Agency and Subaltern Women in Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

Who really are the Subalterns in the context of the three collected stories by Mahasweta Devi is a complex question to answer. Spivak in her essay, Can the Subaltern speak? says that a subaltern is someone who does not have any access to the ideological root of power. Often the word ‘subaltern’ is equivocated in a singular sense directing its meaning to a group or an individual who is oppressed by a superior power.  The hegemonic structure is considered to be orthodox and people who have limited access to such powers are treated as the subalterns. This idea strategically gives preference to patriarchy in a constructed social organization. The basic question of human rights is attacked by the so called subalterns and technically it becomes gendered. Though there might be a world of difference between a male and a female, it is inappropriate to position them on the basis of superiority/inferiority because it tends to disrupt the idea of humanity in general.

In the first two stories, The Five Women and Kunti and the Nishadin, there exists many hierarchical positioning between the women themselves who belong to the rajavritta and the lokavritta. Mahasweta Devi by giving voice to those who were left unheard of in the Grand Epic is actually subverting the position of rajavritta women in this text. The significant outcome of such a shift in perspective has resulted in an agency of change within the subalterns.  Be it the Five women, the Nishadins or Souvali, they are comfortable within their own home (Kurunjangal, Forest and ‘the margins of the town’ (of Hastinapur). The lokavritta women do not see their home as a marginalized space.  Devi, by using sentences like “They were walking back to the outskirts of the capital city” (Devi 2), “On the margins of the town live the marginalized” (Devi 45) has stressed and pointed out the position of subalterns by marking out their territory. By doing so she calls attention to the fact that they don’t have access to the collective national identity of the local government. The five women are not comfortable within the space of rajavrittas because their way of living and practices are culturally and sociologically different. Kunti’s position in the second story is reversed because she is brought to the location of the lokavrittas. Kunti neither understands nature nor the people (Nishads) who dwell in the forest. In Souvali, Mahasweta Devi has shown a history of violence that had been silenced which is far removed from the past and the time of Kurukshetra War. We can see Dhritarashtra and Gandhari as a couple who has dehumanized the existence of Souvali and Souvalya. The struggle to recover their lost humanity is achieved when Souvalya had done the last rites of Dhritarashtra though he was never recognized as his son, a Kaurava.

The choice of partial displacement through an agency of power can be seen in the first story The Five Women. Madraja, the head dasi, is an agent of power. Her position gives her the license to control both sides. She has control over the rajavritta queens and the lokavritta women. She recruits members of her own clan from Kurunjangal to help the pregnant Uttara. Agents are simply the products of their culture; they work with a goal. Madraja works justice by calling women from her own clan but does not compromise on her power.  She normalizes her position of supremacy but eventually she does not realize that her interests and needs are indeed modified by culture. Fetishism is one of Madraja’s attributes. She looks at people with utilitarian value. Madraja equates the Five Women with ‘value’ (exchange value) like properties or things.

“Madraja was appraising their legs, shoulders, arms. They were young, it’s true. But with bodies used to hard work.”(Devi, 3)

Godhumi and her companions are a proletariat group who work together. They go to the palace only with the understanding that they’ll be Uttara’s companions and not as Dasis. For the women to have a dialogue with Madraja based on such grounds, it is evident that they have passed the stages of domination, oppression, resistance and exploitation of labor. Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about the peasant revolution, in which he says that the “peasants were never drunk or lazy, but they were exploited!” (Freire 64). By walking away from the royal palace once their land was quenched by the cool rain water so that life could go on without disrupting the order of nature, the women freed themselves and escaped from exploitation. It is evident that the Rajavritta Queens in Hastinapur are not free enough to see the happiness and freedom that the lokavritta women enjoy, yet they are not ready to give up their position of royalty. From the older Queen to the youngest, they are ready to wear the mask of ‘being’ a rajavritta by sacrificing their own sons and husbands, eventually loosing lives and the purpose of living. In this sense, the rajavritta women are deprived of happiness. They sacrifice everything for the sake of war. So, they become the subalterns as well. As Gayatri Spivak puts it in her chapter of Collectivities from Death of a Discipline, “Women are not a special case, but can represent the asymmetries attendant upon any such representation” (70). Therefore the concept of subalternity itself is gendered. In the little narrative of, After Kurukshetra that Mahasweta Devi had created, the author not only chose to see from the perspective of the marginalized, but she has also shown the treatment of women belonging to all classes from a subaltern eye.

