21 Writing the Colony: Tom Stoppard: Indian Ink

Safia Begum

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About the Playwright; Tom Stoppard:


Tomas Straussler was born on 3rd July 1937 to Eugene and Martha Straussler at Zlin, erstwhile Czechoslovakia. His father was a physician in a shoe manufacturing company. The company shifted them to Singapore. However, Tom with his elder brother and mother were evacuated from Singapore just before the Japanese invasion. Later, they came to Darjeeling, India. Unfortunately, his father who stayed back in Singapore was killed. Later in 1946, Tom’s mother married Kenneth Stoppard, a British Army officer. So, Tomas Straussler got his new name and became Tom Stoppard. The family later shifted to England. They settled in Bristol and there Tom attended Dolphin preparatory school in Nottinghamshire and then Pocklington School in Yorkshire.


At the age of seventeen Tom quit school to work for a newspaper named Western Daily Press. He worked there for four years. Later, he joined the Evening World as a reporter. In 1960, he moved to London and worked as a freelance reporter. During that time he began to write plays, dramas for television and radio. In 1966 his first play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was staged and immediately received critical acclaim. For this play he has received some awards including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play. Since then he has written various plays for radio, television dramas and screenplays.


Works of Tom Stoppard:


As we discussed earlier, before beginning to write plays, Stoppard was a journalist and theatre critic. He initially wrote plays for the British Radio. His plays include The Dissolution of Dominic Boot (1964), ‘AM’ Is for Moon Among Other Things (1964), If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank (1966), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Albert’s Bridge (1967), Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974) and The Real Thing (1982). He also wrote scripts of some films like Brazil, Empire of the Sun, Billy Bathgate, The Russia House, and the much acclaimed Shakespeare in Love. He occasionally wrote for radio as well. With Albert’s Bridge he came to be known as a playwright and he has also received Italia Prize for it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead brought him international recognition as a playwright. He is considered to be the most performed playwright of his generation.


Literary Style of Tom Stoppard:


Language and style is very important for Stoppard thus while writing he pays more attention to his language use and words. Once he said “One element of this preoccupation is simply an enormous love of language itself. For a lot of writers the language use is merely a fairly efficient tool. For me the particular use of a particular word in the right place, or a group of words in the right order, to create a particular effect is important; it gives me more pleasure than to make a point which I might consider to be profound.” So, for Stoppard more than making a point the way he should make a point becomes important concern. He draws inspirations from T. S. Eliot and Samuel Becket’s writing styles.


Background of the Play:


Stoppard was commissioned to write a new play for BBCRadio 3 by John Tydeman in 1989. He began to write the play in September, 1991 and finished it by next year October. So, first it was written as In The Native State (1991) which was later developed for stage performance as the Indian Ink (1995). The idea of the play germinated in his mind with a little concept of writing a conversation between a poet and a painter. It revolves around this situation where a painter is painting the portrait of the poet and she is busy writing about her experiences of having her portrait done.


The play was written keeping in mind Felicity Kendal who acted as Flora for radio and stage plays. He was taken away by Flora’s poetry and began to write it. He says “Then I found the idea of her poetry so perversely enjoyable I went on writing her poetry far longer than you’d believe. The result was In the Native State broadcast in 1991, later expanded to become Indian Ink.” The play was dedicated to her mother Laura Kendal who was part of a traveling Shakespearean company of actors and travelled to India. “I had only been thinking about [India] in the general sense of using what I’ve got” It feels that one should be using it sometime sooner or later.” said Stoppard in another occasion.


Setting of the Play:


The play is set in different time periods and spaces. It takes the readers back and forth into those times. The play begins in colonial India of 1930s and later it takes to the audiences/readers to 1980s England and India. One can see the three different plots running in these two different times and places. First is the story of Flora Crewe, a British poetess and Nirad Das, who paints her nude portrait. The second plot runs between Mrs. Swan, Flora’s younger sister, and Anish Das, Nirad Das’s son. The Third is about Eldon Pike, the scholar who is working on the biography of Flora. It shows how Pike gathers information about Flora and in search of it he also travels to India.


There is no specific stage demarcation and instructions exist except the time. The past and the present are connected through the two paintings and time. There is no demarcation between India and England on the stage. The playwright says “It is not intended that the stage be demarcated between India and England, or past and present. Floor space, and even furniture, may be common.” However, the demarcation between past and present is understood through the repetition of lines. For example After Flora’s arrival to Jummapur, India, her lines “and round the back…” takes her out of sight of the audiences and one can see Mrs. Swan and Pike reading aloud Flora’s letter and the same dialogue in 1980s, England. This repetition of lines acts as a switching device from past to present and it continues throughout the play.


