Cultural and Historical References in Stoppard's Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Stoppard’s 1994 play Indian Ink, set primarily in India in 1930 during a period of intense struggle between Indian nationalists and British imperialists, makes reference to several significant historical and cultural phenomena of India and England during this period. These references include the Indian uprising of 1857, the Theosophical Society, the Bloomsbury group, the English novelists E. M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling, and the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. A better understanding of these references will further illuminate significant themes of the play.

In Act I, Anish Das, a young Indian man educated and residing in England, is visiting with Mrs. Swan, an elderly English woman, in her garden. In the course of their conversation, Anish mentions ‘‘the first War of Independence,’’ to which Mrs. Swan responds, ‘‘What war was that?’’ Anish replies, ‘‘The Rising of 1857,’’ to which Mrs. Swan responds, ‘‘Oh, you mean the Mutiny.’’ In Act II, a similar exchange occurs between Flora and the Rajah. He proudly informs her that ‘‘my grandfather stood firm with the British during the First Uprising.’’ Flora, has no idea to what he is referring, until he mentions ‘‘1857,’’ at which points she realizes he is talking about ‘‘The Mutiny.’’ Although they refer to it in different terms, reflecting their differing political perspectives on Indian colonial history, they are both talking about what is now referred to as the ‘‘Mutiny’’ or the ‘‘Great Revolt’’ of 1857–9. This bitter rebellion of Indian troops and citizens against the British colonial forces occupying India started on May 10, 1857. The original source of discontent among Indian soldiers in the British army was over the grease used on rifle cartridges that soldiers were required to bite in order to open; the grease was made up of a mixture of pork and beef, which was prohibited by both Hindu and Muslim religious belief. But this initial protest took on greater implications as it became a struggle for Indian national independence and gained the support of many Indian citizens. This rebellion became an all-out military revolt, during which Indian troops took control of significant sectors of the country. The British, however, ultimately defeated the Indians on June 20 of 1859. The Indian and English characters in Stoppard’s play represent the different historical perspectives on this event, the English regarding it as a ‘‘mutiny’’ against their sovereignty in the region, and the Indians considering it the ‘‘first War’’ in a century-long struggle for national independence.

In the opening scene of Stoppard’s play, Flora Crewe, a British poet, is greeted at the train station by the president of the local Theosophical Society, to which she later gives a talk. In Act II, Flora learns that, due to riotous rebellion in the area, the local Theosophical Society has been ‘‘suspended,’’ presumably for its political leanings. Theosophy is a religious philosophy based on ‘‘the mystical premise that God must be experienced directly in order to be known at all,’’ according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Theosophy became internationally popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps the most significant figure in the spread of Theosophy was Helena Blavatsky, who, along with Henry Steel Olcott, founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. In 1878, they moved the center of the Society to India, from which their ideas spread throughout India and Europe. Blavatsky’s most influential writings include the multi-volume publications Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). Theosophy draws extensively from many Eastern religions, but especially from Indian mystical thought. In Stoppard’s play, the Indian man Dilip explains to the English scholar Pike that, ‘‘Madame Blavatsky was a famous name in...

(This entire section contains 1543 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

India, she was the Theosophical Society.’’ Theosophy became important in India as a means of establishing national pride and contributing to the nationalist sentiments, which in part inspired the struggle for Indian national independence.

During a conversation with Coomaraswami, Flora mentions ‘‘Bloomsbury.’’ She is referring to the Bloomsbury group, an unofficial affiliation of writers, intellectuals, and artists who gathered regularly in private homes located in the Bloomsbury district of London, between 1907 and 1930. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bloomsbury group’s ‘‘significance lies in the extraordinary number of talented persons associated with it.’’ Several famous writers of the Bloomsbury group, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster (1879–1970), are mentioned in Stoppard’s play. References to Forster are particularly significant, as he is known for his writings on India. In a conversation between Flora and Das, Flora compares Das to a character in Forster’s famous novel A Passage to India, and later asks his opinion of the novel. Forster wrote A Passage to India after having visited India in 1912–13 and again in 1921. In addition, he wrote a nonfiction book, The Hill of the Devi (1953), about his experiences in India. Forster is also known for his novels A Room with a View (1907), Howard’s End (1910), and Maurice (1971), which was published posthu- mously. The reference to Forster is significant to Stoppard’s play as it invokes the literary history of English colonial fiction set in India.

