Theatre 'Indian' Theatre in Durban

'Indian' Theatre in Durban

Asoka Theatre Publications, Indic Theatre Monograph Series, No. 1, 1993.   (The term ‘Indic’ triggered the idea of a search for identity.)


(This is an account of my understanding of theatre amongst Indian South Africans in Durban and my personal involvement up to the early 80’s.)



The Search for Cultural Identity:

a personal odyssey



The topic of this article sums up the direction that my personal exploration into theatre has taken.  Even though I come from a very small community, the so-called Indian community in South Africa, the background that this community provided, is rich and diverse.

Because it is a tiny community, it is seen from without to be a homogeneous group.  Meanwhile, it is an extremely diverse group with different religions, languages, customs, class and political affiliations that lead to all kind of internal tensions.  As a minority community, the group is subject to a vast amount of external pressure to which it reacts in different ways.  There are two main responses: i) consolidation and assertion of an Indian identity and culture and ii) the desire to cut across ethnic boundaries and form alliances with other population groups.

The first, the consolidation of an Indian identity and culture, is fraught with problems because of the diversity within the community itself.  There are three main religious groups, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Each group seeks to preserve customs and traditions, which it perceives to be unique to its own section but each is further split by:  i) diversity of languages: Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Gujarati, Memon and Urdu among others ii) caste, iii) class and iv) political affiliations.

Though origins influence perceptions of identity, the major influence stems from the material conditions of living in South Africa.  What ‘Indians’ have in common with all other groups is the culture of apartheid; enforced racism has entrenched fixed notions of identity in some groups and led to the questioning of ethnic identities in others.  Being Black people (though apartheid consciousness does not include Indians among Black people), subjected to a dominant culture, and like other groups, assimilating western customs and behaviours, we developed ambivalence towards our origins. As we came to regard our own traditions as inferior, we began to discard them. What we preserve are those elements that are acceptable to the dominant group, superficial elements that seem ‘exotic,’ such as saris and samoosas.

The sense of inferiority and disempowerment led:  i) to a turning in, a concern for self-preservation and consolidation of Indian traditions which became rigid and perfunctory and ii) a turning out to embrace European culture.  These two positions represent extremes; most ‘Indians’ fall along a spectrum between them.

The dominance of European cultural values has led to emulation of White norms, values and customs at all levels.  Some ‘Indians’ deny their origins in the lifestyles, speech and mannerisms that they have adopted.  Others acknowledge the strong influence of the West on their socialization and accept their assimilation without denying their origins.  Still others, recognising and repudiating the pernicious effects of cultural domination, assert their right to be called African. In the ‘Indian’ community, therefore, the search for identity, an ongoing process, is an unspoken element in all cultural, social and political activities and inherent in the efforts of theatre workers.

In my own attempt to reconcile the diversity of factors that influence the way I behave, I have rejected the term ‘Indian’ for myself.  I was born and raised in South Africa and my life has been influenced by material conditions here and not India.  I have a residual culture that originated in India but that is where my ‘Indianness’ begins and ends.  I am a South African.  I fall somewhere between extremes.  I am proud of my origins, but what I try to express in my work is my South African heritage, which is a mixture of Western, African and Indian influences, and I hope that my artistic creativity reflects the uniqueness of my background.

My earliest recollections of theatrical performances are of plays in Tamil.  I am from the Tamil-Telugu speaking section of the community, and as I have indicated before, each language group forms a separate entity, so I have very little knowledge of what went on in other language sectors.

Tamil plays reflected Indian mythology and history: plays of great heroes, Kavalan and Galavar, tragic heroines and heroes, Nullathangal and Sathiavan-Savathree and dramatisations from the great epics The Ramayana and The Mahabharatha.  The acting troupes were, at first, all male companies.  In vernacular schools, however, both girls and boys took part in plays.  As a child, I took part in a Telugu version of Shakunthala, the classic play by Kalidasa.  By the late forties and early fifties, women were performing in Tamil plays.  In those years, Indian films were based on the same myths and history as the local plays.  It is not clear to me, therefore, whether the performances that I saw were part of an old tradition, or whether they were part of a burgeoning tradition influenced by Indian films.  Even today, there are those theatre workers who are strongly influenced by Indian films.

