Dreams Deferred

Black lives in Indian literature of the Bandung era

Indians protesting against apartheid in South Africa, in 1960 in New Delhi, after the Sharpeville massacre. Africa was that imaginary terrain upon which Indian writers both argued for a progressive politics of racial solidarity and also drove more local political agendas that had little to do with African emancipation. AFP/GETTY IMAGES
31 December, 2021

IN 1963, the Indian People’s Theatre Association put on a play. Like most plays by the ideologically left-wing theatre group, this one, too, was about freedom. Since its inception twenty years earlier during the Indian freedom struggle, IPTA had been performing stories of revolution that were set in a young India that was fighting against, or just about free from, British rule. But this new play stood out in one crucial way. Located far away from home, it was not about India at all. It was about the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, in which the Kenya Land and Freedom Army led an armed revolt against colonial rule. This struggle was met with violent repression from the British, who set up prison camps where an estimated hundred and fifty thousand Kenyan prisoners were subjected to extreme physical torture and sexual abuse. And, although the Mau Mau campaign was eventually quelled, it played a significant role in helping Kenya gain its independence in 1963.

Performed the same year Kenya was freed, IPTA’s play about the Mau Mau rebellion was originally written in English by the Kenyan-born Indian actor Zul Vellani, who titled it The Flaming Spear/No Other Way. The script was then translated into Hindi by Vishwamitter Adil and performed in Bombay by IPTA as Africa Jawan Pareshan—African Youth in Distress. But unfortunately, we know very little about what happens in the story. Both the English and Hindi scripts seem to be lost, and when I reached out to people who had seen the play more than fifty years ago, they could not precisely recall its plot.

Broadly, the play revolves around a family that belongs to the Kikuyu clan, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, which also spearheaded the Mau Mau campaign. The main conflict of the story emerges from the political differences among the family members on what kind of path Kenya should take to freedom. But even though it is difficult to know more about who the exactly the characters were or how the scenes went, there is a small but telling archive. It is a handful of photographs from the play’s Hindi staging. I discovered the pictures with the help of my aunt, who, like my grandparents, has been a member of IPTA herself.

At first glance, these black-and-white photos seem unremarkable. But a closer look at each frame makes clear that the actors of Africa Jawan Pareshan donned neither their natural hair nor their true skin colour. Each of the brown-skinned Indian actors seems to be wearing a tufty black wig made of some kind of matted wool, and their faces, arms and legs are smeared with dark-hued paint, likely in an attempt to make them look “African.” To put it bluntly, IPTA’s actors performed their play in blackface.

Poorna Swami is a writer from Bengaluru. She is currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.