In the opening scene of Act II, Flora is attending a dance at the Jummapur Cricket Club, to which she has been invited by Durance. An Englishman mentions Kipling, and recites a quote from the author: ‘‘Kipling there’s a poet! ‘Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the living Gawd that made you, you’re a better man than I am Gunga Din!’’’ This reference is significant to Stoppard’s play because the world best knows Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) for his pro-imperialist writings regarding the colonization of India. Kipling was born in Bombay, India, into a British family that sent the young Kipling to school in England during much of his childhood. In 1882, Kipling moved back to India, where he worked as a journalist for the next seven years. Shortly after his return to England in 1896, Kipling was hailed as a leading British writer, and in 1907 he was the first English writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His notoriety increased with the publication Barrack-Room Ballads, which included the poem ‘‘Gunga Din.’’ Kipling is perhaps best known for his children’s stories, Kim (1901) and The Jungle Books (1894–5), which take place in India. Stoppard’s play is clearly anti-imperialist in sentiment, and the praise of Kipling by a character identified only as an ‘‘Englishman’’ is meant to indicate the pro-imperialist stance of the members of the Jummapur Cricket Club. These English characters, particularly Durance, function as a counterpoint to the character of Flora, a radical thinker who, despite the fact that she is English, is a supporter of Indian nationalism and a critic of British imperialism.

Although Stoppard’s character of Flora Crewe is fictional, a number of references are made throughout the play that indicate that she is personally acquainted with several internationally renowned artistic, literary, and intellectual figures of her day. Flora is perhaps most closely affiliated with the modern Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920). Modigliani was born in Italy, of Jewish parents, but moved to Paris as a young man in 1906 to pursue the study of art. Although he is now known as one of the most important artists of the twentieth century, Modigliani was not recognized outside of his Parisian circle of artists until after his death. In Stoppard’s play, it is mentioned that Flora posed for a nude portrait by Modigliani. This portrait was later purchased and destroyed by a suitor of Flora’s in a fit of jealousy, when he burned it to ashes in the bathtub of a Ritz hotel. The fictional Flora’s relationship to Modigliani may be intended to refer to a real affair between Modigliani and the British poet Beatrice Hastings, between 1914–1916. The reference to a nude painting is significant to Modigliani’s oeuvre, in that he is best known for about thirty large female nude paintings, which he completed between 1916–1919. His work has especially been noted for the sense of personal intimacy between the artist and his subject that is captured in his paintings. In Stoppard’s play, the scholar Pike explains that Flora attended ‘‘Modigliani’s first show, in Paris.’’ This refers to the first, and only, one-man showing of Modigliani’s work during his lifetime, exhibited by Berthe Weill in her gallery in Paris in 1917. This show was immediately controversial, however, because of the nude female subjects, and was closed down by the police. Reference to Modigliani as a master painter of the nude female form in Stoppard’s play is significant to a central motif of the drama, which is the relationship between Flora and Das as he eventually paints a miniature nude portrait of her. Flora had made plans to sit for another nude by Modigliani, but arrived in Paris on January 23, 1920, after he had been taken to the hospital, about a week before he died of tuberculosis. (In historical reality, Modigliani’s lover, the painter Jeanne Hebuterne, who was pregnant with their child, killed herself the day after his death by jumping out of a window.)