Segregation laws also influenced the development of the vernacular theatre. As theatres were segregated, we had no access to the productions of African or White companies.  We had no theatre venues either.  We were allowed to use the Durban City Hall where a number of plays, especially those of N.C. Naidoo, were staged but in general, we used cinemas, school and community halls and hotels for our productions.  Segregation, which pre-dates the formal introduction of apartheid, helped to confine early ‘Indian’ theatre ventures more or less to reproductions of traditions from the motherland.

Once the influence of Western education began to be felt, probably in the forties, there developed a concern to preserve and propagate Indian languages and cultural values.  Vernacular drama was supported in vernacular schools at which some form of dramatic activity, including music and dance, was practised and in eisteddfods, which encouraged competition in drama, music and dance.  Eisteddfods still continue to the present day and cultural exchange programmes with India give new strength to vernacular theatrical performances.

The vernacular drama, in my opinion, was an easy prey for assimilation into apartheid culture.  Because of the determination to preserve separate traditions, culture came to be regarded as unchanging and fixed and theatre developments that were expressions of a South African social, economic and political reality were not regarded as authentic.

After the Passive Resistance of 1946/7, the political climate in the country changed.  With the signing of the Doctors’ Pact and then the defiance campaigns that brought all revolutionary political organisations under one umbrella, there was a militant move towards desegregation in the fifties with the adoption of the Freedom Charter, protest marches and boycotts.  This had an influence on theatre activities.  The Brian Brooke Theatre Company began to play to Black audiences, and in Durban, performed at the Bolton Hall.  ‘Indians’ were now exposed to Western theatre performances and white companies began to embrace the problems of segregation.  One of the plays performed by the Brian Brooke Company was The Kimberley Train, a play about a ‘Coloured’ woman passing for White.  This development, performances of white companies in Black areas, continued into the sixties when the Adam’s revues, Adam’s Apple etc, came to the ML Sultan Technical College hall and were followed by other shows, the most notable of which was Wait a Minim, which featured the Tracy Brothers with their African drums and music.  

Politically aware White people, mostly those employed in Indian schools, became involved with ‘Indian’ people and influenced the direction of Indic theatre.  People like Pauline Morel, principal of Dartnell Crescent Primary School for girls, and Charlie Shields who taught at Sastri college and later at Springfield Training College, were interested in Indian cultural traditions, and began to produce Indian plays in  English.  Pauline Morel was particularly fascinated by the work of Rabindranath Tagore and produced several of his plays.  Among her productions were Sacrifice and Muktha Dara and Kalidasa’s Shakunthala.  She drew together a group of theatre enthusiasts who formed her company of actors.  They included Dr Ansuyah Singh, Devi Bughwan (who later became professor of drama at the University of Durban-Westville), Dr A.N. Naidoo and Advocate Hassan Mall.  As a result of her influence, Ansuyah Singh was inspired to write Cobwebs in the Garden, a play about Akbar the Great.  Charlie Shields directed James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan at the Springfield Training College.

In addition to educators, education itself was another factor that influenced Indic theatre.  As education was Eurocentric, we were exposed to Western literature and began to develop an interest in Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, J.M. Barrie, Terrence Rattigan and other British playwrights of the early twentieth century.  Under the guidance of English teachers, schools began to produce these plays that were prescribed for study.  Sastri College, a reputed high school for boys, became well known for its productions of Shakespeare under the direction of a Mr Warriner and Charlie Shields.  This trend was reinforced when Natal University created a separate campus for Blacks in Warwick Avenue and Blacks could enrol for courses in Speech and Drama offered there.  A number of people including Devi Bughwan, Guru Pillay, Gowrie Pather and I, studied Speech and Drama.  Our exposure to Western drama now included the Greeks, Anouilh, Sartre and Lorca – the traditional Speech and Drama menu of the day.  Indic theatre was now moving in several directions.  We had productions in English as well as in the vernacular, and not only of Indian plays.  Even vernacular theatre became involved in productions of Western drama.  I remember a production that toured the community called The Money Box, which was a translation into the vernacular of a Moliére play, The Miser.  These trends, vernacular theatre, Indian plays in English translations, Western plays in the vernacular and performances of the works of European playwrights, continued into the sixties.  

