute na jane” (The Cantonment bazaar in Meerut is up for grabs after the mutiny in the barracks, and my gauche darling does not even know how to plunder properly).

Grierson and Crooke, Chaube’s superiors, were both graduates of Trinity College, Dublin, had joined the coveted Indian Civil Service in 1871 along with Vincent A. Smith and four others from the same institution. This was the distinguished Irish contingent of District Collectors who contributed to colonial India’s knowledge economy, as our present rulers are wont to call it. Smith, a prolific historian, also unearthed Kasya, the site of Buddha’s niravana, 50 kms from Chauri Chaura. Crooke and Grierson were not expressly concerned with our history, being more concerned with matters ethnographic and linguistic.
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Shahid Amin Reviews I: San Sattavan

[Professor Shahid Amin, prominent historian and author most recently of Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Delhi: Orient BlackSwan, 2015), reviewed Amritlal Nagar’s Gathering the Ashes for Biblio India. CM is delighted to feature his review here. We hope to post more of Professor Amin’s public writings in the near future– sepoy.]

NagarAmritlal Nagar, Gathering the Ashes, tr. By Mrinal Pande ( Harper Perennial, 2014), pp. 378, Price Rs. 399

On 13th July 2006 the Prime Minister of India found time in the middle of the then delicately poised negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency to chair a 68-member committee to commemorate 150 years of 1857. That was a lot of Indians. It would not be uncharitable to suggest that very few of this motley group would have been comfortable distinguishing a barkandaz from a tilanga sepoy,or be familiar with say the ballad of Kunwar Singh of Shahabad, the Alha of Rajputs lineages of Awadh or the Urdu of rebel communication and proclamations. One could even wager that some might even have faltered reciting little more than the refrain “Khub lari mardani… Jhansi wali rani…” of that stirring poem by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan. Yet a GOM (Group of Ministers) went ahead and cleared Rs.150 crores of public money for a major commemoration, beginning August. But though crucial for 1942 and again 1947, August was not a particularly good month for us Indians in 1857, specially in Delhi which fell to the vengeful firangis soon afterwards. It seems to have mattered little, for here was a nationalist gesture– the dream of annexing the untidy, to say the least, events of the Ghadar of 1857 to our freedom from Britain almost to the month.

‘San-sattavan’! (The Year ’57)

In northern India, this incomplete chronological slice sans the century, encapsulates in its pithiness the myriad things that went into the making of that Great Event. San-sattavan can only be 1857; it can not be 1957, or even 1757, though in some contemporary prophesies British rule was to end within hundred years of the battle of Plassey. Be that as it may, ‘san sattavan’ stands resplendent in perhaps the best known poem on the Ghadar (rebellion) by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan: ‘Chamak uthi san sattavan mein, woh talwar purani thi’. The sword unleashed to drive out the firangis had not been moulded in or wrested from colonial armouries, as indeed was the case; it was the very old sword of an ‘aged Bharat’ which, rejuvenated, had now stood up to claim this equally old land for itself (‘burhe Bharat mein aayi phir-se nai jawani thi’).

Let’s stay a bit longer with the stirring opening stanza of this epic poem. Recall that this great nationalist poem places the ‘value of lost independence’ and ‘the resolve to throw the firangi out’ in every Indian heart. And yet the Bharat of 1857 is already old, ninety years before the birth of the Indian nation-state. Lets now cut to a folksong about Jhansi-wali Rani popular in district Etawah and its environs in UP, collected by that inveterate ‘native ethnographer’ Ram Gharib Chaube for his colonial master-scholar William Crooke in 1912. “O, the Rani of Jhansi, well fought the brave one/ All the soldiers were fed sweets; she herself had treacle and rice/… Leaving morcha, she ran to the lashkar, she searched for but found no water, O! The Rani of Jhansi! Well fought the brave one.” Here in a local folksong, to be sung in the Dadra vein, we sure find the Rani’s sacrifice and valour (‘sagre sipahiyan -ke pera-jalebi, khud khae gur-dhani; morcha ko chor-ke lashkar ko bhagi, dhunde nahin milei nahin paani’), but no intimations of a reactivated and well-entrenched sense of Indian nationhood.

To pilfer the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: all nations are new, but each claims its antiquity in its own way. This was clearly in evidence in the spirit behind the official celebrations in August 2007 where an apparition of an ailing Bahadur Shah Zafar with his hookah–- a cut-out from an extant sepia photograph– was made to appear, sans irony, on the parapet of Lal Qilla, manipulated by the strings of a sutradhar. The same holds true for that famous poem on the Rani by Subhadra Chauhan. It is a feature of nationalist ideology, that the nation whose ‘making’ requires large doses of energy, action and sacrifice, that very entity is made available to us fully-formed– like a mannequin in a shopping window– merely awaiting a change of (nationalist) attire.
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August Days

Gentle readers,

It has been quiet, I know. I hope all of you are busy writing your books to keep your jobs, or to get new ones. It must be exhausting, and you have my sympathies. I published a review-essay in Caravan looking at four new books on 1947/Partition: the edited volume by Urvashi Butalia, Partition: The Long Shadow, Anam Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, and Venkat Dhulipala’s Creating a New Medina.

