Special Performance

by Pany Jraige '05

This spring, Susan Seizer, associate professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies, celebrated the publication of her first monograph, Stigmas of the Tamil Stage. Published by Duke University Press, the 440-page book is an ethnography of the lives of southern India’s “special drama” artists. Special drama is a unique kind of theatrical performance that is popular throughout the Tamilnadu region. Aside from producing the first published work on special drama, Seizer effectively engages the reader in a world of lively performances and the everyday lives of these artists. She gives insight not only into the subculture in which special drama is situated, but also the ways that stigmatized identities of female performers are lived and managed.

For Professor Seizer, the path to the special drama stage was forged by incidents and accidents. After graduating from Barnard with an undergraduate degree in English, she spent much of her time dancing and choreographing in New York’s experimental dance scene. It wasn’t until she saw a performance of the Indian dance form Bharata Natyam that she realized that “culture shapes even our most intimate selves, our bodies, and the very ways we move.” From this moment of epiphany, Seizer began to research Indian dance forms, became interested in culture, applied to graduate school in anthropology, learned Tamil (one of the languages of southern India), and began her field work in Tamilnadu. The specific topic of the book, the stigmatized identity of special drama actresses, developed from years of field work in the region.

When asked how it feels to have the book completed, Seizer replied: “It’s like a magic trick in that this creative mess finally comes together into one piece. It puts a cover on something that will never be finished—always ongoing in the sense that it’s a part of my life.”

While Seizer has not decided whether to structure a class around the book, other colleagues in the field are recognizing its importance: an Occidental College professor assigned the book to his students this spring in a seminar on the anthropology of performance; Seizer spoke to the class in April.