Swati Simha*

Abstract: Theatre has often dealt with the question of Modernity: What constitutes modern theatre? How should one practice “The Modern” in theatre? Should the post-colonial writer get back to their “Traditional” roots? In this paper, I will look at a more fundamental problem: what constitutes Modernity, in general, and modern medicine, in particular, and how it can be challenged in theatre, by taking the example of four plays written in the Global South for a festival that sought to address childbirth-related healthcare inequalities. The plays address the issues of the body politic by looking at bodies that give birth.

Keywords: Modernity, Global South, Birth, Healthcare, Hegemony, The Body

 

Medicine considers the human body as to the means by which it is cured and by which it is driven away from health.

Ibn Sina

Civilization is only a series of victories against nature.

William Harvey

Before we engage in critiquing Modernity, it must first be rescued from an incomplete and biased historiography; the repeated and systematic erasure and distancing of non-western thought that constituted its central tenets (Hoskote and Trojanow 2012). Take, for instance, the systematic and meticulous translation of Greek texts (including medical texts of Hippocrates and Galen) that took place in Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, in the Middle Ages.

Illustration of “Sughrat” (Socrates) in dialogue with his pupil made by a 13th Century Seljuk illustrator. Currently kept at Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul. (Source)

Medical institutions, such as the Academy of Gondishahpur, run by Khosrau I, in Asia Minor, as early as 500 A.D., housed medical scholars, including Hellenistic Greeks banished from Athens, Syriac physicians escaping religious persecution, Buddhist Monks, Jewish doctors and many other scholars over the years who were banished from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. They worked in collaboration with each other to produce important works in medicine without denouncing the relevance of the Sanskrit, Greek and Hebrew texts that were available in translation in Persian and Syriac.

In, what is called, “The Dark Ages,” there was much light thrown upon medical practice by scholars such as Al Rhazi (860 A.D.–932 A.D.), who wrote treatises on smallpox and measles, and Ibn Sina (890 A.D.–1037 A.D.), who wrote the seminal encyclopedia on medicine which greatly influenced modern medicine. The intention of quoting Ibn Sina alongside William Harvey is not in order to pose them as rivals that we must set against each other as representatives of the west and the non-west, but to look past the hegemonic project of the colonial powers to white-wash the confluences that led to modern medicine.

Illustration of the eye in circa 1200 by Hunain Ibn Ishaq, now kept at Cairo National Library. Ibn Ishaq was an ophthalmologist and a master translator who translated several Greek texts. (Source)

No doubt, once colonial trade was established, the colonial west was able to channel large amounts of surplus into scientific research, thus allowing the exponential growth of medical science in Europe. However, these developments were said to have been produced independent of ancient and medieval research, and exclusive and spontaneous only to European society.

This newness called “Modernity” was clothed in the colonial discourse of racial superiority, aesthetics that encouraged discipline over the body as well as gender-heteronormativity. Modernity thus produced did not remain a set of ideas to be shared with the world, but became the White Man’s Burden to teach this knowledge to the colonies, so that a more productive and efficient market for surplus extraction could be established. By producing “The Modern” as western and the brain-child of western society alone, colonialism simultaneously produced “The Traditional,” thrusting all non-western thought to the past as primitive and decadent, incapable of rational and critical scientific engagement.

The White Man’s Burden” Judge Magazine, 1 April 1899. (Source)

One of the repercussions of the rupture created by the permeable slash between Coloniality/Modernity (Mignolo 2011) has been the establishment of the “Glorious Past” in the post-colonial nation, which tries to re-write history and establish a homogenous pre-colonial subject, subjugating those who do not fit this homogenous identity into a threatening and deprecatory existence.

When faced with the task of challenging “The Modern” in theatre, one is often met with a tendency to resort to innovation in form, which pieces together elements of “Traditional” theatre, such as Kudiyattam, Kalari-Payatu, Chhau, Peking Opera, Balinese dance. Starting with the discovery of the potentiality of “Traditional” forms of theatre by western directors, such as Antonin Artaud and many others, a post-modern nostalgia towards representing bodies as repositories of tradition that are able to speak the mundane, the profane and the secular, persist among urban theatre makers in the Global South.

What was refreshing about the B!rth Festival at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, which housed seven female playwrights from India, China, Kenya, Syria, Brazil, U.K. and U.S., was the rigorous research that each of the playwrights was encouraged to undertake on concrete material conditions of healthcare in the Global South and their subsequent manifestation of a set of dramatic arguments that problematized the body as modern subject.

Persons and Things

Legal Institutions dating back to Rome have always made a clear distinction between Persons and Things: Persons being those who own; and Things being those possessed by Persons. A Janus-faced relationship between Persons and Things has served well as the keeper of order and status quo in society. What lies outside this body politic is the Human Body because the body does not correspond to either the person or the thing. The body must be personified through the ritual of possessing his/her own faculty or by possessing things. Throughout the history of representative theatre, therefore, we witness that what makes a character “Human” (or attain personhood) is the act of choosing. It is oft quoted in manuals on playwriting that there is no drama without choice, and should a character be disempowered to choose, then they cannot be the protagonist of the play, but must be thingified as aid or obstacle in helping or harming the protagonist attain personhood.