The Chandals who are mentioned in the initial part of the story possess what is called the “Subaltern Mentality”. Gautam Bhadra in his essay, The Mentality of Subalternity: Kantanama or Rajdharma says “Submissiveness to authority in one context is as frequent as defiance in another. It is these two elements (submissiveness and defiance) that constitute the subaltern mentality” (Bhadra 63) The Chandals don’t partake in the war, but their job is to collect firewood and “quench the countless fires of the nameless dead with water” (Devi 2) and see to it that the bones powder into ash. This group of people has time and again accepted the dominance and exploitation and never tried to voice out or rebel. By bringing in the ‘prostitute center’ and the ‘chandals’ and placing them on the same platform, the author shows a meticulous shift in the center by striking a contrast between the Grand narrative and the Little narrative and how this sect of people are brought in the context of subaltern writing. An ‘organic crisis’ is seen here between the civil society and the political society which lead to the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Hegemony occurs when either one of the ‘base’ or the ‘superstructure’ of the society fails to exercise power, while one group remains defiant and the other dominant. This part of the story of Chandals supports the concept of the theory of agency and subalternity.

In Kunti and the Nishadin, the authorial voice, play an important role in suggesting the prejudice and violence that take place while crossing borders. Clearly, the rajavrittas have gotten used to the royal life. When they choose to live in the forest, the royal trio finds it difficult to understand the codes of nature: the birds, trees, wind, the nishads, etc. On the other hand when the Nishadins, not on their own free will but who were invited by Kunti, went to the lac palace only to get cruelly burnt to ashes. Mahasweta Devi has pointed out some clear binary distinction between Kunti and the Nishadins. Even in the basic act of collecting firewood, Kunti “drags” it back to the ashram whereas the Nishadins heft the bundles on to their heads. Kunti is weak and withered, carrying her burden of confessions. In contrast to them, the Nishadins “seem to be tranquil, happy, hardworking lot, their faces always wreathed in bright smiles” (Devi 28)

The collective consciousness of the subaltern (Nishadins) works against Kunti when she enters the forest. Both the groups fail to accommodate themselves in each other’s space. Barbaric attempts at such a civilizational struggle ends up nowhere but destruction. The Nishadins as well as Kunti, yearn for recognition, a recognition that would make the past wrongs partially disappear as a consolation. To quote Walter Benjamin from the book, Walter Benjamin and History by Andrew Benjamin, “By virtue of its ‘historical index’ each Now is marked as the Now of another Now, and … untouchable by that other Now, in which it is supposed to be recognized” (Benjamin 58) Kunti is in a very unstable position. She takes pride on being a Rajavritta but finds solace in the forest. She does not let go of her “colonizer mentality” and at the same time has a self-depreciative attitude which the subalterns possess. Her coupled personality overlaps with each other and pulls her down to disillusion. She seeks freedom from the overloaded responsibility as a queen of rajavritta. While trying to find peace in the forest, she sees the nishads and she wants to be like them, carefree and happy. She tries to seize it, but fails. This is very similar to the bourgeois structure of social relation, were co-operation or co- existence does not exist. In the case of Kunti and the Nishadin, it is the bourgeois class that struggle against the feudal force (Nishadins). A Necrophilic behavior: the destruction of life-their own or that of their oppressed fellows are seen in Kunti, Gandhari and Dritarashtra. The fact that they wait for the forest fire to consume them and Kunti’s complete erasure of the memory of killing six nishadins in the lac palace reaffirms this point.

As Spivak mentions in her text Death of a Discipline, “Subaltern aboriginal groups read “nature” with uncanny precision. The weather predictions, altogether confine in geographical scope, are always astonishing to someone less used to living in the eco-biome.”(Spivak 68) This is exactly what happens with Kunti in the forest because the forest life, the flora and the fauna and the nishad’s culture is completely alien to her. She does not understand the honour of life, which is evident from her confessions of abandoning Karna immediately after his birth as well as in her stone reaction after Karna’s death. Gandhari wept for Karna, Kunti did not.  Kunti goes numb when she sees that the Nishadins had understood whatever she had spoken. Once the revelation had happened, there is a noticeable shift in the tone of language the Nishadins use. It is the tone of anger.

 “Against the lokavritta? … Let me jog your memory. You stayed there, in the house of lac, Jatugriha? Yes, it was a plot by Duryodhana…A scheme, right? A cruel plot? Only the rajavritta can do such a thing. You live there for one year, knowing full well that the place will be burned to ashes, that you have to save yourself and your sons. You had to provide irrefutable proof that the six of you had been burned to death. (Devi 41)

The author lets the reader know the mind of Kunti. Initially, Devi seems to be sympathetic towards Kunti, describing her helpless position as a rajavritta. Kunti had been serving the Gods and the Brahmans all her life, in the middle of which a ‘minor’ incident like the plot for the six nishadins slip her mind. Nishadins know the language of Kunti. They are angry because she forgot to mention about the cruel plot against the six nishadins in her long dramatic monologue of confessions. Mahasweta Devi’s use of language is subtle, in a way that suggests Kunti’s non-existent eye towards the nishadins. Kunti does not explicitly express her thoughts on the Nishadins, but the author subtly weaves it through her language.