The next step was to be the development of an indigenous drama.  Some of us tried to get together at the beginning of the sixties to develop theatre companies that would explore all the different avenues along which theatre was developing.  These were tenuous efforts but they all came together after our involvement with Union Artists, a Johannesburg production company based at Dorkay House, and Krishna Shah.

In 1962, Union Artists, which had promoted shows such as King Kong, brought Krishna Shah out to South Africa to repeat his successful Off-Broadway production of Tagore’s King of the Dark Chamber.  A company of local actors, with two Indian stars, Surya Kumari and Bashkar, in leading roles, toured the country with the play.   In 1963, Shah returned to South African to conduct a six-week workshop for the development of original work.  At the workshop, which was held at the old St Aidan’s Hall, he gave crash courses in directing, acting and playwriting.  At the end of the six weeks, Ronnie Govender had written Beyond Calvary, Benee Bunsee had written a farce and Benjy Persadh had written a social drama.  These three short plays made up a triple bill Trio against Trains (we had to contend with passing trains as St Aidan’s Hall was right next to the rail underpass.)  

The group that had been involved in the workshop decided to form a theatre company: Durban Academy of Theatre Arts (DATA).  The company included, amongst others, Ronnie Govender, Welcome Msomi, Devi Bughwan, Pauline Morel, Fatima Meer and me.  The company immediately began to look for plays to perform.  The first play it staged was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal and then it produced Ansuyah Singh’s Cobwebs in the Garden.

DATA was also involved with Union Artists in helping to promote their productions in Durban.  The venue used for these performances was the hall at the ML Sultan Technical College as other theatres did not allow mixed audiences.  A production that had its première at the ML Sultan Hall was Sponono, written by Alan Paton and directed by Krishna Shah.  This attempt to promote non-racial theatre in Durban ended when the Government banned the performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.  The controversy surrounding this production brought attention to the fact that plays were being presented to multi-racial audiences and thereafter there was stricter enforcement of the segregation laws and DATA was adversely affected. After the Treason Trial, which was followed by the Rivonia Trial, the period of a more determined application of apartheid rule began.  But everywhere in the country in sport and in the arts, black people were pushing against the restrictions of discrimination.

While I worked with DATA, I was teaching at the ML Sultan Technical College and produced, with students, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière.  When that play completed its run, the cast decided to join DATA and we began on a revue that we called Christmas Nuts.  Our songs, dances and skits were based on various conventions and institutions in the ‘Indian’ community.  It was not well received by the few people who saw it; it was regarded as vulgar because it lampooned traditions and included a skit in which a transvestite did a strip tease.

At any rate, it indirectly led to a split in DATA ranks.  Ronnie Govender, the students from the Tech and I, left to form a new company to work on modern material and original work.  We called ourselves the Shah Theatre Academy in honour of Krishna Shah.  Though we adopted distinct roles, Ronnie was the playwright, I was a director and everyone else was an actress or actor, we all aspired to all the various aspects of theatre and knew that we could develop our talents along whatever lines we chose.  Our actors included Mohammed Alli, who had been a student at ML Sultan Tech, Kessie Govender, Guru Pillay, Babs Pillay and Benjy Francis, all of whom were later to make significant contributions to Indic and Black Theatre.

