My dissertation traces the global circulations of blackface minstrelsy in the nineteenth century, taking the Indian Ocean littoral as a principal site. In support of this project, I am constructing an archive of theatre reviews, theatrical programmes and playbills, and other miscellanea published in nineteenth-century South African and Indian newspapers. During the summer months of 2013 and 2014, I took extensive research trips to South Africa to build the foundation of this archive. My visit to Kolkata in the summer of 2015 aimed to complete this archive by finding complementary archival materials from South Asia.
In June 2015, I took a circuitous route to my two-month visit to Kolkata for archival research. I first flew to Hyderabad for the annual conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research. For a week, I attended paper presentations on Indian performance, shared a paper on the performance of Indian stereotypes in post-apartheid South Africa, battled jet lag, and tried the local biryani. The conference presented a wonderful opportunity to network with performance scholars from South Asia and to apprise myself to the contemporary conversations in the field of Indian performance. I met several senior scholars whose assistance and advice would late prove vital to my research in Kolkata. I left Hyderabad invigorated and excited to explore the National Library, Kolkata, and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC).
Once in Kolkata, I set about my research plan to uncover archival materials related to nineteenth-century popular colonial performances. At the CSSSC, I met with Partha Chatterjee, Lakshmi Subramanian, Sudipto Chatterjee, Trina Banerjee, and Rimli Bhattacharya. Together, they oriented me to Kolkata’s archives and offered additional resources. Though I initially intended to focus my energies at the CSSSC, I soon found that the National Library presented a richer collection of relevant materials. There, I surveyed the following newspapers: The Bengal Hurkaru (1838-1866); The Bombay Times (1852-1855); Times of India (1863-1865); and The Indian Daily News (1864-1896). These primary sources will serve as the material for two dissertation chapters.
The first traces the American minstrel and theatre impresario, the “inimitable” Dave Carson. Born David Nuñez Cardoza to a Jewish Spanish émigré father and a Protestant American mother, Carson’s performances emphasized the performativity of identity and complexities of imitability. Carson often played with his own identity, performing various “Cardozos” and “Cardozas” as exotic others, as he passed as white in colonial India. Of course, as a minstrel performer, Carson also played with the identities of others. Infamously, Carson originated the stage character of “The Bengalee Baboo,” which he performed for over forty years, embedding the stereotype in Indian popular culture. Carson’s legacy marks the centrality of performance in the formation – and co-imbrication – of colonial identities of the “Indian” and the “Anglo” that would later become stock types in British theatre.
The second chapter has two focuses: the first is Grace Egerton (Mrs. George Case), a quick-change artist who originated an Indian female stereotype, “The Parsee Girl of the Period.” Egerton circulated the stereotype to Australia and South Africa through her global perigrinations. Egerton’s performances – and the several British actresses who surrogated her in her absence – stimulated public discourses about Indian women, theatre, and respectability. These performances thus summon the second focus of the chapter, the “nautch girl” and the association of female performance with prostitution. The chapter draws on archival materials to trace the entanglement of gender, sexuality, respectability and agency as they were produced and performed differently among British and Indian women on Calcutta’s colonial stages.
In all, the research trip was a success and I am poised to begin writing my dissertation. I am grateful for the generosity and support of the Center for South Asia for making this research possible. I look forward to sharing more of this work with the Center in the future.