The societies of the rajavritta were fully built on violent coercion where they are under an illusion that anybody other than them needs to be suppressed. When that fails and the opposing group fights back to regain their ‘recognized’ position, problem arises within both the classes. The subalterns are in a position of oscillation where at first they are in a normal position, after which they get suppressed by the bourgeoisie due to various class/caste/occupational differences, and then come a stage where they fight back. In all the three stories, the five women, Nishadins, Souvali and Souvalya are in the last stage of oscillation and the return in the oscillatory movement makes the rajavrittas the subalterns. As Derrida in his Structure, Sign and Play in the discourse of Human Sciences says that, “the Centre is not really the centre”, it keeps shifting.

The Grand narrative had the Kings and the Queen as their centre and in Subaltern writing, the common man becomes the centre. The third story in the series gives a vibrant description of the protagonist Souvali. She is described as an “ageing woman, but still a long plait. Black Choli. Green ghagra, yellow chunni…” (Devi 45) Devi has portrayed Souvali as a ‘new women’ who is far away from the indigenous traditions. Souvali is an active agent in a society of change.  But it is also undeniable that the mindset and attitude towards people who belong to lower class than themselves remain the same until the ‘other’ group fights back. There is a passing reference of impurity toward the chandals, where Souvali tells her son to wash his feet before entering the house. The notion of untouchability and impurity of the lower class is seen as something universally internalized. Souvali is a story of conflict between change and tradition. Devi has shown cultural osmosis in Indian society as highly complex.  The anthropological and cultural difference in the imaginary man-made boundaries has come to a stage where it is seen as a farce when there had been a political disaster. The past after so many years have caught up with the present with Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti. After the Mahatarpan, the people in the village talk about it as a mockery, “what happened today was such a mockery, wasn’t it? … Ahana and Varunya have gone to see the fun and games” (Devi 47)

Dhritarashtra is seen as an epitome of patriarchal dominance in the world of the rajavrittas. He begets a child and fails to acknowledge him as his son as well as fails to acknowledge the mother of this child (Souvali and Souvalya). Subalternity as a gendered concept creeps in again as a different aspect in the home/world dichotomy. Home as a space for women and the world for men is pointed out in the story. Souvali says “This is the only place where I can breathe freely”(Devi 47) Partha Chatterjee in his essay called The Nation and Its Women, says, “ The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world – and women is its representation. And so one gets an identification of social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and bahir.”(Chatterjee 245) Chatterjee proposes a new meaning of the home/world dichotomy by saying, “with the identification of social roles by gender, we get the ideological framework within which nationalism answered the women’s question” (Chatterjee 246) Souvali as a ‘new’ woman is quite the reverse of the ‘common’ women, “who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous and a subject to brutal physical oppression by males.”(Chatterjee 253)  Souvali on the contrary, relieves herself among the group of dasi women from the clutches of the rajavrittas so that she could wait for her long lost son in her own house. Souvali says to the head dasi Dhruva, “I’m going to live on the outskirts of town”.(49)

Uma Chakravarti in her essay entitled, Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi? Says, “The indigenous intelligentsias were not functioning within a political and social vacuum. The natives were no passive recipients of the perception of the past, then in the process of being reconstituted.” (Chakravarti 32) She also says that the indigenous literati were active agents in constructing the past and constantly engaged in the choosing the embryonic body of knowledge from current social and political concerns. In all the three stories of Mahasweta Devi, the so called subaltern women have played their role of asserting their identity in spite of all odds. In the larger picture of marga tradition, which is positioned in a horizontal scale and the desi traditional people, especially women, who are vertically positioned, get disappeared under the greater shadow. Since no one notices their existence, it is natural that there was no one to mourn for their disappearance in the Grand Narrative. The transition from the grand narrative to the little narrative has missed out to produce an organic unity because it never existed in any society. In subaltern writing, the theorists and writers are not criticizing the past traditions. But they are trying to focus on the left out aspects of the society, which needs to be given voice, so that there can be a mutual understanding between all people. Beyond the division of class, caste and gender discrimination, Mahasweta Devi through her collection of stories like After Kurukshetra, Imaginary Maps, and various other writings, is trying to give her readers a message to look at people as humanity and not with discriminatory codes. The aspect of Agency and Subalternity in Mahasweta Devi’s After Kurukshetra, in this paper, has focused mainly on women as subalterns, be it the rajavrittas or the lokavrittas. The lokavritta women have been an agency of change in regaining their rightful status and the rajavritta women are still seen struggling to assert their individuality in spite of getting the royalty position. In a way, their higher status in the society has created hindrance to their individuality.

Work Cited:

Badra, Gautam. “The Mentality of Subalternity: Kantanama or Rajdharma.A Subaltern StudiesReader. Ed. Ranajit Guha. New Delhi: OUP, 1997. Print.