Stoppard makes a number of historical, literary, and artistic references within the dialogue of the play, each of which adds depth as well as historical and cultural relevance to his central thematic concerns regarding empire, cultural imperialism, Indian nationalism, and artistic creation.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Propriety and Possession

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In a 1995 interview with Mel Gussow, Tom Stoppard called his play Indian Ink ‘‘a very cosy play’’ but perhaps ‘‘worryingly cosy sometimes.’’ His comment refers primarily to the play’s setting in which characters interact over tea, or while having portraits made. Stoppard also implies that the seriousness of the play might be lost in coziness. Personal and political conflicts in Indian Ink are brought up obliquely, politely, and without being resolved. However, by interweaving three separate but related scenarios that span a critical juncture in the political relations between India and Britain, Stoppard’s cozy play demonstrates how these matters inflect personal relationships. The three scenarios form a theatrical triptych that allows the viewer to see all of the action at once, in collapsed time and space. This element encourages comparison with the result that the slow subtle shifts of history appear startling and sudden. Indian Ink reveals a cultural shift from a society obsessed with personal propriety, overtly concerned with how people may act, to a society obsessed with possession, concerned about who may own what.

The first scenario takes place in 1930 in India between poet Flora Crewe and Indian artist Nirad Das, the second portrays a visit to her aging sister by Das’s son, and the third regards the annotation of Flora’s posthumous letters by Eldon Pike. The mystery of whether or not Flora and Das had an affair complicates the relationships in all three scenarios, and also affects the true ownership of certain paintings that came into Flora’s possession, including the one on the cover of her Collected Letters. Three interrelated variations of the theme of propriety appear in the three scenarios: a theme of social propriety pervades the scenes between Flora and Das, while a theme of possession pervades the scenes between Mrs. Swan and Anish Das, and these issues merge in the theme of interpretation as Flora’s biographer Eldon Pike stumbles through his investigations of her life. All three themes ultimately deal with what is proper behavior, and the events that illustrate them all stem from the initial scenario of Flora and Das.

A writer juxtaposes parallel events or relationships to draw attention to what has changed and what has remained the same. Sixty-five years separate the events narrated in Indian Ink, an interim that saw the decline of the British Empire, the independence of India (in 1945), and the partition of India and Pakistan (1947). These changes followed hundreds of years during which India tolerated encroaching European oppression, a cultural phenomenon at which Emily Eden expressed amazement in 1839: ‘‘I sometimes wonder they [the Indians] do not cut all our [the Europeans’] heads off and say nothing more about it.’’ Stoppard closes his play with Eden’s comment, along with a description of her party’s ‘‘polite amusements’’ in front of ‘‘at least three thousand Indians who looked on’’ and who ‘‘bowed to the ground if a European came near them.’’ Including this actual firsthand account, the timeline of Indian-European relations portrayed in the play encompasses over 150 years, from the golden age of British imperialism in India to its gradual exit. Momentous changes took place on the heels of Flora’s visit, representing a critical juncture in Anglo-Indian relations, and, finally, in the relations between British and Indian society. The theatrical triptych in Indian Ink conveys how these changes inevitably affected individuals.

Two of the triptych panels comprise a parallel set of personal relationships, each being a scenario between a memsahib (the respectful term used by Indians for a white, European woman) and an Indian man. Flora Crewe, a poet traveling in India in 1930 for her health shares an intimate relationship with Nirad Das, an Indian artist with an affinity for all things British. Flora had led a scandalous life in Europe, but she is not so free in India, where strained political relations between colony and colonizer are kept under control by strict social prohibitions against interactions between whites and natives. As Dilip remarks years later about the possibility of Nirad having painted a nude portrait of her, ‘‘In 1930, an Englishwoman, an Indian painter . . . it is out of the question.’’ Intimacy between Indian and European carries the power to disrupt the fragile political equilibrium. Flora and Das must neither respond to each other as man and woman, nor as artist and model, nor even as one human to another—Das’s assistance at Flora’s attack of breathlessness would certainly be misinterpreted by gossips. Nevertheless, drawn perhaps by the same curiosity about Indians that drove Miss Quested in A Passage to India, Flora risks her reputation by seeing Das alone, and Das flirts with social suicide by telling her of his nationalist sympathies. In this part of the triptych, with its theme of the propriety of personal relations, everyone, from their contemporaries to Flora’s biographer, misunderstands Flora and Das’s real relationship, and in the restrained social climate, they themselves misunderstand each other’s intentions. By never revealing whether or not they had an affair, the scenario asks whether it is proper to proscribe how two people may conduct a relationship.

