Stigmas of the Tamil Stage

An Ethnography of Special Drama Artists in South India

Stigmas of the Tamil Stage

Book Pages: 464 Illustrations: 62 illus. (incl. 10 in color), 1 table, 1 map Published: April 2005

Author: Susan Seizer

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Theater and Performance

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.


Stigmas of the Tamil Stage is an interesting and well-written study, most thorough in the analysis of comedic performance and in the history of Tamilnadu’s Special Drama.” — Leslie Johnson, Anthropology of Work Review

“[Stigmas of the Tamil Stage] a veritable tour de force. . . . The book is a must read for all those interested in popular performance practices in South Asia and the complexities of modernity lived out locally. Drawing from rich fieldwork and sensitive ethnography, Seizer balances the anthropologist's romance with the rigour of a social historian as she reads a range of archival material to plot and document the processes of cultural change in modern Tamilnadu through the lens of the special artists.” — Lakshmi Subramanian, South Asia

“[A] landmark in the writing of the history of the Tamil stage. It provides for the first time an in-depth study of the Special Drama genre,This book is a must for all those interested in the development of the Tamil stage and in Tamil culture and the politics of gender in general.” — Hanne M. de Bruin, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“[T]he great strength of Stigmas of the Tamil Stage is classically anthropological: namely its capacity to wrest dilemmas that are at once political and existential out of an extraordinarily fine-grained ethnographic immersion in the lives and work of a very particular class of performers.” — William Mazzarella, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Through Stigmas of the Tamil Stage, Seizer makes a substantial contribution to performance studies and South Asian studies. With respect to the former, the book offers methodological insights into ways of thinking about the wider world in which theatres operate, and the implications that performance and spectatorship have for everyday life. Moreover, many parts of the book are fine resources for teaching about Indian theater, since Seizer’s descriptions are vivid and would make accessible reading for undergraduates.” — Shanti Pillai, TDR: The Drama Review

"Like all excellent works of performance studies, Stigmas of the Tamil Stage moves performance beyond aesthetics and situates it at the center of lived social experience. The book makes an important contribution to culturally and historically grounded studies of performance, as well as to the field of linguistic anthropology." — Amanda Weidman, Anthropological Quarterly

"The first study of its kind in English, [Stigmas of the Tamil Stage] not only goes deep into a genre little known even in big Tamil Nadu cities but also looks at the stigma attached to the artists, especially women, who perform in the shows. [This] book will be useful to anyone interested in the general problems of popular culture, notes author and scholar Sumathi Ramaswami." — Arthur J. Pais, India Abroad

“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

“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


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Susan Seizer is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University.

Visit Susan Seizer’s website, which includes links to full-text reviews.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations xiii