Benjamin, Andrew. Walter Benjamin and History. London: Continuum, 2005. Web. 22 Sep 2014

Chatterjee, Partha. “The Nation and Its Women”. A Subaltern Studies Reader. Ed. Ranajit Guha. New Delhi: OUP, 1997. Print.

Chakravarti, Uma. “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?” Recasting Women. Ed. KumkumSangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989. Print.

Caudwell, Christopher. Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972, Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences” Writing and Difference, trans. Allan Bass. London: Routledge, 1978. Web. 25 Sep 2014.

Devi, Mahasweta. After Kurukshetra. Trans. Anjum Katyal. Calcutta: Seagull books, 2005. Print.

Devy, G. N. “After Amnesia”. The G. N Devy Reader. New Delhi: Orient Blackswann, 2009. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2005. Web. 19 Sep 2014.

Guha, Ranajit. A Subaltern Studies Reader 1986 -1995. New Delhi: OUP, 1997. Print.

Marx and Engels. “Commodities.” The Norton Anthology of theory and Criticism. Gen.ed.

Vincent B Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Risam, Roopika. “Mahasweta Devi: A Brief Biography”. Mahasweta Devi: Witness, Advocate, Writer, Study Guide. Shashwati Talukdar. 2006 .Web. 25 Sep 2014.

Spivak, Gayatri. Can the Subaltern Speak? Web. 25 Sep 2014.

—. Death of a discipline. Calcutta: Seagull books, 2003. Print

—. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography.” Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Ed. Ranajit Guha. Delhi: OUP. 1985. Print.


This story is taken from the Book of Genesis (16:1-15) from the Old Testament in Bible. This is a retelling of a story from the point of view of Hagar who was an Egyptian slave woman of Sarah, wife of Abraham. This chapter deals with the religious beliefs of Abraham and Sarah. It does not focus on their treatment towards their slave Hagar. In the story, Hagar is a subordinate character and hence subaltern. It is rewritten from the point of view of Hagar.

I was born a slave. There had been no liberation for my whole generation. In olden days, like the barter system, there was a custom which involved exchange of humans instead of goods. There was a rich Israelite who ‘purchased’ my grandmother as a slave. From then on, her heirs follow the tradition in slavery. In one such instance, I was also made to stand among the slaves. The guard in charge of us was calling out my name Hagar! Hagar! . . . in order to be sold out. I saw an old man and woman approaching me. They looked kind and it seemed to me that they were in need of someone who could take care of them. They were Abraham and Sarah. Both decided to buy me as their slave. And they bought me for some shillings. Days passed and I became one among their family. They did not have any children and desired to have one. Though they were happy, there was a sense of longing in their day- to – day life. Unlike others they treated me well. My mistress Sarah knew that she will not be able to bear a child. She was sad since nobody would be there to call her name after her. So, she recommended Abraham to sleep with me and beget a child. Sarah sent me to be his concubine. Within few months I was conceived. This was happy news for them and me. I was happy that one day my child will gain all the due respect of being Abraham’s son. This made me feel proud and I started to despise Sarah for her inability to bear a child. Abraham showed equal respect and honor for me. This extra affection from him made Sarah dislike me. Eventually, she started treating me cruelly. In those days if a slave disrespects her mistress, she will be treated cruelly or put to death immediately. There will not be any soul to question the injustice done to slaves. I was afraid that I and the child in my womb would be killed. I was forced into an unfortunate situation. In order to save both of our lives I had to run away from my mistress. The next day before dawn I escaped from the house. I was looking for a place of safety. As I was walking in the forest all alone, the thoughts of the past filled me with distress. Sarah was the one who decided to send me as a concubine to Abraham; she did not even think to ask my opinion in that. It was them who wished to have a baby through me. They did not care for my future. Abraham was an old man, and he listened to his wife in order to satisfy their needs. The need for a child made them go to such an extent of even spoiling the life of a young girl like me. Not even for a fraction of a second they thought of me as a human — but as a mere object which could give birth to a child when it’s needed. My feelings were never heard at any point of time. Even when I expressed my unwillingness to be a concubine to Abraham, it was not heard. People in the society thought that Sarah was generous enough to give a slave to her husband. The word slave was depressing in itself. None of them knew me by my name Hagar, but as the slave girl of Sarah. Even when Sarah asked Abraham’s opinions about me being sent away, his instant reply was, “She is your slave and it is your wish to decide what to do with her.” I was shocked by his response. I thought — how could a man be so carefree when he has spoilt my life? If this was to happen to any other girl who was not a slave, the treatment, way of dealing the situation, and the reaction of the society would have been much different compared to my situation. I am now concerned only about my life and the child in my womb. I had faced difficulties and crisis all my life. I hated myself for who I was. I was in a helpless situation. The very thought of rejection made me feel more sad. I was yearning for love. At that time, I was seeking God’s guidance which gave me peace and relaxation. From then on, I could feel his presence in my every action. I trusted Abraham and Sarah, but they did not have any concern for me. Everybody respected them for being religious, but none of them considered this treatment to me as a hindrance. The life of a slave is destroyed easily by facile and complicated reasons. My life is an example of such a situation. The problems of slaves are overlooked, but no one actually delves into the problem. I realised that human love should not be trusted. My sufferings and thirst for love was not noticed by anybody. God chose me as his special child and lifted me high in his throne. I thought my cry was never heard by anyone. But God listened and watched every suffering I underwent. It was he who gave me liberation from all my distress and confusion. He made me realise that human love is temporary, and it is God’s love which will give eternal happiness. This transformation in the forest made me realise what to do and what not to do. God gave me the power of wisdom to take the right decision. And, accordingly, I went back to Sarah and gave birth to my son, which was God’s will.

