Dolly Thakore's 'Life in the Theatre'


THE YEAR WAS 1966-67. I was in London and working for the BBC when I was called for an audition for A TOUCH OF BRIGHTNESS at the Royal Court Theatre. That was the first time I heard of Partap Sharma from India. I did not get the part.

But heard about how the play had been invited to the first Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1965. Directed by Alyque Padamsee (whose name and theatre work I was familiar with even back then) for the Indian National Theatre.

But on the eve of its departure all passports of the troupe were impounded.

It had been selected -- from among 150 works of Commonwealth writers – by a Drama Committee which included Kenneth Tynan of Britain’s National Theatre, George Devine of the English Stage Company, and Jeremy Brooks of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The script had also been read by the Cultural Affairs Department of India’s Education Ministry, and been certified as “non objectionable”.

A Minister in the local Government gave a statement to the Press that “A Touch of Brightness would not be seen in England.”

It is alleged that this Minister was the Minister of Agriculture!!

And that after final auditions -- when his actor-girlfriend was not given the part -- an indignant campaign against the play reached hysterical peaks, claiming that the problems the play dealt with -- about the existence of brothels in India -- should not be presented before international audiences….that the prestige of India will be undermined.

And the play was banned on February 17, 1966 with the explanation that the play “is set in one of the most infamous localities of Bombay City” and that it deals with “matters which it is highly undesirable to show on stage”.

Finally, on March 5, 1967, the play was given its first performance by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre, London….that is the one I had auditioned for!

While in India, in February 1966, playwright Partap Sharma filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court challenging the ban on A Touch of Brightness imposed by the Stage Performances Scrutiny Board. And in January 1972, the High Court held that the board of Censors “had exceeded its jurisdiction”, and the ban was revoked.

Almost eight years later, on August 9, 1973, A Touch of Brightness was performed at the Tejpal Theatre in Bombay by the Indian National Theatre directed by Partap Sharma …. And I played the part of one of the brothel inmates Suraksha -- along with now film maker Kalpana Lajmi as Vatsala, and Dina Pathak (mother of Ratna Pathak-Shah) as Bhabhi Rani ( a part that the doyen of Marathi theatreVijaya Mehta was to play in the original production being directed by Alyque Padamsee).

That was the first time I became aware of the Performance Scrutiny Board.

My next personal encounter with them was in 1995?, when The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail was given an A certificate for its first public performance at the Experimental Theatre.

A few months earlier, the play had been successfully performed at St. Xavier’s College as its annual play for Ithaka -- its Drama Society directed by Quasar. It was QTP’s first step into the commercial theatre world. And an arbitrary ‘A’ certificate would certainly have eroded its NCPA audiences. I appealed to the then Cultural Minister Promod Navalkar. And Good sense prevailed.

But the Performance Scrutiny Board has arbitrarily been replaced by a personal axe-to-grind board…self appointed religious boards, communal flavours, moral brigades, political opposition, cultural conscious public.

A strong memory is of Iqbal Khwaja being roughed up by goons from the saffron brigade outside Prithvi Theatre after his satirical take on Hindu gods in Shakespeare Ki Ramlila.

One afternoon I was getting ready to go to Shivaji Mandir for a performance of Mee Nathuram Boltoy by Pradeep Dalvi, when I received a call from director Vinay Apte that the play had been stopped by political activists.

More recently, Sunil Shanbagh’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84 compounded outside interference even more. Three shows of the Hindi play were cancelled in Nagpur. …on a technicality: improper licensing.

But if that was the case how does one explain, two armoured vans, plaincloth policemen, tearing down of banners of the plays, cutting off the power supply in the auditorium, messages hurtling through the airwaves via wireless, etc.

All this for a play about the Working Class and City of Mumbai, which has performed more than 30 shows in Maharashtra and been discussed and reviewed by almost all the Marathi and English newspapers.

This is not the first time that such a clamp-down has transpired. Which is why, it is important to look at the history of censorship in the Land of Maharashtra.

Vijay Tendulkar faced opposition to his most successful plays: Sakaram Binder was given 35 cuts, but he finally won his Court Case.

