IN 1860, A PLAY titled Nil Darpan was published in Dhaka that looked at the oppression of rural Bengali labourers at the hands of British indigo planters. Written by Dinabandhu Mitra, it was translated by Reverend James Long and later produced by the National Theatre of Calcutta. The introduction to the text, Nil Darpan, or, The Indigo Planting Mirror: A Drama, Translated from the Bengali by a Native, states that the play: ‘…describes a respectable ryot, a peasant proprietor, happy with his family in the enjoyment of his own land, to cultivate crops which beggared him, reducing him to the condition of a serf and a vagabond.’ The drama created quite a furore, with the Landholders Association of British India filing a complaint against it, and Long being charged with sedition.
When you look back at moments in history, you are assailed by déjà vu—as if you are in a time warp, with the same events replicating themselves, albeit in a modified hue and shape. So, cut to 1970, when Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade, or The Vultures, was banned by the Maharashtra Theatrical Performances Examination Board, ‘contending that its realistic portrayal of perverted socio-familial complications was unsuitable for a public performance. An extended battle led by the producer Satyadev Dubey and the director Shriram Lagoo resulted in the play being certified for release after a few token cuts,’ wrote actor-director Amol Palekar in the text, Imprisoning Minds, originally published in Loksatta in 2016 and translated by Paritosh Joshi.
And yet again, in 2016, history repeated itself. Rahi Theatre, Mumbai, opened the play, Dohri Zindagi, in September at the Gender Bender festival, Bengaluru. Casting a hard look at morality and sexuality, the play has had to be censored and edited several times. ‘After our show in Meerut, in October 2017, an FIR was lodged against us. The complainants were members of Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini. In Bhopal, Borunda (Rajasthan) and Belgaum, we were asked to censor scenes from the play. In Prithvi Theatre, we were told we would be given a slot only if we censored two scenes from the play,’ states a notice from the group.
The act of dissent—and its censorship— is perhaps as old as the history of theatre itself. Take, for instance, KP Khadilkar’s Keechak Vadh (1907), which offered Keechak as a metaphor for Lord Curzon. The play was eventually banned. According to theatre director Sunil Shanbag, censorship can take on many forms. For instance, there is pre-censorship by the state, as happens in Maharashtra and Gujarat, which ironically has a robust theatre scene. “Censorship is unacceptable and pre-censorship of any live performance is absurd. Having said that, censorship usually focuses on the political and the sexual,” he says. By political, he means politics that challenges the mainstream narrative of the state or dominant socio- political groupings. “This hypocrisy also applies to the sexual. At any given time, sexual innuendo, or titillation, has a good chance of being let through. But any discussion on alternative sexuality is likely to be blocked,” says Shanbag, whose plays dealing with contemporary history and politics have faced resistance.
Rajendra Laxmi looks at women relegated to the fringes and written out of history by patriarchal society
But, while state censorship has a legally laid down process, it is censorship by the mob (or non-state entities) which acquires a dangerous tone. “Most often they haven’t seen the play they are attacking. The reasons for the attack are usually difficult to pin down; the terms used are vague, such as ‘hurt sentiments’,” he says. And sometimes the state machinery ends up stopping the performance, citing concerns about law and order. “You would think that if a play has a censor certificate and is attacked, the police would protect the performance. In October, a play dealing with alternate sexuality was to be staged in Bengaluru. The police went one step further and said they would see the play before giving permission. That’s not their job,” says Shanbag.
Theatre practitioners have been finding ways and means of responding to censorship. Palekar writes about Gidhade, which on its release began with a deadpan announcement: ‘In compliance with the objection from the Censor Board, the red stain on the rear of her sari of a particular female character who leaves the stage back to the audience, will henceforth be blue in colour.’ ‘The show began to uproarious laughter and thundering applause, a landmark moment in the evolution of Marathi theatre,’ writes Palekar, who moved the Mumbai High Court in 2016, challenging the rules of pre-censorship of drama scripts by the Maharashtra State Performance Scrutiny Board. In 2009, Shanbag responded to Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, which was banned in 1974, with his play Sex, Morality and Censorship. His latest production, which opened recently, is a re-imagining of Prithviraj Kapoor’s Deewar, which was staged in pre-Partition India, in 1945. He has chosen to illuminate the play with a contemporary examination of how a particular mainstream historical narrative often makes many smaller but equally important histories invisible.
