Brahmin humor : Chennai's sabha theater and the creation of middle-class Indian taste from the 1950s to the present
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“Sabha theater” is a genre of Tamil language comedy theater that started in Madras (Chennai) in the period following India’s 1947 independence. Its name comes from the fact that the amateur drama troupes rely on cultural organizations known as sabhas for patronage, but the theater also has a very specific aesthetic and narrative style. Sabhas are known for their patronage of classical music and dance, but many also support amateur theater troupes. These organizations, along with the press and academics, create a notion of “good” taste in Chennai, India. All three fields are dominated by the high caste Brahmin community, which thus both constructs and embodies the idea of good taste in the city. The identity of Brahmins, as the taste-makers of the city, is influential in shaping middle-class culture in Chennai. I argue that this identity is not best visible in tradition, because performances of the classical arts and the response of connoisseur audiences to them reveal an ideal that is frozen in time. I look instead to something spontaneous: humor. The fact that elite Tamil Brahmins choose to join sabhas or attend sabha dramas is not to say that the plays are ideal representations of Tamil Brahmin culture or good taste. In actuality, the discourse about the plays has created two factions within the Tamil Brahmin community, the most vocal of which dismisses them as “just comedy.” I engage with both voices through case studies of plays that have remained popular with audiences over the years. I also consider such things as how the contemporary political climate and development of mass media have affected live theater in Chennai in terms of aesthetics, personnel, scripts, production, and patronage.