The histories and memories in the new books considered here are in tension with one another. They open up new archives, methods and understandings, just they continue to naturalise the incommensurability of the Muslim with India. It is evident in reading them that our need to understand the deep history of Partition is acute. Just as graveyards are segregated by communities, so are histories. In partitioned South Asia, the Shia, Sunni, Muslim, Hindu, or Assamese, Sindi, Baluchi pasts are also constructed to be separate. The histories we produce must acknowledge the burden of recognising difference and parsing it. For the subalterns, those adrift among borders, the fuller history of Partition remains unwritten. The Rohingya floating at sea are also part of the forgotten stories of Partition. They who once were Indian or Burmese or Pakistani or Bangladeshi are now of nowhere. Without land, they are also without history.

Do take a look, and do let me know what you think.

Bhalo ki Bhalo na

Acchā Jī Acchā!
– Taimoor Shahid, translation of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri acchī
aslī acchī naq̣lī acchī
sastī acchī mehngī acchī
maiṇ bhī acchā tum bhī acchī
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī acchī
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī acchī
āsmān ke bādal acchay
mauj dularī hawā bhī acchī
garmī acchī sāwan acchā
mailā acchā ujlā acchā
sabzī acchī qourmā acchā
machli bharā pakoṛā acchā
sīdhā acchā bāṇkā acchā
daff bhī acchī ḍhol bhī acchā
bāl bhī acchay ganjā acchā
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā acchā
ḳhastā pūrī belnā acchā
gān purāne sunnā acchā
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā acchā
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi acchā
lekin sab se acchā bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ!

Kāfir Re Kāfir
Taimoor Shahid, translated parody of Sukumar Ray’s Bangla poem Bhālo Re Bhālo

bhaiyyā re!
soch ke dekhūṇ bohat dūr
yeh dunyā hai sāri kāfir
aslī kāfir naq̣lī kāfir
sastī kāfir mehngī kāfir
maiṇ bhī kāfir tum bhī kāfir
dhun gānouṇ ke idhar kī kāfir
phūlouṇ kī ḳhuṣhbū bhī kāfir
āsmān ke bādal kāfir
mauj dularī hawā bhī kāfir
garmī kāfir sāwan kāfir
mailā kāfir ujlā kāfir
sabzī kāfir qourmā kāfir
machli bharā pakoṛā kāfir
sīdhā kāfir bāṇkā kāfir
daff bhī kāfir ḍhol bhī kāfir
bāl bhī kāfir ganjā kāfir
ṭhaila gārī ṭhelnā kāfir
ḳhastā pūrī belnā kāfir
gān purāne sunnā kāfir
sumbul rūī kī dhunnā kāfir
yaḳh panī kā g̣husl bhi kāfir
eid-ul fitr ki pūjā kafir*
lekin sab se kāfir bacco!
pāo rotī aur gīlā guṛ

*Line inserted on the recent IS statement banning Eid prayers in Mosul

The World of Prannath


My review of Vasudha Dalmia and Munis D. Faruqui, ed. Religious Interactions in Mughal India. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014) a version of which ran in The Book Review (Feb, 2015).

In 1674, Mahamat Prannath (1618-1694 CE) and his followers sought an audience with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1619-1707) in the imperial capital of Delhi. Mahamat Prannath had recently split from other disciples of his sampradaya of Guru Devchandra over the question of succession and the audience with the Mughal badshāh was meant to resolve this differnence –as was customary in such cases, in those times. Leaving Gujarat must have been hard for Prannath. He was born in Jamnagar and had spent his adulthood living and traveling in Junagadh, Ahmadabad, Diu, Thatta, Muscat, and even Mecca. The regions of Sind, Gujarat and Aden had shared networks of traders, merchants, mendicants and scholars — living in port-cities and capitals — for centuries before Prannath. During his time, it was an especially diverse space. Here were the religious orders of Nizari Ismailis, Jesuits, Jains, Vaishnavite and Krishanavite sants, Sufis or Sunnis. Here was just as diverse political powers of the Arghuns, the Mughal, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Surat Rajas.
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An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

Divan “An Account of Autumn and in Praise of Aḥmad bin Abdus Samad, Vizier of Sultan Mas’ūd”, a wine-panegyric or khamriyya by Manūchherī Dāmaghānī (d. 1040 C.E.)
(trans. Prashant Keshavmurthy)

The Lord be praised – for autumn’s month is here,
The month of shrinking and swelling vineyards.
So much do they harvest and heap the grape
Now the vineyard teems like the milky-way.
For when the grape leaf, rainbow-like, is many-hued
The rainbow seems to hold grape clusters.
Blue purses hang from yellow leaves,
In each blue purse a largish seed of grape-flower.

And in the heart of that seed’s vinous flower
Are hidden ten sacks all concealing musk.
And that fruit’s as if it were someone unwell,
Of double aspect among all its limbs and body, One of its cheeks yellow, the other red.
Of them one’s breathless, the other jaundiced.

That pomegranate’s like a pregnant woman
And in her belly – a fistful of sons.
She won’t give birth until you beat her to the ground.
And when the child’s born its birth’s the same as eating it.
A mother gives birth to a child, or two or three.
Then why’s this pomegranate a mother of three hundred?
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