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Melodrama, Mythology, and Moral Reform: Parsi Drama and Agha Hashra Kashmiri (1879-1935)


Parsi theatre was the first institutionalized attempt in colonial India to consolidate a pan-Indian theatrical public, and doing this necessitated the emergence of particular narrative, performance, and genre codes of melodrama. These productive intersections between the development of colonial national theatre, and the development of melodrama also coincided with the rise of cultural nationalism in early twentieth century colonial India. Parsi theatre therefore became the generative site for imagining, producing and circulating the ideas of a nation and national belongingness through a shared idiom of narrative and performance culture, and the shared experience of a consolidated theatrical public. This dissertation analyzes the convergence of moral reform plots, melodramatic genre, and mythological narratives in Hashra’s plays between 1910 and 1928 to show the rise of nationalist consciousness in Parsi drama, and its contribution towards cultural nationalism in early twentieth century colonial India.

The plotting strategy in Hashra’s plays, circumscribed by emergent nationalist discourse, is focussed on the narrative of individual moral reform where characters’ duty toward family take precedence over their desire for love and pleasure. Given the centrality of home and family within nationalist consciousness, the plays do not really displace, but merely subsume the task of reforming and liberating a nation; within the more urgent task of reclaiming the protagonist’s self and family. Hashra’s plays examined here belong to the Gandhian phase of nationalist mobilization, where moral reform of the flawed and fallen protagonist serves to illuminate the process by which urban middle class can participate in the project of reforming self, community, and nation. Melodrama as an aesthetic, a genre, as well as a mode emerges in these plays to heighten the emotional drama around moral regulation, and fulfill the persuasive agenda of nationalism led reform. The study shows how modern melodrama in popular Parsi theatre emerged in response to these new nationalist and reformist calibrations in colonial India.

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