‘Race’ in ‘The Dutchman’: A play by Amiri Baraka

The play ‘The Dutchman’ by Amiri Baraka was first staged at ‘The Cherry Lane Theatre, New York on March 24, 1964. The play consists of numerous racial oppositions in terms of biological, social and political ideologies. By stereotyping the behavior of Clay, the African man from New Jersey, Lula, the American woman dehumanizes and humiliates him both in person and in public.  

The following analysis of the play ‘The Dutchman’ will be based on the essay ‘Race’ by Simon During.

During says that, “Racism is, at its heart, the belief that the human species is constituted by a number of separate and distinct biologically discrete sub-species: i.e. races.”

Lula in the play fervently believes that the black identity should be oppressed or subordinated. The only reason of Lula’s target was that she detests the existence of Black Americans in their country. After murdering Clay towards the end, she still continues to follow her murderous instinct toward the other young black man in the subway carriage who is unaware of the previous occurrence. She treats the blacks as ‘savages’- an uninhabited, unevolved race. Basically judged upon the ‘biologically discrete sub-species’ of the humanity.

Race being powerful and deep-rooted in ethnicity, it so often implies different kinds of people with different kinds of bodies says During. It in fact leads the way to culturalism (idea that different peoples have different inherited culture). Stereotyping is one of the tools that Lula uses to trap Clay down. By his appearance, she is so sure of the place he is from and that he is also a middle-class man. Even about the names ‘Williams’ and ‘Warren’, she knows that people from Africa will be named similarly. Since African men are known for their strength and virility, Lula, makes sure that she embarrasses Clay by making her moves first.

“Clay: Hey, you haven’t told me how you know so much about me.

Lula: I told you I didn’t know anything about you… you’re a well-known type”

… “Lula: When you get drunk, pat me once, very lovingly on the flanks, and I’ll look at you cryptically, licking my lips.”

Clay being a twenty year old Negro, he is victimized by the white woman, in fact the entire white community. He is targeted both sexually and psychologically. He is cornered because of his color. Racism in the era of post-racism works differently. The situation of the play, the setting and its characterization poses the threat of ‘systematic inequality’ which could be maintained with some kinds of people ‘less than fully human’ –and racism could do that.

Woza Albert! : As an Intercultural Play of Liberation

In the context of an intercultural/interracial society of the 1980’s, the tradition of drama in South Africa takes a turn of protest especially with the advent of staging Woza Albert! in The Market Theatre, Johannesburg. The theatre operated with no racial restrictions. The play was written and performed by the artists Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon. South Africa suffered a brutal and demonic kind of violence and discrimination that was physically, mentally and psychologically abusive. South African Dramas are staged for a highly strong reason than to achieve aesthetic appeal from the audience. Woza Albert! was written in a period of political unrest under the historical background of apartheid. The play seeks to challenge the ideology of the apartheid regime. It in fact satirises the sociopolitical condition of South Africa which had taken its people far away from human dignity and freedom. Woza Albert! is a play that reveals the irony of imagining the second coming of Christ in South Africa.

To ‘Rise up’ (Woza) or to ‘wake up’ was African drama’s major aim. The title of the play Woza Albert! Woza meaning to “rise up” was the slogan that was chanted by almost everybody who was a victim of apartheid. Apartheid meaning “Separateness” or “Separate Development” slowly through the history from the year 1948 to 1994 has evolved into a term that directly linked to “racism” in South Africa.  Derrida in his lecture on apartheid titled Racism’s Last Word termed it as, “ A spurious autonomy and agency: “ The word concentrates separation by isolating being apart in some sort of essence or hypostasis, the word corrupts it into a quasi – ontological segregation””(Derrida 140 – 141). Derrida also calls apartheid as “unique appellation”. He claims that South African racism is the only one on the scene that dares to say its name and present itself for what it is. The play was written in a time where apartheid movement was being dismantled and moved away from discrimination and elimination of colour which also lead to disbelief in religion. In scene five, Percy takes on an “evangelical” tone in a way of mocking the English Priests who had spread Christianity in South Africa. The omnipresence of God, the concept of heaven and hell are questioned. The west disoriented the Christ figure into a Eurocentric sphere in which the rest of the world was away from its centre. Further, any production of contemporary South African Drama would have had an essence of the west because; its society was the product of a civilizational mission that the Europeans took up to erase the ‘savage’ history.

