Empire state of mind: the comedian untangling India's identity crisis

With his persona of a Raj-revering Indian, Anuvab Pal dons a Beefeater jacket and judge’s wig to trace colonial legacy in the standup show The Empire

Reckoning with colonialism is on the minds of third-generation diaspora kids. Projects such as the Crimes of Britain website are monitoring Britain’s imperial legacy for today’s youth and interrogating Britain’s claim to greatness. Now, the Indian standup Anuvab Pal anatomises the same subject matter in his touring comedy show, The Empire, which he performs at Soho theatre in London this week.

A Bengali native, Pal offers an Indian perspective on the armies who turned up uninvited on India’s shores. But he also uses his routines to inform audiences of a subset of Indians who yearn for the return of the Raj.

“A certain sort of middleman got very rich both in Britain and India by exploiting poor Indian people, who have pretty much always been exploited,” he tells me over the phone. “And it wasn’t just the British doing horrible things directly – it was through a class they created.”

And what does this class look like? Pal’s interpretation dons a Beefeater jacket and judge’s wig, and adopts the personality of an Indian suffering from such a fervent colonial hangover that Ukip’s nationalism seems tame. This is a character who has no desire to be Indian. He sports jodhpurs, refers to his friends as “old chap” with the staccato slur of a bygone radio announcer, takes his wife ballroom dancing and attends Gymkhana and croquet clubs.

It’s a cartoonish image but one that resonated with Pal for an uncomfortable reason: “As I did more research [into these people], I realised, ‘Oh shit, I’m part of that class.’”

Pal’s absurd onstage persona navigates India’s recent colonial history, taking us on a journey from the Mughals to the Portuguese and finally the British. In a convivial manner he explains India’s battle to define its identity after being subjected to outside interference, juxtaposing its history with the rightwing nationalism of the country’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi.

“The Modi narrative is essentially: ‘We started a long time ago, and the Mughals were invaders, and the British were invaders, and everything before that, we were who we were,’ whatever that means,” Pal explains. “In new India, no one’s really interested in going back and looking at our history. Shah Jahan built an entire city. They just ignore the amount that the Mughals did for religious tolerance, culture and architecture.”

Modi’s nationalistic narrative labels the Mughals as colonisers and delegitimises everything they brought with them. Such a stance has been used to perpetrate Islamophobia. Pal hopes to point out the hypocrisy in dismissing the significance of invasions. “Which country would not like to be told that invaders were horrible? With that same logic you can say: ‘Oh, Taj Mahal, terrible, just a rubbish monument built by invaders. Biryani, nonsense, rubbish food.’ You could keep going back in history and say anything.”

Mughal rubbish … the Taj Mahal in Agra.
‘Mughal rubbish’ … the Taj Mahal in Agra. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Pal is by no means endorsing colonialism. “It’s true that the British were invaders, but I just thought there has got to be more nuance, there’s got to be more deception on both sides,” he says. “I was struck by how similar wealthy Indians’ homes were at the turn of the century, based on copying British homes because they were contractors and serving as middlemen for British people.”

It’s this dichotomy of thought that made Pal’s Britain-loving Indian such a striking caricature. “These people are kind of outdated in new India but their generation, in many ways, built India by being very English and following the same exploitative things that the English did.”

Due to increasing animosity towards those who don’t fit in with India’s image of unified hindutva, this class is being erased from Indian culture. “These people belong nowhere – they’re foreigners in their own country,” Pal says.

But his show does not set out to make audiences feel sorry for them. “I wanted to understand this bizarre generation of anglicised Indians,” says Pal. In doing so he has delved into what makes India India. Perhaps it acts as an antidote to the current regime’s exclusionary populism, but Pal laughs: “There is no ‘we’ – everybody’s fighting.”

Sarah Sahim

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Beware of the lions: a comedian's guide to the Indian election
What do the Stay Awake party stand for? Could anyone vote cauliflower? And will officials in the Gir Forest get out alive? As the world’s biggest election ends, one comic reveals how it gives him a lifetime of material

Anuvab Pal

22, May, 2019 @12:50 PM

Article image
Manto: the writer who felt the pain of India's partition
Saadat Hasan Manto chronicled Bombay life in all its ugly beauty – until sectarian horrors were unleashed on the streets he loved. A new biopic by director Nandita Das retells his stories

Joseph Walsh

05, Sep, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Hardeep Pandhal: the rapping artist who works with his mum
His cartoon creations unravelling identity and empire have made him a rising star. Now he’s going global – and taking Punjabi lessons so he can speak to his nearest and dearest

Tom Emery

18, Jan, 2019 @3:05 PM

Article image
The legacy of the Amritsar massacre lives on in India’s general elections | Amrit Wilson
The colonial policies that shaped the killing of 1,000 people are playing out in a dangerously polarised election, says writer and activist Amrit Wilson

Amrit Wilson

12, Apr, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘Painful memories’: what will the royal family do with the Koh-i-noor diamond?
India’s Narenda Modi has suggested Queen Consort should not wear infamous gem on coronation day

Anita Anand

14, Oct, 2022 @12:18 PM

Article image
Indian minister calls for abolition of 1,500 laws dating back to Raj
Archaic laws include fining those who fail to beat a drum to beat back locusts or report money found in street

Amrit Dhillon in Delhi

25, Oct, 2022 @8:47 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on India at 70: Democracy in action
Editorial: India’s pluralistic democracy – which, like the EU, works because no single culture or language is central to its identity or unity – is under threat from rightwing Hindu extremists


14, Aug, 2017 @7:01 PM

Article image
‘Will Boris drive a tuk-tuk this time?’ … a comedian relives Johnson’s last hilarious India visit
In 2012, he gurned his way around Mumbai on a tiny bike, baffling everyone except the Indian elite, who adore a posh, bumbling Brit. Could this new visit see the PM being compared to Beyoncé?

Anuvab Pal

21, Apr, 2022 @9:26 AM

Article image
India, 70 years on from independence: a painful history but a bright future? | Letters
Letters: Nitin Mehta on a more optimistic view of the country today; Kartar Uppal on intercommunal brotherhood amid the pain of partition; Jane Ghosh on Bengal


03, Aug, 2017 @5:52 PM

Article image
70 years after independence, the India I know is losing its way | Mihir Bose
AIndia is turning its back on the tolerant society I remember growing up in Mumbai, writes the author Mihir Bose

Mihir Bose

02, Aug, 2017 @6:00 AM