The second scenario takes place in 1985, between Flora’s aging sister Mrs. Swan and Das’s son, Anish Das. Though political tensions remain, the passage of time has loosened the rules of propriety that restricted Flora and Das. In the liberated 1980s, Anish Das not only has publicly painted a nude British woman, but also has married her; and he not only mentions his political sympathies, but he also openly accuses the British for incarcerating his father for his nationalist views. He is free to discuss his views; as he explains to Mrs. Swan, ‘‘my father was a man who suffered for his beliefs and I have never had to do that.’’ But despite the new liberalism, Anish cannot broach with Mrs. Swan the subject of the ownership of the portrait his father made of Flora. He verbalizes only excitement about his father’s work being published, exclaiming, ‘‘But replication! That is popularity! Put us on book jackets—calendars—biscuit tins!’’ Questions about who receives the royalties for the image and whether the painting is properly attributed to his father’s name remain unstated, but come quickly to mind to audiences familiar with contemporary debates over copyright ownership. Furthermore, the audience is prepared for this topic by the brief mention of a Modigaliani nude of Flora destroyed by a jealous boyfriend, an instance of prudish propriety overriding legitimate ownership.

Another question of legitimate ownership arises when Mrs. Swan and Anish Das show each other the paintings they have inherited. Anish has kept the nude portrait of Flora left him by his father, although it seemed valueless to him, and Mrs. Swan has held onto the erotic eighteenth-century painting of the Gita Govinda, her gift from the Rajah. Although neither Anish nor Mrs. Swan properly interprets or values their own inherited pictures, they each have a reason to value the one the other owns. Mrs. Swan recognizes that Eldon Pike would want the nude Flora, though she would want to hide it from him, while Anish might well understand why the Rajah’s son bemoans the loss of the Gita Govinda, a national Indian treasure and part of a priceless and incomplete series. Under the prevailing mood of regret for imperialist transgressions, the audience might well consider it wrong not to return the painting to India. Likewise, Mrs. Swan would probably want to own the nude of Flora, to keep it out of the public eye. The Swan-Anish panel of the triptych raises but does not resolve questions of possession and legitimate ownership, nor does it resolve who should own artifacts.

In the third panel of the triptych of Indian Ink, Flora’s former possessions filter down to new owners. The bulk of her poems and letters go to the literary bounty hunter Eldon Pike, who gobbles them up like the notoriously ravenous fish of his surname. Eating slice after slice of Mrs. Swan’s cake, he easily obtains the rights to her sister’s letters and her portrait, ‘‘a treasure’’ that will earn him money and fame in the literary world. Mrs. Swan withholds the erotic Gita Govinda from him, however, out of family modesty. Thus, the third scenario raises issues of epistemological stability, indicating how easily truth is muddied up, here, by self-interest. In addition, Pike conducts his search with the narrow aim of a speargun, missing artifacts a wide net might catch, and he fabricates the truth as he guesses what he should look for. His Indian assistant Dilip mocks Pike’s quest to find the nude Flora picture, saying ‘‘you are constructing an edi- fice of speculation on a smudge of paint on paper, which no longer exists.’’ The Pike-Dilip triptych panel treats the postmodern mania for information, and its inherent problems of gathering and interpreting it, asking the question whether it possible to understand the past completely.