The Plot of the Play:


The play, Indian Ink is set in two different spaces and time periods, that is, India and England of 1930s and 1980s. In 1930 India was under colonial rule during this time a British poetess called Flora Crewe visits India. She comes to India for work as well as for health reasons. In India she meets a painter name Nirad Das. He wishes to draw a painting of Flora. She agrees and they meet at her place. Flora writes letters to her sister informing about her experiences in India. After fifty years Flora’s sister receives two guests. First Pike comes to see her to know more about Flora as he is writing Flora’s biography. Later, Anish Das, son of the painter Nirad Das, visits Mrs. Swan. He shows the nude painting of Flora painted by his father to Mrs. Swan. They decide to hide this information from Pike. Pike comes to India to know more about Flora.


Summary of the Play:


Now, let us discuss act-wise summary of the play.


Act – I:


In 1930, Flora Crewe, a British poetess arrives at Jummapur, India. She has come to India to give a lecture in a theosophical society. At the station she is greeted by Coomaraswami, the local president of the society. Her stay is arranged at a Guesthouse that has a veranda to it and a servant. Nazrul has been appointed to look after her. Flora writes a series of letters to her sister describing her experience in India.


In another frame, it is in mid 1980s, Flora’s sister, Eleanor Swan is in England. She is sitting in her garden over a tea with a scholar, Eldon Pike, who is collecting information on Flora to write her biography.


After her lecture at the Society Flora meets Nirad Das who wants to paint her while she sits busy writing. Flora writes and Das paints her and they also discuss about India’s Struggle for Freedom.


Now in 1980s, Das’s son, Anish Das come to meet Mrs. Swan and discuss his father’s painting of Flora. He recognised the painting from the book cover of the Collected Letters of Flora Crewe. During this discussion over the painting Anish and Mrs. Swan begin to present their distinct perspectives of colonial India. However, they remain polite to each other.


In colonial India, a British official named David Durance visits Flora to invite her to join him at his club.


In 1980s, Pike arrives to India in order to gather more information about Flora. For this he visits the place where Flora had stayed during her visit to India.


Scene shifts to 1930s, Flora is sitting for the portrait and Das is painting her. They are also discussing art, politics and culture. One day due to hot weather Flora goes into her room and takes off her clothes. She goes to bed nude and covers herself only with a sheet. Das gets embarrassed but she asks him to sit by in a chair in her bedroom.


Act – II:


In colonial India, 1930s, Flora attends a dance with Durance at the club where two of them discuss politics and colonial rule over India. Their discussion continues as they go for horse riding and Durance proposes Flora to which she refuses.


In India during 1980s, Dilip, an Indian gathers information about Flora from various sources and helps Pike.


In 1930s India, On the Rajah’s invitation, Flora visits him to see his vast collection of automobiles. Rajah gifts Flora a painting.


In 1980s setting of India Pike meets the grandson of Rajah who is also known as Rajah. He shows a thank you note from Flora which she wrote to thank the Rajah for the gift.


In the 1980s at Mrs. Swan and Anish are sitting in the garden looking at the paintings. Mrs. Swan shows Anish the nude painting gifted by Rajah whereas Anish shows her the nude painting of Flora by Das.


In the 1930 India, Flora returns from the dance and is informed by Das that the Theosophical Society is suspended due to the political unrest. Das then shows her the nude painting of her which he painted.


In the 1980s, Mrs. Swan says goodbye to Anish and they decide not to share the information or painting of Flora by Das. At the end Mrs. Swan is shown visiting her sister Flora’s grave in India.


Major Characters:


Coomaraswami: He is the local president of the Theosophical Society in Jummapur, India.


He welcomes Flora Crewe at the railway station in 1930.


Flora Crewe: She is an English poet who comes to India in 1930 to deliver a lecture in a Theosophical Society of Jummapur. She takes this journey for her health reasons too. Presumably she is suffering from tuberculosis. She dies in India.


Nirad Das: Nirad Das is the Indian man who meets Flora after her lecture in the Theosophical Society and request to draw her portrait. He especially wanted to paint Flora when she is busy writing poetry.


Mrs. Swan: Mrs. Swan is the younger sister of Flora Crewe.She appears on the stage sitting with Pike and reading aloud Flora’s letters.


Pike: Pike is a scholar who is interested and working on Flora Crewe’s life.