Acknowledgments xv

Notes on Transliteration xxi


Preface: A Conversation on Culture 1

Birth of This Project 9

Writing about Special Drama 12

Methods 14

Geographic Relations and the Historical Ethnographic Present 16

Why Comedy Is a Good Site for the Study of Culture 19

What Is Special Drama? 21

Making a Living 24

What Is Special about Special Drama? 26

Naming Matters 28

"Hey Drama People!": Stigma at Work 30

"Actors Have No Murai": A Proverbial Lack 32

Part One: The History and Organization of Special Drama 35

Part Two: Comedy 36

Part Three: Lives 38

Part One: The History and Organization of Special Drama

1. Legacies of Discourse: Special Drama and Its History 43

The Legend and Legacy of Sankaradas Swamigal 43

The History of Special Drama 47

Tamil Drama History, Stage One (of Undatable Roots) 49

Tamil Drama History, Stage Two 51

Tamil Drama History, Stage Three 52

Tamil Drama History, Stage Four 53

The Disciplined Life of the Drama Company 55

Life on the Margins of the Companies 60

Tamil Drama History, Stage Five: A New Historical Trajectory 62

The Legacy of the Company Model in Special Drama 64

Discourse of Vulgarity, Legacy of Shame 66

Context: The History of Modernity in Tamilnadu 70

Drama Actors Sangams 71

Why Actors Stand Still: Onstage Movement as the Embodiment of Vulgarity 77

The Stage Today 81

From Urban to Rurban 83

2. Prestige Hierarchies in Two and Three Dimensions: Drama Notices and the Organization of Special Drama 86

Early Drama Notices, 1891-1926 87

The Photograph Enters Notices, 1926-1936 92

English in the Vocabulary of Special Drama Artists: Jansirani and Sivakami 99

Midcentury Notices and Artists, 1942-1964 (M. K. Kamalam) 103

The Current Form of Notices: Roles and Ranks 111

The Photographic Style of Contemporary Notices 117

The Prestige Hierarchies of Artists as Pictured on Drama Notices 122

The Iconicity of the Contemporary Notice: Structured Spaces and Places 131

Drama Sponsorship and the Written Text of the Contemporary Drama Notice 132

The Working Network That Makes Special Drama Work 140

The Ritual Calendar of Drama Sponsorship 142

The Grounds of a Social Economy 144

3. Discipline in Practice: The Actors Sangam 146

Sivakami Winks… 146

…and Jansirani Disapproves 146

Competing Claims: A Matter of Bearing 149

Internalized Historiography: Artists' Discourses 152

Controlling Bodies and the Control of the Body 154

Discipline in Practice 157

Cross-Roles: Marked Men and Funny Women 165

Multiple Strategies 173

4. The Buffoon's Comedy: Jokes, Gender, and Discursive Distance 177

The Distances Appropriate to Humor 177

The Buffoon's Comedy Scene 180

Modernity and Its States of Desire 185

Layers of Meaning and the Meaning of Layers 198

The Ambivalence of Laughter: A Final Consideration 200

5. The Buffoon-Dance Duet: Social Space and Gendered Place 202

Mise-en-Scene 202

The Five Use-Areas and the Five Story Elements of the Duet 205

Architecture of the Stage: Inside, Outside, Behind, Above, and Beyond 205

Configuring the Stage: The Duet in Performance 207

The Dancer's Entrance 209

The Bumpy Meeting 212

The Meaning of a Bump between Men and Women 214

The Contest between Men and Women 216

Mutual Admiration and "Love Marriage" 223

Analogic Relations Onstage and Off 226

Conclusion 229

Coda 230

6. Atipiti Scene: Laughing at Domestic Violence 232

Atipiti 233

Anthropologists Viewing Laughter 234

The Ritual Frame of the Atipiti Scene 237

The Atipiti Scene 239

Act I: The Wife 239

Act II: The Husband 244

Act III: Their Meeting 250

A Discussion with the Artists 260

Four Theories of Spectatorship 264

Why Does the Audience Laugh? 267

An Audience Account 268

7. The Drama Tongue and the Local Eye 277

A Secret Language 279

Language Matters 281

Situating the Drama Tongue as an Argot 282

Researching the Drama Tongue 285

Terms of the Tongue 287

People of the Drama Tongue 293

What Do We Expect of a Secret Language? 296

Centered in Mobility, or, An Insider Language That Isn't 300

8. The Roadwork of Actresses 301

Offstage with Actresses 302

Narrative One: Regarding the Gender Dimensions of Booking a Drama 305

Work and the Internalization of Gendered Behavior 310

Narrative Two: Regarding Traveling to a Drama in a Private Conveyance 314

Roads and the Externalization of Gendered Behavior 316

Narrative Three: Regarding Traveling to a Drama in a Public Conveyance 319

Narrative Four: Regarding the Spatial Arrangements at a Drama Site 323

Theoretical Grounds 324

Narrative Five: Regarding Traveling Home in the Morning 327

Conclusion 329

9. Kinship Murai and the Stigma on Actors 334

An Excess Born of Lack 334

Kinship, Incest, and the Onstage Locus of Stigma 336

Known and Unknown People 349

Prestigious Patrilines and Activist Actresses 354

N. S. Varatarajan's Family 359

Karur Ambika's Family 354

Many Murai 363

Epilogue 365

Flower Garlands 365

Jansirani and Sivakami, 2001 368

Stigma and Its Sisters 371

Appendix I: Sangam Rules 375

Appendix 2: Tamil Transliteration of Buffoon Selvam's Monologue, 1 April 1992 381

Notes 385

Works Cited 417

Index 433
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Winner, 2007 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize, South Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3443-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3432-3
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