One of the most significant recent responses to the myriad forms of censorship was seen at the 15th edition of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival, Bengaluru, which explored the theme ‘plays that almost weren’t’. ‘Throughout history, there have been attempts to alter, silence or even completely destroy works of theatre due to ‘unacceptable content’, whether the motivations for censorship were religious, social and political. Yet, theatre-makers have long pushed boundaries of ‘offensive’ through imagery and content,’ said the institution’s open call to applicants. Over nine days last month, Ranga Shankara showcased banned works to illustrate how dissent in the arts and its censorship has been happening for centuries.
It is not just the censored play itself but the incidents around it that are now finding their way into adaptations
“We look at history, both temporal and geographical. There are some productions, such as Ahalya BD, Animal Farm, Mahish and Rakshas—adaptations of banned plays or those that faced a backlash. Two of the plays, Ammi Jaan and I am Not Here, are not re-imaginings of banned works, but responses to it. And then, there is Rajendra Laxmi, which is about women written out of history. The selection is representative without being tokenistic,” says festival director Vivek Madan. Dohri Zindagi is the only play which faced a backlash from the moral police.
When one looks at the texts that form the basis of these productions— whether it is George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Evgeny Schwartz’s The Dragon—what amazes theatre practitioners is the enduring relevance of these pieces. “Animal Farm was written in the 1960s and talks about a specific socio- political development. That was a time, after World War II, when the rest of the world seemed to be extolling Russia and Communism. I realised that the most important thing about Orwell’s allegory is that it changes with the changing context. I connect with it in my own space and time,” says Prashanth Nair, who has directed Animal Farm and has been led by the text itself. A production of the original work was banned in 1986 at the global Theatre of Nations Festival on objections by Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. The fact that the text is still so relevant and powerful made it unnecessary for Nair to reinterpret. “The leader of the farm announces there is a sinister plot to kill him. This is eerily similar to what a lot of leaders are saying today,” he says. Produced by Tahatto, Bengaluru, the play is in English.
Similarly, Schwartz’s The Dragon looks at the idea of totalitarianism— which can be seen seeping into political arenas across the world today. The play was suppressed after its debut at the Leningrad Comedy Theatre, St Petersburg, in 1944, and at the Central Children’s Theatre, Moscow, after critics in the Soviet Union interpreted it as a critique of Stalinist rule. “I wasn’t aware of the context until much later. I had read this, at the age of 19, as part of a Penguin Classics compilation of three Soviet plays, put together in the 1960s. What attracted me was its fairytale element,” says director Bikram Ghosh, who has adapted The Dragon as Rakshas. Produced by The Tadpole Repertory, Delhi, the story is centres around a wandering warrior who arrives in a strange town that has been under the rule of a demon for ages. The self-proclaimed hero, Veera, takes it upon herself to free the townspeople in spite of being ridiculed by them. “At that time, playwrights who tried to write for adults were suppressed. So, they started writing for children, and began to use fairytales to put in their messages. Here was something that said social reality didn’t have to be this drab realism. And the fact that this was a threat to Stalin is very surprising,” says Ghosh.
Casting a hard look at morality and sexuality, Dohri Zindagi has been censored and edited several times
Many practitioners are also exploring older texts in a strictly contemporary Indian context. For instance, at Ranga Shankara, one saw Chandala, Impure, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—whose lines have been censored several times across the world for their sexual and ‘objectionable’ content. Directed by Koumarane Valavane and produced by Indianostrum Theatre, Pondicherry, the play took ‘Chandala’ as a metaphor for the ‘outsider’ who is excluded from everything for allegedly ‘polluting’ the world. “Romeo and Juliet was the starting point for this play. But Chandala is not a retrospective. It looks at honour killings—love in the context of caste, sexuality of the youth versus transgression of rules set by family and society,” says Valavane. The inspiration for this was the recent case in Tamil Nadu, where a man called Sankar was murdered for marrying Kausalya, a woman of the Thevar community, by killers sent by her father.
