Reasons for plays being banned are often ridiculous when looked at in hindsight.
The Indian theatre scene is littered with festivals. Each major city has at least half a dozen major festivals. This is not including the multidisciplinary art festivals like Kala Ghoda or Literature Live that feature strong theatre components. That’s a lot of celebration for an art form that is supposed to be “dying”.
For the curators of these standalone festivals, the challenge lies in how their festival can shout in the din of the now loud and lively culture-scape. Some do it in the creation of the festival itself. Like Thespo’s annual festival is only for people under the age of 25, or Writers’ Bloc is only for newly written texts. Others look at the kind of work, like Expression Lab’s Solo Festival in Pune where the shows on offer all have only one performer. Then there’s Gender Bender in Bangalore, and Hyderabad Children’s Theatre Festival, whose titles are self-explanatory.
However, there are a handful of festivals that try and evolve each year, by picking a theme. This theme could be local, international or even artistic. For example the Prithvi Festival once did an entire festival of plays about social issues called Kala Desh Ki Seva Me. Then a year later the programming was only about musicals. So their yardstick switched from content to style. The musical festival was so successful that it unearthed a whole host of performers that sing and act. These actors remain among the busiest actors in Bombay today, and musical theatre, whether Broadway or Folk, has become a staple part of the Bombay audience’s diet.
This clarity of purpose from festivals, allows theatre companies to create and “pitch” work to these festivals accordingly. It allows greater clarity for theatre maker and audience alike.
Ranga Shankara in Bangalore has constantly tried to reinvent itself with each festival. Each year they look at the changing shape of the theatre environment and decide on a new theme accordingly. In the past they have looked at plays only by Young Directors and even plays that have been inspired by real events. Two years ago, they looked at plays that came to Bangalore from places other than the metro cities. This year their theme is even more current and ambitious: Plays That Almost Weren’t. As their note says, “For as long as there have been plays, there has been resistance to plays.” Currently the festival is calling for theatre companies from across the country to submit entries around this theme before the 1st of August. The plays don’t need to be Indian. The only thing that they must have in common is that at some point they were “banned” by the establishment. It’s a remarkably bold theme to choose and one that is timely, given the current conversations around the world about freedom of speech.
Reasons for plays being banned are often ridiculous, when looked at in hindsight. Recently Agnes of God was agitated against because it hurt Christian sentiments, but if they’d bothered to read or watch the play, they would have realised that the only crisis of faith faced in the play is by the psychiatrist who questions her own Atheism. As a devout Atheist, should I have been offended by the content? Of course not. Similarly there was also the hue and cry some years ago about Sara because it was a play about a Pakistani poet. And about Ali J because people thought it was glorifying Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Or the infamous story of Touch of Brightness, being prevented from travelling to the Commonwealth Festival because it portrayed India in a bad light, since it was set in Bombay’s Red Light District.
Maybe some of these plays will feature. But whatever the bouquet, hopefully it will highlight how censorship and banning is a worldwide practice; and how in almost every case, history has vindicated the playwright or performing troupe. We go to the theatre to fall in love with what we see. We have the right to disagree with what is played. But we never have the right to prevent someone else from seeing it.
The writer is a Bombay-based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.