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Rehearsing The Witness: The Bhawal Court Case, A Talk By Zuleikha Chaudhari

Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka, 21 April 2017

The Bhawal court case was an extended pre-­independence Indian court case that revolved around the identity of a sanyasi (or Hindu religious ascetic), claiming to be the second Kumar of Bhawal (the heir of one of the last large zamindari estates in Dhaka), who was presumed dead a decade earlier. The claim was contested by the British Court of Wards and by the widow of Ramendra Narayan Roy (the second Kumar of Bhawal) Bibhabati Devi. The case was in trial from 1930 – 1946.

Over the course of sixteen years, the physical attributes, birthmarks, portraits and testimony were collated as forensic evidence to establish the claimant/sanyasi’s identity as being the Kumar. Hundreds of witnesses, including doctors, photographers, artists, prostitutes, peasants, revenue collectors, tenants, holy men, magistrates, handwriting experts, relatives and passers-­‐by were deposed. The case went from the District Court in Dhaka to the High Court of Calcutta to the Privy Council in London, finally ending in 1946 with a victory for the plaintiff, who died a few days after the verdict.

Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case uses this trial about a possible impostor to re-­examine the enormous archive that the case produced, through performance as a means of problematising the notions of evidence, archive and identity.

Both the domains of the law and theatre/acting frame larger questions that pertain to the production of truth and reality, assumptions of stable, consistent and believable identities and the construction of a credible narrative.

The project explores the questions of law as performance, the role of performance in law and the performativity of legal truth-­production.

The talk at the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute described the three-day performance at the Dhaka Art Summit 2018 which drew a relationship between re-enactment, (crime-scene) reconstruction and retrial; the complex tension between forensic evidence, the act of speculation/imagination and truth-finding and truth-making.


Zuleikha Chaudhari is a theatre director and lighting designer.

Her current research uses archival documents (texts and photographs) to develop theatrical performances as a way of thinking about the relationship between production of memory and the role of the archive and how this pertains to the retrieval and reliving of an event.

The constructed narratives within the works looked at the relationship between personal lived experience and memories and larger historical events and narratives.

These works use a combination of reportage, portraiture, documentary and fiction - the editing, re-interpretation and re-positioning of speculative ideas, opinions, beliefs and anecdotes towards the production of new narratives is central to these investigations about the relationship between history and theatre.

Her ongoing research considers the structures and codes of performance as well the function and processes of the actor as reality and truth production. It investigates the tension between looking or watching and doing or acting.

Her current projects include three court trials – The Bhawal Court Case (1930-46), The Trial of Bahadurshah Zafar (1858) and the India National Army Trials (1945-46) within the framework of law as performance; the role of performance in law and the performativity of legal truth-production.

Her works have been shown at performance festivals, galleries and exhibitions in United States, Germany, France, Belgium, Vienna, South Africa, South Korea, China, Japan, The Netherlands, Pakistan and India.

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