While we were waiting for Ronnie to write his play, Nineboy, we engaged in acting workshops at the Tech over weekends and rehearsals for plays during the week.  Between January 1964 and June 1965, we produced Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Clifford Odet’s Golden Boy, an evening of poems, mime and original one-act plays, Molière’s School for Wives and took part in a National Drama Festival in Orlando, Soweto, with a performance of Riders to the Sea in which Welcome Msomi played the role of the son.

Then I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship as I felt the need for more training.  I left South Africa in 1965 and returned in 1976.

When I returned to Durban in July 1976, I found that ‘Indic’ theatre had moved beyond the rudimentary stage it had been in when I left in 1965.  A corps of theatre workers had built up through hard work and perseverance, a viable theatre movement.  Contributors to this development were Black consciousness playwrights and actors, Kessie Govender, Guru Pillay, Maynard Peters, Benjy Francis and the Shah Theatre Academy, who were writing indigenous plays and participating in National Drama Festivals.  Kessie Govender had established his own group and Ronnie Govender was running the Shah Theatre Academy.  I was invited by Kessie to accompany his group who were on tour with his play, Stablexpense, which was enjoying major success in Durban.  For the next year or two, I watched as Kessie’s company put on several plays at The Stable, a theatre that Kessie opened in Queen Street.  Among his productions at the Stable were Working Class Hero and Kagoose.

Thereafter, I worked with the Shah Theatre Academy at the time that Ronnie Govender was writing The Lahnee’s Pleasure. I directed three one-act plays in a production called Three for Tea.  I wrote two of the plays, Have Tea and Go and Black Magic and the third was Ronnie’s Beyond Calvary, written for Krishna’s Shah’s workshop in 1963.   At this time the company included Mohammed Alli, Babs Pillay, Essop Khan and Manu Padayachee.  Then The Lahnee’s Pleasure was produced and went on tour.

The work of these dedicated, part-time theatre workers, was supplemented by the establishment of a Drama Department at the University of Durban-Westville.  Saira Essa and Ketan Lakhani, who had trained at UDW, established speech and drama centres for children and provided venues for indigenous plays from the Market Theatre and plays by local playwrights.  Saira Essa’s establishment was called The Upstairs Theatre and Lakhani’s, Communikon.

At the end of 1981, after having acted in a Chip of Glass Ruby, one of the Six Feet of the Country films based on Nadine Gordimer’s short stories, I produced my first full-length play, Of No Account at Communikon.  This play was a reaction against the depiction of Black people as victims rather than people willing to assert their own authority.  The character, Stanley Twala, in Of No Account, is a man, who, though he has not yet taken control of his destiny, is in control of himself, is definitely not a victim and knows where he is headed.

The play was nominated for a Critics Circle Award in Durban so I decided to quit teaching and try my hand at working full-time in theatre.  I formed the Work-in-Progress Theatre (WIP) Company with the cast of the play and took the production to the Laager at the Market where it was a dismal failure.  Nevertheless, I had embarked upon a road that would carry me beyond the confines of the ‘Indian’ Community. WIP was a non-racial company and the plays that we performed examined interaction between Blacks and Whites.  In 1962, I worked for a little while with the Upstairs Theatre, which produced my second play, We 3 Kings.  I left the Upstairs Theatre at the end of the run.  Then I wrote Coming Home (later renamed Ikhayalethu) which was produced at the Hermit Theatre in Hermitage Street.  The cast included Hamilton Ncayiyana, Etienne Essery and Pippa Dyer.  The play was nominated for a Critics’ Circle Award and Hamilton for best newcomer.  Hamilton played the role of S’hlobo, a Black man with a vision of the future and the willingness and ability to make it a reality.

Thereafter, WIP, comprising the cast of We 3 Kings, toured with the play.  The company included Babs Pillay, Mohammed Alli, Essop Khan, Etienne Essery and Nasreen Moosa.

