Literature on Trial in Colonial India


Nandi Bhatia - Literature on Trial in Colonial India

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at 12:00pm
Nandi Bhatia, 2018-2019 NFC Visiting Fellow 
Northrop Frye Centre, VC102, Old Vic, 91 Charles st. West

Among the most overt yet under-explored mechanisms of British rule that produced knowledge about India in the interest of imperial governance, were controls over literary, cultural and dramatic productions exercised through various laws.  Regulations such as the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 and the Press Act of 1910 were initiated and implemented after the 1857 Mutiny, when political power shifted from the East India Company to the British Crown. Such regulations resulted in the banning of numerous plays and publications, including, for example,  Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1910), a document about Home Rule, Rishabcharan Jain’s Gadar (Mutiny, 1930), a novel on the 1857 Mutiny, Angare (Sparks), a collection of short stories published in 1932 , Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories about sexual violence and Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaaf,” for which she had to go to trial in the Lahore High Court. Although the pretext for censoring texts was often “obscenity” and/or “sedition,” they bound literature to administrative procedures that established the legal authority of British rule over literary production. With attention to Ismat Chughtai's "Lihaaf," a short story that invited controversy and an "obscenity" trial against the author, this presentation analyzes the motivations and implications of classifying texts as “obscene” and “seditious” at a time of increased demand for Home Rule. While the reasons for banning some of the above-mentioned texts resulted from the threat of intensifying anti-colonial nationalism, such censorship, I suggest, ultimately served the interests of a masculine nationalism and social reform movements that imagined the nation's women as "good" wives and mothers. Reading "Lihaaf" in tandem with Chughtai's own account of the trial reveals alliances and complicities among local and colonial power groups, exposing in the process the paradoxical underpinnings of regulatory controls over literature in colonial India.

Nandi Bhatia is a Professor in the Department of English at The University of Western Ontario and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. A specialist in Postcolonial Literature and theory, her research explores the connections between literary and theatrical practices, nationalism, and colonialism, and examines the ruptures and crossovers that resulted from the British Empire's longstanding engagement with India. Such connections have been analyzed in her monographs, Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India (University of Michigan Press and Oxford University Press: 2004), Performing Women/ Performing Womanhood: Theatre, Politics and Dissent in North India (OUP, 2010), edited collections Modern Indian Theatre (ed., OUP, 2011) and Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement and Relocation (co-ed. with Anjali Gera-Roy, Pearson, 2009) and in journal articles and anthologies. Professor Bhatia is now working on a SSHRC funded project on the inter-linkages between colonial laws, nationalist practices, and the alternative public sphere of female performance in India. For her research, she was awarded the John Charles Polanyi Prize for Literature and was named UWO Faculty Scholar. 

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