Anish Das: Anish Das is the son of Nirad Das. He visits Mrs. Swan, Flora’s younger sister to know more about his father.


Minor Characters:


Rajah: In 1930, Rajah of Jummapur invites Flora to his palace and gifts her classic nude painting.


Durance: Durance is the English Army official who proposes Flora in India.


Grandson of Rajah: In 1980s of India, Rajah, the grandson of Rajah, meets Pike. He informs and shows the thank you letter Flora wrote to his grandfather.


Dilip: In 1980s India, Dilip is an Indian man who helps Pike in collecting information about Flora.


Major Themes in the Play:


The Empire:


The play is set in the colonial period of India and also in the post-colonial period. The setting of the play in a way is to highlight the significance of the periods and perspectives people have about the times. This is the time when the Indians were struggling to free themselves from the British rule. The play majorly deals with the colonial rule in India. We see characters in different time period discussing the issues of colonialism. For example the Indian character Anish Das refers to the incident of 1857 as the ‘first war of Independence’ whereas Mrs. Swan looks it as “Mutiny”.


Similarly, different characters have different opinions about it like Flora does not hold the same attitude that of her sister. She is conscious of her presence in India as a representative of the coloniser. The other character like David Durance and his colleagues at the club shares imperialist attitude towards the natives. For example: In the beginning of Act-  II, an English man appears to be in praise of the writer Rudyard Kipling, who was known for his racial attitude towards native society and cultures.


Cultural Imperialism:


Cultural imperialism is a strategy one applies to subjugate other cultures. The dominant culture imposes their culture upon the natives. For example, Britishers, the colonisers, imposed their language and culture upon the Indians and many other colonised countries. Thus, Indians gradually adopted the language and culture. But they are writing back too. This play is one such example which writes back to the colonisers. For example, Anish Das and Mrs. Swan talk about colonial rule in India. Mrs. Swan with superior attitude compares Indian colonial rule to the Romans ruled over Britain. To this Anish responds “We were the Romans! We were up to date when you were a backward nation. The foreigners who invaded you found a third-world country! Even when you discovered India in the age of Shakespeare, we already had our Shakespeare. And our science – architecture – our literature and art, we had a culture older and more splendid, we were rich!” Anish thinks that British came to India to plunder the wealth and destroy the indigenous cultures. This shows instances of cultural imperialism and also writing back to the colonisers too. However, the play seriously does not delve into the theme of natives writing back to their colonisers more particular it represents the two varied perspectives on the same subject from the natives and outsiders angle.


Other Relevant Issues Discussed in the Play:


The play also deals with many other ranging issues. Along with history, race and colonialism the play also talks of poetry, visual arts, painting especially the Indian art and culture. Stoppard’s usage of language has added to it. The Rajah gifted a classic painting to Flora. Das’s painting of Flora also suggests of Indian classical and western styles with subtle erotic sense in it. There are also discussion of Indian classical forms and rasas. Significance of art which has been explicated through rasa is an important aspect of the play. Das defines rasa as “…what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.” Rasa highlights the significance of native culture and also creates a tension between native and colonial attitude towards indigenous culture.

The play is also about the Anglo-Indian relationship and understanding of two artists; one poet and other painter. In fact the major characters are connected through art. It is also about cultural exchanges between two different continents in two different eras. At the end Flora has been projected as Radha, the Indian female love icon who is “undressed for love in an empty house”. The play has themes of romantic love, loss and nostalgia which remind us of western classics. The play also refers to some incidents of Indian Freedom Struggle like the Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi.


Summary :


In this module we have discussed about the playwright Tom Stoppard. We came to know about his personal life and also his literary career too. We also learnt about his style of writing. Further, we have discussed the play Indian Ink and deliberated on its varied themes. We came to know about the background of the play. We have discussed the plot and summary of the play. Then we have analysed the major characters and minor characters of it. After then we have focused on major themes and other relevant issues discussed in the play. For more on this module, please find the e-text, Learn More and Self-assessment portions.

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  • Fleming, John. Finding Order amid Chaos Tom Stoppard’s Theatre. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. “Indian Ink: Drama for Students” http://www.encyclopedia.com/article1G22693600019/indianink.html
  • Russell, Richard Rankin. “‘It Will Make Us Friends’: Cultural Reconciliation in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Indian Ink.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004, pp. 1–18. www.jstor.org/stable/3831936.
  • Walsh, Paul et al. Words on Plays: An Educational Guide to Indian Ink. USA: American Conservative Theatre, 1999.