Woza Albert! can be called as an intercultural play because it adopts the Eurocentric and pre-colonial techniques of theatre. Borrowing the ideas of the pre – colonial theatre would help them go back to their indigenous roots, while at the same time they cannot forgo the European influences as well. The language used by the blacks was very limited because it was a “borrowed tongue”. It further showed their crippled position in not being able to express what they felt. But since the play was written in English, for the white audience, the play can be considered as an initiation of ‘writing back’ to the Empire. Also, using English to perform the play becomes problematic because, English was understood only by a minority of African people. This in a way again subverts the language as well as the position of Black people under the shadow of white power.  

The setting of Woza Albert! resembles Beckettian style where only two people act with minimum props and stage lighting. In the stage direction, by acknowledging and transforming into the audience themselves, the authors have used the Meta dramatic technique of breaking the fourth wall. The dialogues are sometimes directed to the audience, interrupting the narrative, to create what Brecht called the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (Alienation Effect). For example in scene one, Percy begins the play addressing the audience, “Hey! Beautiful audience, hey? Beautiful musician, ne? Okay, now let us see how beautiful his passbook is!”(Percy et al 4) Arrigo Subiotto says in “Epic Theatre: A Theatre for the scientific age” that, “This effect can be identified in the play’s structure, the disposition and contrasting of scenes and episodes; in the language, the conflict of dialogue and the contradictions highlighted between the speech and actions of the characters; in the actors effort to play at being and to stand outside a character; and in the handling of the ‘sister’ arts such as music, lighting and scenic design in a stage production” (Bartram, 36) The stage directions also reveals role plays by the characters, stage setting, humour and lot of physical interactions and dialogue with the audience.

The image of ‘siren’ runs throughout the play. It is used as a device that could transform a situation from normalcy to a state of emergency. The play uses large number of physical gestures, words and minimal props. It shows that such a play could be performed not specifically in a stage set up but it could literally be performed in any blank space. This type of technique was used by Jerzy Grotowski, a practitioner of “Poor Theatre”. His theory mainly focuses on actor training and excludes most excesses on theatre. Physical movement was a key component of “Poor Theatre”. Since Woza Albert! is a play that serves a larger purpose beyond the dramatics of a play, it can also be called as “paratheatre”, “para” meaning “beyond”. The play’s use of “invisibility” can be related to Augusto Boal’s concept of “Invisible Theatre”. The purpose of “Invisible Theatre” was to show everyday oppression without the spect – actors knowing it. For instance, the person who interviews the common people of South Africa is invisible and the people play along with the characters as if they truly existed. It also happens in the case of Morena. Morena is an invisible character and the play circles around with a belief that this character existed. Morena (Christ), an omnipresent figure is identified in different persons in the play. Since Morena is seen as a South African, who the people are expecting to be saved by him (like the other political leaders did like Biko, Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Liliyan Ngoyi, Bram Fischer and many others). Morena too is put in prison and was killed by cruel plot of flight bombing.

Woza Albert! combines the characteristics of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Augusto Boal was influenced by Paulo Freire’s ideas that form the crux of his theatrical techniques. Boal’s theatre is made for people who want to fight back against the oppression of everyday life. In Theatre of the Oppressed the audience become active, such that as “spect – actors”. They explore, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living. Percy in the play appears and reappears into different characters. He transforms himself into a White man wearing a pink nose and he addresses the audience.

The authors/actors bring in various issues faced by the Black Africans because of their colour. Black South African’s identity and their movement around their own homeland were controlled for the benefit of the white minority Afrikaans. Scene one in Woza Albert! satirises the brutal behavior of the Afrikaans who deprived the black people from their access to everyday life. Passbooks became the most detested symbol in South Africa. It was dehumanisation of the blacks that took place under the apartheid South Africa. It made their land a prison state. The land and people were thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression and violence of the oppressors. It was not just the state which was turned into a prison but also the structure within the actual prison was a sight of humiliation. Barbara Harlow in her book, Resistance Literature explains that in a Third World political prison state the practice of writing would be counter – hegemonic which “organises and documents the political resistance to a bureaucratisation and mechanisation of the human and social mind and body which takes place inside the prison institution.”(Harlow 124)

The actors rush in and out of many characters that explicitly satirise the ‘rich’ white attitude towards the ‘poor’ black people. For example in scene fifteen, Patrick Alexander Smith is mistaken to be Morena, where he gets down from a jumbo jet and mockingly questioned by the interviewer about the flight being faster than the donkey. The interviews with the common people of South Africa, mocks the television, media, journalism and popular culture of the West which was new to the so called ‘tribal culture’ of Africa. The mistaken identity of Morena is also not taken seriously. People are at a point where they are normalised to accept the “passbook” culture to get “qualified” to work in their own land. Percy tries to shout out the atrocities they face in Albert Street, Johannesburg, but he is also excited about getting a six month work permit. The black South Africans could not take in more of ‘naked terrorism’, that the religion they hold on to became a mockery.

