The unnoticed ‘act’ of censorship

By Maariyah Siddique

A section of playwrights and expressed fury over the suggested 19 cuts in the Marathi play Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat in Mumbai. The play, written by Janardhan Jadhav, focussing on atrocities against the Dalit theatre artists community, was scheduled to be staged at Kalyan theatre on February 7, 2016.

According to Mumbai Mirror, ‘Bahmanshahi’ (Brahmanism), ‘Gandu Bagicha’ (award-winning poetry collection by Namdeo Dhasal), ‘Hindutvawadi’ were some words in the list of censored items. Also, words like ‘Kutra’ (dog) and ‘Mahar’ (caste) were asked to be replaced with alternatives. Apart from this, Kalyan theatre was forced to change names of certain Mumbai localities, where police firing had allegedly killed Dalits in 1997. This time, it wasn’t the Central Board of Film’s (CBFC) claws gripping the artistes. It was the hardly talked about state censor board for theatre in action!

Located in a dilapidated structure near a small barrack at Nariman Point in Mumbai, it is better known as the ‘Maharashtra Rangbhoomi Parinirikshan Mandal.’ The board certifies all stand-up performances, theatrical plays, and even performances to be staged in ceremonies. Another censor board for theatre operates in Gujarat, but these aren’t the only states to practice censorship in theatre and dramatics.

Under the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, the government is empowered to “prohibit any dramatic performance” that is likely to “excite feelings of dissatisfaction towards the government.” Passed during Lord Lytton’s viceroyalty, the Act highlights restrictions on “public performances of the play, pantomime, or any other drama” bearing a scandalous nature. The Act further limits performances that might incur disaffection of people against the government, or that would “corrupt persons.” Section 2 (1) of the Act defined “objectionable” as anything which was likely to:“be seditious (i) incite any person to commit murder, sabotage or any offence involving violence; or (ii) seduce any member of any of the armed forces of the Union or of the police forces from his allegiance or his duty, or prejudice the recruiting of persons to serve in any such force or prejudice the discipline of any such force; (iii) incite any section of the citizens of India to acts of violence against any other section of the citizens of India; (iv) is deliberately intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of India by insulting or blaspheming or profaning the religion or the religious beliefs of that class; (v) is grossly indecent, or is scurrilous or obscene or intended for blackmail; and includes any indecent or obscene dance.”

The story of applying censorship on theatre had started with Calcutta’s National Theatre when its growing popularity started garnering dissent from the British, as their dramas projected the British government as “racist” and “oppressive.” The Act was passed as a direct reaction to the staging of ‘Sarat Sarojini’ and ‘Surendra Binodini’, written by Upendranath Das. Both these plays made public the grave resentment of racial discrimination of the British against the Indians.

“It is interesting to note, that three people in the censor board read your script and decide whether it will hurt the sentiments of thousands of people who are going to watch the performance,” said Varun Grover, a stand-up comedian in reaction to the 19 cuts suggested for Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat.

Amid furore on censorship on films, pressure from the govt and fringe elements on theatre artistes and writers has largely gone unnoticed. It was hoped that independence from the chains of colonial tyranny would free the Indian theatre from censorship, but contrarily, more and more legislations were brought in from different states to suppress freedom in dramatics and theatre.

Another instance of censorship in theatre comes from Odisha. An 110-minute Polish play ‘Sonka’, produced by Aleksander Wegeirko Drama Theater, performed at the state’s Rabindra Mandap on February 13, 2016, received strings of protests from state women commissions and the government for a scene showing the protagonist ‘Sonka’ naked, being gang raped by Nazi soldiers.

For its performance in National School of Drama (NSD) later that week, the director had to delete certain parts, including dropping the scene. A scene of hungry villagers slaughtering a cow was also deleted. With the apparent sundown in the scenario of centuries-old Indian theatre, it becomes imperative to stir talks on the relevance of the colonial-era Dramatic Performance Act, 1876.

Apart from censor board’s interference, the artistes have to face non-state actors, who influence board’s decisions. ‘Socrates to Dabholkar, Kalburgi to Tukaram’, produced by the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti (MANS), also came under the scissors for its alleged scripting of the ‘Rang Nitya’, which was opposed by the right-wing organisations.

“We have to go through rounds of inter-departmental screening processes before the final play is staged’, said Dr Danish Iqbal, a well-known theatre director and producer. He further stated that the script has to submitted to police officers and various department heads even after the venue has been booked in advance.   Amitesh Grover, a performing artist and teacher at National School of Drama, in his write up for The Indian Express dated 22nd February 2016, titled ‘A voice, under 35 : The murder of a scene’ questions the spectatorship of Lord Vishnu’s 10 incarnations performed by Walavalkar Dashavtar Natyamandal of Maharashtra.

He compares the treatment of nudity in the Polish play ‘Sonka’ with the Natyamandal  performance. It seemed strange to Grover that only a decade back a scene, where an aroused ‘asura’ by the sight of dancing ‘apsaras’ isn’t able to contain ejaculation, was lauded by the audience while a nude scene in the ‘Sonka’ has evoked censorship, exposing contradictions and selective moral policing.

“We didn’t have so much of censorship in our times, I have been watching plays since my school days. With so much of moral policing already going on, censorship in theatre will throttle freedom of expression from its roots,” said a sexagenarian theatre enthusiast Delfina Gomes from Calcutta.

Maariyah Siddique is a student of M.A in Convergent Journalism at A J Kidwai Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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