“Life of Man” by Fritz Kahn in 1926 (Source)

In Modernity, this binominal between Person and Thing is further extended to its logical end: the rupture between the mind and the body. The mind is classified as the possessor of the body and, therefore, must tame and regulate the body so as to attain personhood. Political philosopher Roberto Esposito (2015) writes that “modern thought places the body under the rubric of object. The body is what the subject recognizes inside itself, as different from itself. To be able to deal with the body, the subject must separate itself from the body and keep it at a distance.” As a consequence, those who were considered to be less in control of their body “by nature,” due to their relationship with physical labor, such as slaves who had to produce things through their bodies, and women who gave birth, were thingified in the social order and were subjected to law rather than subjects of law.

Illustration by Fernando Vicente comparing the anatomy of the female body with car parts.(Source)
The B!rth Plays

The B!rth Festival organized by the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, housed seven female playwrights from China, Brazil, India, Kenya, Syria, U.K. and U.S. to discuss childbirth-related healthcare inequalities, and the plays were directed to be provocations for a debate. Each play was followed by a panel discussion comprised of politicians, doctors, activists and artists.

The B!rth playwrights at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Left to right: Liwa Yazji, Translator for Xu Nuo, Xu Nuo, Mumbi Kaigwa, Swati Simha, Marcia Zanelatto, Marcia Zanelatto’s translator. Photo Credit: Joel C Fildes

Although not explicitly articulated in these terms, the theme of thingifying the woman’s body through the intervention of medical science was recurring in all the plays of the festival.

Xu Nuo’s play A Son Soon brought to stage three vital questions: Who owns the womb? Is it a thing that is owned by the Modern state? Is it owned by the Traditional family? Or is it possessed as part of the body that is owned by the mother? Unable to choose whether or not to take ownership of her womb, Li Xiao goes to a healer who can speak to spirits. It is here that Li Xiao views her body, not just spatially but also temporally, across time, viewing the many girls who were aborted from her womb over the years in order to produce a son. Rather than submitting herself to the magic of the healer and making a decision in a place where she exists outside of her body (the ideal space of decision making for Modernist thinkers from Descartes to James Mill), Li returns to her body even if that means an impossibility of choice.

Ouroboros from India dealt with the bio-politics of reducing numbers through surgical intervention upon women’s bodies. Number Seven and Number Thirteen, who are unable to survive laparoscopic surgery in a mass sterilization camp, return as the embodiment of guilt before an employee of the state who conducted the surgeries. These statistics, having acquired human form, contemplate their own existence, which was invisible to the State while they were alive, and marvel at the privilege of the modern subject, who can make them visible just by imagining them. Alongside that is a narrative of a village plagued by high infant mortality and a midwife burdened with the death of too many infants. For the state, the body count is itself the disease. Be it the number of dead children, adding to the growing index of Infant Mortality, or the ones alive, adding to the growing population, both serve as markers of stunted development for the State. For the midwife, not only are the parts of the body an inseparable whole, but every single body is part of every other as one composite whole bound to the roots of the Banyan tree that stands as a defeated stump in front of the Primary Health Centre set up by the government.

Q & Q, written by Liwa Yazji deals with a set of interviews conducted by officers, psychiatrists and doctors in a refugee camp. Among the four stories narrated, Nouf, a young single mother is unable to convince the suspicious investigators of her intentions to have a child in these turbulent times. It is constantly the Person (imagined to have personhood in a different nation) who is questioned but is unable to answer. Instead, the body responds, but the investigators are unable to understand these responses according to their rules and manuals on medical ethics. What is remarkable is that the birth and the body of the mother is no longer a metaphor for war, or even a site upon which war and peace are negotiated, but the body itself is at war with peace outside the boundaries of the person.

Q & Q by Liwa Yazji, directed by Emma Callander. Photo Credit: Joel C Fildes

Mumbi Kaigwa’s play about Fistula is a street play of sorts which intends to reach out to villages of Kenya with diagrams and diagnosis. The teacher is not an “expert” but a narrator who has Fistula. Her body is in the diagrams and she is the one who discusses the diagrams. Here, learning about Fistula entails understanding not only the pathology but also the dis-ease.

Orchid by Mumbi Kaigwa, directed by Emma Callander. Photo Credit: Joel C Fildes

Returning to the question of Modernity and Modern science, rather than refusing to engage in a debate, rather than confining the work of theatre to addressing only the purely aesthetic realm of modernity, our task, as writers from the Global South, is to strip modernity of its hegemony and re-establish it as any set of ideas and arguments that one engages in a dialogue with. In an article titled Can there be a Feminist Science? Helen Longino (1987) argues that science is produced for and in a market, and must be viewed in relation to the political and social dimensions that shape it. If we are to imagine medical science for the people rather than the market that is increasingly funded by the industry and the military, we must endeavor to challenge the culture it rests upon and gains legitimacy from and endeavor to change the conditions of research and practice.


Works Cited

Esposito, Roberto. Persons and Things: From the Body’s Point of View. John Wiley and Sons, 2015. Print.

Longino, Helen E. “Can There Be a Feminist Science.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy (University of Texas) 2 (1987): 51 Print.

Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke University Press. 2011.

Trojanow, Ilija, and Ranjit Hoskoté. Confluences: Forgotten Histories from East and West. Yoda Press, 2012. Print.


*Swati Simha is a playwright based in India. She was part of a writing residency organized by Royal Exchange, London, and Rage Theatre, Mumbai. She was also part of the B!rth festival organized by Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. She is currently pursuing and MPhil/PhD in political theory at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has received a Master’s degree from Shanghai Theatre Academy and a Bachelor’s degree at FLAME School of Performing Arts, Pune.

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Birthing a Critique of Modernity
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