South Africa is a class divided society. Karl Marx sees religion as a feature of a class divided society. A classless society will not need a religion. Religion as an ideology works well in a colonial framework. In South Africa, the Afrikaans, the ruling class society used this ideological weapon to justify the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and god – given. The scenes in Woza Albert! about the “Brick Coronation”, (which could be a parody of the ‘Garden of Gethsemane’) after the Zulu- boy’s racist boss is ridiculed as a product of government news – speak, the two actors, a token of white paternalistic concern for the natives of the land, put up a tableaux of raising all the dead black liberals of the country. Many issues such as anger, resistance, labour, and doubts in the belief system are stated during the course of action.

Raising the dead liberals alive becomes a cathartic action as the people of South Africa know ‘exactly who they want’ to save the country from the clutches of the whites. Christianity believes that Christ was brought back to life after three days to save humanity. In the play, at a point, the concept of religion is almost dismissed. Decolonization was the first and foremost priority. Breaking the taboos in this regard was increasingly a result of liberation, which analyses the concept of solidarity in the past and marks the end of many ‘heroic narratives’. Woza Albert! is in many ways hybridized, in the sense that the play exposes a collective vendetta against the white oppressive government.

There is a strong resemblance of the Prospero/Caliban syndrome in Woza Albert!. To communicate in the language of the oppressor and to show what they had done as settlers is an expression of themselves and their freedom.  The white audience felt exactly what Prospero experienced when he heard Caliban curse him in English.

Caliban:  You taught me language; and my Profit on it is, I know how to curse.

The red plague rid you for learning me learning me your language! (529)

Similarly the South Africans used English to vent out their anger and to resist the whites from dominance. The play stands out as a Pedagogy for the Oppressed as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy. It achieves it in two distinct stages. At first, it unveils the world of oppression through the “praxis” commit themselves to transformation. Secondly, the play shows the reality of the oppression of the blacks and that it ceases to belong to the oppressed that the play becomes a beginning of a process of permanent liberation.


Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.
Cash, Justin. Poor Theatre Conventions. March 12, 2014. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
Chapman, Michael. South African Literatures. London and New York: Longman, 1996. Print.
Egar, Emmanuel. “The Foreign Language Burden” The Crisis of Negritude: A Study of the Black Movement against Intellectual Oppression in the Early 20th Century. Web. 10 Oct 2014.
Fanon, Frantz. “Negro and Language.” Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1986, Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2005. Web. 19 Sep 2014.
Harlow, Barbara. “Prison Memoirs of Political Detainees” Resistance Literature. New York And London: Methuen, 1987. Print.
Marx, Karl. Religion as an Ideology. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.
McClintock, Anne and Rob Nixon. No Names Apart: The Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s “Le Dernier Mot Du Racisme”.Web. 12 Oct 2014.
Subiotto, Arrigo. “Epic Theatre: A Theatre for the scientific age.” Brecht in Perspective.
Ed. Graham Bartram and Anthony Waine. London: Longman, 1982, Print. 

Alice’s flight to fantasy as a disguised quest

Alice’s flight to fantasy as a disguised quest in ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ by Lewis Carroll, on par with the illustration of ‘10 Bulls’ in Zen Buddhism.

A work of fiction, where imagination, liberated from the fetters of day-to-day mundanities and logic, is allowed to fly free and create a world of its own and populate it with creatures and incidents which while divorced from reality, are however held together by an internally coherent and self-consistent ambiance. The word ‘fantasy’ as understood today, encompasses a wide spectrum of sub-genres: in the idiom of modern semantics, ‘Fantasy’ can be anything involving the supernatural, the magical or the occult. By that logic, from Odyssey to the Superman comic can be classified as ‘Fantasy’. One common quality, however, unites these works of fiction. Fantasy invariably involves a quest, a search, and a mission, to find oneself.

The search can have several forms: A concrete, tangible objective, such as the redemption of an abducted wife, and in the process, the destruction of an evil force or a person. Or, it could be an emotional, intangible goal of a warrior who, after ten years of siege, wanders for many years, passing through several adventures before coming home to his wife, children and native land.