At the beginning of 1983, I put on Outside-In, a play about a mixed marriage with Essop Khan and Pippa Dyer in the roles of an unhappy husband and wife.  (In 1985 this play with William Abdul as director was produced by Michael Stainbank as a fringe production at the Grahamstown Festival.) In April 1982, WIP revived Three for Tea, which included the two earlier farces, Have Tea and Go and Black Magic (later renamed The Divorcee) and a new play, It’s Mine, that I wrote as a feminist reaction to Beyond Calvary.  It portrays a woman who decides to raise her unborn child without the aid of its father whom she refuses to marry.  Babs Pillay, Mohammed Alli and Essop Khan directed the plays.

While this production was running at the Hermit, another play, Masks, which I wrote at the request of Suria Naidoo of the Drama Department at the University of Durban-Westville, and which she directed, was playing at the Asoka theatre.  In addition, the revue Masterplan, which I had written at the request of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Durban, was featured at UDF meetings at which information about the proposed tri-cameral parliament was being disseminated.  The revue was banned in September 1983.

WIP, which had joined the UDF, continued with its work against the proposed tri-cameral system and I wrote three more revues, Chicken Licken which took the place of the Masterplan, Allan’s Coon Carnival for the UDF’s work in the  ‘Coloured’ community and, with a group from Lamontville, The Freedom Train, which was an attempt to depict the struggle for liberation focusing on the history of the Freedom charter and using relevant events from the lives of Nelson Mandela and Albert Luthuli.

In addition to productions at the Hermit and revues for the UDF, WIP also embarked on a theatre-in-education programme.  We put together a dramatisation of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which toured schools in Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

The company disbanded at the end of 1983 because of a lack of funds.  I left Durban to make a new beginning in the Transvaal but was forced to return to teaching.  Since I left Durban, I have written only one play.  At the request of the Detainee’s Parents’ Support Committee, I wrote Nobody’s Hero which was staged in a double bill with Ikhayalethu (formerly Coming Home) at the Laager at the Market in September 1987.  Nobody’s Hero deals with a detainee in solitary confinement whom we find dead at the beginning of the play and whose soul goes through a kind of purgatory in confrontation with his younger self in the cell.  He is a man who has been through the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and is in detention again in the middle eighties.  


Of all the plays that I have written, the play that most overtly represents the search for identity is Masks.  The play takes place in the mind of a woman who is of ‘Indian’ and ‘Coloured’ parentage. All the characters in the play are various manifestations of her split personality.  Her psychosis is born of racism and it is only when she can acknowledge all elements of her heritage and accept them all as valid within herself that she becomes a whole human being again.

Now I work in a homeland, Gazankulu, with African students and with them am exploring the potential for drama inherent in their experience.  My goal here in the far northern Transvaal is to enable students, who are preparing to become teachers, to create their own plays and not rely heavily on ready-made scripts that are often far removed from their experience.


In my search over the years, I have moved away from Indic theatre, unless one regards my efforts as part of Indic theatre simply because I am of Indian origin.  Then the attempt to define the contribution of people like me challenges the notion of Indic theatre.  Still, I realise that in order to be recognised, someone like me, who not only rejects the notion of fixed culture but also the notion of fixed identity, is caught in the contradiction of having to assert an ethnicity because race is still a major factor in our thinking in South Africa.

September 1992
Edited February 2008

Post Script
My last play, Flight from the Mahabarath was written sometime in the late 1990s and is a feminist reaction to the epic, which was presented as a serial on TV.

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0 #2 Veena 2016-12-04 01:26
veenarussell@gm ail.com / I am Devi Bughwan's daughter. Ma is now 90. Aunty Pondi featured throughout my young life before school in England from 1963 onwards. Drop me an email and we'll try to go from there! Best wishes
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0 #1 Melanie Haifer 2009-01-22 19:22
I found this article in my search for a long lost relative, Pauline (Pondy) Morel. If you have any information as to where her sisters' children and/or grandchildren may be contacted, please would you drop me a line at .
With thanks
Melanie Haifer (Johannesburg)
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