The interplay of dialogue and content across the three scenarios of Indian Ink imposes another complexity to the play, but also offers further insights. Glaring errors in Pike’s footnotes and Mrs. Swan’s obfuscation of the truth are part of a Stoppardian subtext of epistemological uncertainty. The play’s many contradictions—first one perspective, then immediately another—accord with Stoppard’s 1972 statement that ‘‘I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting myself. . . . I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation.’’ In Indian Ink he poses many competing ideologies about personal and political propriety, and about the legitimate possession of things and of ideas, without really privileging any of them; the audience is left to make up its own mind. He remains true to his reputation for raising and not resolving the big questions, such that critic Michael Billington de- fines the adjective ‘‘Stoppardian’’ as ‘‘a wariness of commitment and a distrust of fixed ideologies.’’ Although Indian Ink may seem ‘‘cosy’’ and polite, it leaves the audience troubled by important and pertinent questions about proper behavior—questions that remain as troubling today as they did sixty-five years ago when Flora did or did not have an affair with her Indian portraitist.

Source: Carole Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

History, Memory and the Interpretation of Evidence in Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Tom Stoppard has earned the reputation for being a playwright of wit and intellect, even though he has never gone to university. In Hapgood (1988), for example, he experiments with applying quantum physics to human behavior. In Arcadia (1993), he cleverly mixes literary history with mathematical chaos theory. For his next play, Stoppard revisited the material of an earlier radio play, In the Native State (1991), and rewrote it as the stage play Indian Ink (1995). Indian Ink does not deal explicitly with the mathematical and scientific theories that play such a large part in Hapgood and Arcadia, but Stoppard does retain the philosophical implications these theories have on the ‘‘soft sciences’’ of history, literature, and sociology. Mary A. Doll, in British and Irish Drama Since 1960 (1993), wrote about the influence of modern scientific thought on Stoppard’s work: ‘‘Instead of a Newtonian universe, where problems can be solved, Stoppard ascribes to what post-modern science calls ‘chaos theory.’ Gaps, punctures, and breaks in sequence sabotage every logical attempt to formulate a hypothesis. Indeed, Stoppard’s greatest contribution to theatre may be his concept of the indeterminacies of what it is ‘to know’ as a hired professional, a spectator, or even as an ordinary human being.’’

In Indian Ink, this postmodern complicating of ‘‘what it is ‘to know’’’ takes the form of a conflict between the rigidity of academic history and the flexibility of human memory as preserved by art. Academic history, which pretends to be objective but is actually flawed by human interpretation, can offer facts, but then Stoppard calls into question the certainty of having facts at all. Stoppard suggests then that it is our duty to question our conclusions and to allow for multiple interpretations of the evidence. Memory and art allow for these multiple interpretations, and then complicate history by competing against it for popular acceptance. History strives to solve mysteries, while memory is tantalized when mysteries are left unsolved. History, as represented by the character Eldon Pike, is ‘‘accurate,’’ public, and dry. In contrast, memory, as represented by Mrs. Swan, is imperfect, private, and alive.

Indian Ink, like Arcadia, is a literary mystery in which past and present coexist on stage, much like the past still exists as an underlayer of memory in the present. Stoppard often employs the convention of a mystery to demonstrate the inadequacy of human perception in interpreting evidence. Within the first minutes of the play, the American literary historian, Eldon Pike, finds a sentence in one of Flora’s letters that will lead him on a hunt to India: ‘‘Perhaps my soul will stay behind as a smudge of paint on paper . . . like Radha who was the most beautiful of herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house.’’ Pike, as a scholar who takes the written word literally, reads ‘‘a smudge of paint on paper’’ as proof that a nude painting of Flora exists. He is right. But he meets opposition to this theory from Mrs. Swan, Flora’s sister. After reading the sentence, Pike asks, ‘‘What do you think it means?’’ Mrs. Swan’s response, ‘‘As much or as little as you like,’’ shows an impatience for the literal interpretation of words that can lead to wrong conclusions. Indian Ink is obsessed with the interpretation of the past through scraps of evidence on paper: Flora’s letters and poems, a watercolor, an oil painting, a newspaper clipping. As Flora writes her letters, the moment passes and becomes history. Her letters become documents, evidence to be interpreted by the future. The play’s title reminds us of the problem of interpretation. Ink is merely a liquid with the potential to convey meaning. The lines that ink forms on paper have no meaning in themselves either, but require the human brain to make sense of them.