The three major themes, the chess, the mirror and the juxtaposition of the opposites work together by ‘opposing’ each other towards the goal of Alice-pawn’s queening. The tale is constructed like a chess game: the pieces become characters. Alice herself a pawn and her adventures are complicated by the move she takes. Alice has to cross six brooks in order to become a queen. As a pawn, she starts from the second square. She moves rapidly to the third square in the train because, the pawn can take two steps in their first move. The chess metaphor also explains, the easy move of the queen, since the queen can move in any direction, any number of times. Whereas, the White Knight struggles to move in a straight line, since it has to move in an L-shape. The journey from being a pawn to a queen is essentially a metaphor for growing up. Beyond that, the book implies that life is just a game, full of arbitrary rules and less meaningful.

The ‘Looking Glass’ is a Victorian term used for mirror. The mirror images are reflections of the real world. They are the opposites, or the backward version of normal things. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll uses different reversals, reflections and oppositions. Alice steps through the mirror in the living room to find a world on the opposite side where everything is backwards: Alice wants to go forward, but every time she moves, she ends up where she started; she tries to go left and ends up right; up is down and fast is slow. Thus themes are interwoven and through these oppositions and confusion Alice finally becomes a Queen.

Throughout her journey she meets various other creatures – all imaginary, rightly fit into the characteristics of fantasy. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Unicorn are ‘real’ characters in the world of fantasy. Alice is a stranger in a strange land. This is one of the characteristics of fantasy. Authors of fantasy, usually bring in the characters from the author’s (reader’s) reality into their created world. Physical travel is sometimes not possible and the characters travels in a dream or in an altered state of consciousness. Alice is in a similar altered state. She leaves the world of reality and moves on to a dreamy world.

Alice’s Through the Looking Glass, as a fantasy, fulfills these norms of an imaginary world, peopled with imaginary situations where the protagonist undertakes, and accomplishes a quest. Just as the Looking Glass serves as a metaphor for Carroll to objectify and develop a conclusion, the Zen story, which dates back to 12th century China, would help us comprehend the subliminal dynamics of the world of the “Looking Glass”. The bull here serves as a metaphor for ‘enlightenment’, ‘search for the self’ or the ‘human’ itself.

The story of ‘The Ten Bulls’ is in prose, verse and illustration. It was first presented by the Chinese Chan (Zen) master Kuoan Shiyuan in the 12th century and it portrays the ten stages of experience by the Bodhisattva. It describes the process of awakening. The first stage depicts the beginning of the path which is in every human life might begin with disappointments and endless distractions. The second stage shows the seeker’s trust in reality by the footprints of the bull.  

Third stage, the object of perseverance is spotted by the seeker indicating the mysticism within the visual conformation. In the next stage, the bull is caught, implying the strong feelings and emotions underlying the human unconscious. The fifth stage represents the true nature of human mind i.e. ‘the mind begins to settle and to work with us, rather than against us’. Next stage gives a glimpse of the struggle between the oppositional states of mind. In the seventh stage, when the bull is transcended, the seeker reaches the stage of enlightenment realizing that the ‘bull’ and the ‘self’ are indeed the same.  Eighth stage shows the deepened enlightenment of the previous stage. Ninth stage shows ‘Things as they are: the river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red’. The last stage brings back the seeker to reality, from the dream-like world, embracing the world.

Alice is seen, at the beginning of the novel, huddled up in her room on a snowy, wintry night. It is the 04th of November, the eve of Guy Fawkes Night. The warmth of the room is her refuge against the freezing world outside, and her soul finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold that blows upon it through the orifices. In her hand are two kittens, Snowdrop and Kitty, white and black, Greed and fear, good and bad. The home therefore to Alice, is a defensive wall against the outside world and not a protective shield against harm. It is a prison that shuts her and not a nest that holds her warmth. The bull that has been lost in her self esteem, her belief in her which, in its turn, has introverted her, where she shuns the ‘cold, freezing, wintry’ world outside and prefers the solitary warmth of her inner thoughts and fantasies. Now, the question is, should she go in search of her lost self? Or, In other words, will she use the spark of her fantasies to ignite her life towards light and life or burn up her life in an empty dream? The moment Alice begins to wonder what is behind the Looking Glass, to question the reality behind the world as she sees it, the die is cast. Her quest is on. The realization that, reality and fantasy, truth and untruth, are one and the same, that is, our own perceptions of the world that bring about a change in ourselves, our lives and in our world, is Alice’s moment of Zen. She has discerned the path, discovered the gateless gate that leads to wisdom. Her choice is made, her Karma is defined, her target is fixed and Alice’s search for her personal Holy Grail has begun. Behind the mirror, Alice discovers the ‘mirror’ image of her world. Anything can be a vehicle- a nonsense verse, a chess piece- to begin one’s journey to one’s inner self.  ‘Jabberwocky’ underlines this important fact: sense and nonsense, reality and fantasy are the ultimate mental concepts. This aspect in her, the realization, propels her onward journey into the world of fantasy.