PRODUCTIONS SUCH AS I am Not Here and Rajendra Laxmi look at women having been relegated to the fringes and often written out of history by a patriarchal society. The former is directed by Deepika Arwind and produced by The Lost Post Initiative, Bengaluru. She looked at the incident around the banning of Behzti (it was forced to cancel its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2004 due to violent protests by Sikhs), written by Gurdeep Kaur Bhatti. “I read Behud as well, again written by Bhatti, which responded to the banning. I also read interviews by women writers who speak of self-censorship, and writers in exile,” she says. For Arwind, it was about broadening the idea of ‘censorship’. “When we think of censorship, we think of the state’s outright banning of works. But outside of this lies a history of women writers whose voices have been censored by society. When I set out to find female playwrights, whose work had been banned, there weren’t many choices— Kaur was one of the few—unlike that of male playwrights,” she says. For her, it was a suitable time to think of how patriarchy has robbed many a woman of her voice, especially in the context of the MeToo movement, the protests against the Sabarimala verdict, and more. “When a woman’s voice is invisible, how can you censor something you can’t see?” she asks.
Then, there is Rajendra Laxmi, produced by The Aesthetic Dance Studio, Kathmandu, which seeks to shine the spotlight on the first queen regent of the then-royal kingdom of Nepal. However, due to the story being written by male historians, her life’s struggles haven’t been accorded the importance they deserve.
It is not just the censored play itself but the incidents around it that are finding their way into adaptations. For instance, Ammi Jaan, directed by Satchit Puranik and produced by The Laughing Cavalier, Bengaluru, has been adapted by a short story by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. The Italian writer-duo were harassed for years as they were considered political pariahs. In Italy, they were assaulted, arrested and jailed. And in a horrifying turn of events, in 1973, Rame was kidnapped and brutally gang raped. In 1981, Fo and Rame came up with Una Madre, about the plight of political prisoners. “Ammi Jaan is both the history of the story, and the story itself coming together. Written as a serious tragedy, Una Madre was banned for a different reason. But what context could we bring to it in India—that was the question,” says Puranik. So, the collective imagined the play as a monologue of a woman without a name, who is called Ammi by everyone in Tannery Road. She is seen packing a tiffin for her son who is in jail, accused as a terrorist, an anti-national or an urban Naxal. It’s not the charge but his ‘crime’ that matters: the government, which has been monitoring the dreams of its citizens, finds him thinking of a certain ‘forbidden’ meat. Will the end of freedom be the price of his dreams? That’s the question that Ammi Jaan asks.
These interpretations are giving rise to diversity in treatments and narrative styles. Most collectives thrive on collaboration, with directors and actors experimenting with storytelling devices on the rehearsal floor. “We, as a group, decided that we didn’t want to go overboard with the ‘animalness’ in Animal Farm. We didn’t want humans to mime animals, but to get a sense of that in the way actors moved,” says Nair. The group has played with light, text and music to create a grungy, industrial setting to communicate that the play is not set in an abstract place but in an actual physical location, which could be a farm or a factory.
Valavane, keeping in sync with his signature style of using vernacular forms with a modern flourish, has tapped into folk music of the Dalit community. Arwind, whose recent work has looked at gender and the female body, has devised I am Not Here as an eight-step guide on how to censor women’s writings. The first step is about Judith, Shakespeare’s fictional sister, as made up by Virginia Woolf. She is a metaphor for a tragic genius whose talent is quashed by society. “The female body itself is being looked at as a site of protest. The stage is envisaged as a boxing ring, with the audience seated on all four sides. The actor, in performing this, feels brutalised, as should the audience. The silence is felt acutely. But there are moments of laughter as well,” she says.
Rakshas, on the other hand, is almost Brechtian in its presentation—colourful, with lots of action. Instead of conveying a political message, the collective has focused on the need to think for oneself and make active choices. The group wasn’t interested in creating a massive spectacle. Rather, the play starts with nothing and ends with nothing, and illusory effects are created in the middle with mere pieces of flex and LED lights. Sound has been created with materials such as kettles, buckets and jars. The wonders made of such materials speaks of the group’s determination. “Also, the original play hardly had any female characters and the ones that were there were sort of damsels-in-distress. One thing we always try and maintain in our productions is a balance of gender. Why should I invite a female actor to play an insipid role? It is this ‘choice’, or lack of it, that a lot of women actors are facing today, and we want to address it,” he says.
It is through such plays that theatre practitioners are taking a stand on censorship. Why this unwarranted fear of what theatre can bring about? That’s the question they pose. “And I feel all it can cause is dialogue,” says Nair, “Why do we as a society fear that?”