As an example of how historical facts can be differently interpreted and remembered by different cultures, consider the conflicting vocabulary used by the Indians and the English in describing the same historical event now known as the Sepoy Rebellion. Stoppard mentions the event only briefly, but significantly he mentions it twice. Both times, the English women remember the event simply as ‘‘the Mutiny’’ while the Indian men refer to it either as ‘‘the first War of Independence,’’ ‘‘the Rising of 1857,’’ or ‘‘the First Uprising.’’ In British history, the Indian soldiers’ violent protest against British rule is interpreted as a ‘‘Mutiny,’’ a traitorous rebellion against legal authority. Indian history, on the other hand, refers to the same event as an ‘‘Uprising,’’ a word that holds heroic connotations of revolt against a repressive authority. Far from being an exact science, Stoppard shows how history, depending on human interpretation of socalled facts, is colored by the interpreter’s cultural background, which is only one of many subjective factors that can distort a person’s objectivity.

If large-scale events can be differently interpreted and remembered, how then the very private events in one woman’s life? Indian Ink deals with history on a large scale but mostly the play is concerned with history on a very personal level. As Stoppard said in a 1995 interview with Mel Gussow, ‘‘Indian Ink is actually a very intimate play. It’s a play of intimate scenes.’’ Details of Flora’s sex life become the mystery Pike wants to solve. If he finds the watercolor, he can prove that a relationship existed between Flora and Nirad Das, thus expanding the borders of Flora Crewe scholarship. But Mrs. Swan, as guardian of her sister’s memory, tells Pike that he is ‘‘not allowed to write a book . . . biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.’’ Mrs. Swan would rather allow her sister’s poems to stand on their own and offer themselves for multiple interpretations, rather than limit them to Pike’s sole interpretation. Later in India when Pike wonders whether Flora and Das had a relationship, Dilip also cautions Pike against overinterpretation. ‘‘Well, we will never know,’’ says Dilip. ‘‘You are constructing an edifice of speculation on a smudge of paint on paper, which no longer exists.’’

Pike’s footnotes are a running joke in the play, bridging that divide between past and present, history and memory. Pike intrudes on Flora’s voice with unnecessary detail. The footnotes, which rely on Mrs. Swan’s memory, pass into academic history and dissect Flora’s letters. Pike strives to give Flora’s words extra meaning but often only succeeds in creating confusion. Laurie Kaplan in her article in Modern Drama calls this ‘‘the kind of over-interpreting (which leads to misinterpreting).’’ For example, when Flora mentions having a dream about the Queen’s Elm, Pike says, ‘‘Which Queen? What elm? Why was she dreaming about a tree? So this is where I come in, wearing my editor’s hat. To lighten the darkness.’’ Mrs. Swan informs Pike that the Queen’s Elm is a bar, and we see that Pike’s literalness threatens to pervert the intended meaning. Stoppard often makes buffoons of those characters who are rigid and overconfident in their interpretations. It is ironic that Pike, who is right about the existence of the watercolor, misinterprets the clues from the Rajah so that he will never find what he seeks.

Das explains an Indian theory of art that will hold much resonance for the play. When Flora complains that the poem she is writing holds no inspiration that day, Das tells her about rasa: ‘‘Rasa is juice. Its taste. Its essence. . . . Rasa is what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.’’ All works of original artistic genius have rasa. Das’s oil portrait of Flora has no rasa,no true artistic genius, because he attempts to copy the English style instead of painting from his heart. The nude watercolor has rasa, however, as Flora herself notices, inspired as it was by sexual attraction. It is, ironically, this true piece of art that will be hidden from Pike.

Memory and art have rasa, while Pike’s academic history does not. Academic history is unoriginal, as Pike himself admits when he says: ‘‘This is why God made poets and novelists, so the rest of us can get published.’’ History is a public, ‘‘accurate’’ record, devoid of rasa, while memory is private and changeable, filled with so much rasa that it is fluid and blurred, but cherished for that imperfection nonetheless. Scholarship reduces the rasa of human life to dry facts. As Mrs. Swan explains to Anish, ‘‘Mr. Pike teaches Flora Crewe. It makes her sound like a subject, doesn’t it, like biology.’’

At the play’s end, Mrs. Swan and Anish agree to protect the personal memories of their relatives by keeping the nude watercolor a secret. They do not want this private event between their families entering into the public space, represented by Pike, whose footnotes suck the rasa out of art. As Mrs. Swan says about the Gita Govinda miniature, ‘‘I didn’t tell Eldon. He’s not family.’’ In In the Native State, Anish says he will not lock the watercolor away, but display it, ‘‘on the wall at home, and I’ll tell my children too.’’ The painting and the memory of Flora Crewe will become part of the personal history of the Das family, to be passed on like an oral legend. But even Anish will want to interpret the watercolor to prove that a relationship existed between Das and Flora. In In the Native State, he even uses the word ‘‘evidence’’ to introduce the painting. Anish interprets the vine that wraps around the tree to be proof of a sexual relationship. Mrs. Swan cautions, ‘‘Now really, Mr. Das, sometimes a vine is only a vine,’’ paraphrasing the famous Freudian quote ‘‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’’ Mrs. Swan lives comfortably with the uncertainty of memory, while Pike seeks to solve the uncertainties in the name of scholarship.

A feeling of mourning pervades the play as memory and history compete for recognition in the present. The duality of loss and recovery is at the heart of human obsession with the past. Humans construct history to recover lost objects, to discover what really happened and preserve that truth for future generations. This reconstruction takes place on a national as well as a personal level. In complicated ways, both the Indians and the British romanticize and mourn the passing of the British Empire. Mrs. Swan keeps Indian souvenirs on her windowsill and pines for the fruit trees ‘‘at home’’ in India. The retired Indian soldier, ‘‘Subadar Ram Sunil Singh the toilet cleaner,’’ keeps his British military medals on his jacket. Even on a personal level, the characters in Indian Ink are in mourning. Anne Wright, in her entry on Stoppard in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, discusses this elegiac quality: ‘‘The themes of memory, loss, and bereavement resonate at the personal level, in Anish’s loss of his father and in Nell’s grief for Flora and for her own dead baby, yet they connect too with the broad sweep of history in a play which is deeply nostalgic and elegiac, yet with a sharply ironic perspective on its subject.’’ Anish’s and Nell’s personal losses are made more poignant by the juxtaposition on stage of past and present. While Anish and Nell mourn and remember, their dead relatives are playing out their lives just a few feet away, and yet separated from them by a gulf of time. Furthermore, while Flora mourns the loss of the Modigliani portrait, Pike mourns his inability to find the ‘‘lost’’ nude watercolor. For all his buffoonery, Pike’s motives are not entirely self-serving, but actually touching. So enamored is he of Flora that he is excited to have his picture taken with the tree that stands where her razed bungalow once stood. He wants to recover and preserve Flora Crewe, even if this preservation threatens to make a stuffed museum piece out of her. He improvises a song based on Louis MacNeice’s ‘‘Bagpipe Music,’’ mourning the loss of evidence: ‘‘It’s no go the records of the Theosophical Society, it’s no go the newspaper files partitioned to ashes. . . . All we want is the facts and to tell the truth in our fashion.’’ Pike represents all traditional historians who mourn the loss of objective truth.

Significantly, it is art with rasa that is eternal, not history. As Das says philosophically, ‘‘Well, the Empire will one day be gone like the Mughal Empire before it, and only their monuments remain . . . . Only in art can empires cheat oblivion, because only the artist can say, ‘Look on my words, ye mighty and despair!’’’ History will be forgotten, but great art endures and reminds humanity of what was lost. In the final ironic moments of the play, Pike pays his respects at Flora’s grave, while simultaneously, we see and hear Flora, full of vitality, reading her letter to her sister. Memory of Flora Crew is preserved in her art, even if her ‘‘true’’ biography and the ‘‘real’’ interpretation of her words will always remain a mystery.

Source: Daniela Presley, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.


Critical Overview