Mumbai theatre in the 1970s was like a precocious teenager. It grew out of its bermudas and put on some pants to challenge conventional wisdom, wrote one journalist:-

"As Sakharam is the centrepiece of the play, the conversations between the characters revolve around the reactions the drama received when it was first performed in 1972. "The censor board asked for 35 cuts,'' Shanta Gokhale confirmed. "This was impossible. Sakharam says, `I carry two things in my mouth-either a beedi or an expletive'. That is what he is. You can't clean his language. Then he stops being Sakharam.''

The play was attacked by mainstream Marathi theatrewallahs who, Shanta said, were affronted by Tendulkar's audacity and abused him "sometimes using worse language than what was used in Sakharam''.

Sakharam Binder asked a number of difficult questions. It was an acidic critique of caste and marriage that has more expletives than the walls of a local's general compartment.

Through it all runs a nostalgia for the enormously creative '70s. Shanbag had the idea after working on The Dubey Show, a homage to Satyadev Dubey, who was in the vanguard of experimental theatrewallahs in the '70s.

Shanta Gokhale links the rebelliousness of the decade to events that occurred across the world. To provide a context for the era, Shanbag has put together photographs and video footage of people like Bob Dylan, whose songs became anthems of protest against the Vietnam war, the 1968 student uprising in Paris, and so on. "One half wanted to hold on to old certainties,'' Shanta pointed out. "A lot of us felt it was in our hands to change society. It was the same all over the world.''"

Ghashiram Kotwal is a famous example of preventing a performance of a play. This play production was never banned officially by any government. However, the performances were stopped in 1972 because RSS applied pressure on the theatre group PDA.

The group was established in 1952 by Bhalba Kelkar, Dr Lagoo, etc. Innumerable seniors from PDA had RSS linkage. This group within PDA decided to abandon the production of Ghashiram. On cue, the young artists revolted and established Theatre Academy, Pune on March 27, 1973. Theatre Academy could not perform the play for one year till the political ruckus against the play, settled. Some of the socialists like the late N G Gore opposed the play. The play was considered an anti Brahmin play by Punekar Brahmins. It was directed by a Muslim. Although most of the actors were Brahmins (that too thorough-bred Chittpavans) like: Mohan Agashe, Gadre, Kale, Pendse, Ranade and so on.

The second round of threat came in 1980, when the play was invited for the Berlin International Theatre Festival. This time, the Shiv Sena was in the forefront along with Vasant Sathe who was a Minister in the Central Cabinet in Delhi. Shiv Sena activists went to court to get a stay on the international tour planned by Theatre Academy, Pune. Sharad Pawar intervened. He arranged a formal meeting with Bal Thackeray at his residence. Theatre Academy artists attended. Theatrewallahs like Sudhir Damle led the opposition.

Today, his brother, Ravindra Damle runs Pune’s Maharashtra Cultural Centre and manages Su-darshan Hall (a Chabbildas type performing space in Pune). This Institute has denied permission to the youth play Cigarettes by Mansawini to be performed.

Cigarettes (like all plays) has its own history. Satish Alekar received threatening letters as Head of the Lalit Kala Akademi stating that the play should not be allowed to perform on the Pune University campus. The well-drafted letters stated, if the ex-students of Lalit Kala Kendra penned obscene plays, then the University should re-examine its training of students. In spite of the letters written to the Vice Chancellor and Alekar, they went ahead with the performance on the campus.
Again, the sub-text for the production of Cigarettes was, a Brahmin Playwright and a Dalit Director who were colluding, to corrupt the young Brahmins of Pune.
Speaking about the Brahmins of Pune, let’s return to the persons opposing Ghashiram during the famous meeting. They were Daji Panshikar (brother of Prabhakar Panshikar). Interestingly, Vinay Apte supported the play. Atal Bihari Vajpeyi supported the play. Jabbar Patel and Mohan Agashe made a presentation, but the meeting was non conclusive. Bal Thackeray was steadfast. He said the play should not go abroad. Artists had to resort to police protection. The then, Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi intervened. Her PM note, drafted by her advisor Sharada Prasad in consultation with V N Gadgil (who supported the play and was also a Minister in the Central Cabinet) and Kumud Mehta of NCPA. Satyajit Ray, Shombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, Mrinal Sen despatched telegrams to the PM office in support of the play. Of course (as all of us know), the play had a wonderful tour to West Europe with 25 performances. It got rave reviews in London Times, Guardian, Der Spigel, NTQ. The Court issued an order that before each performance, a statement which was approved by the Court should be read-out. This statement publicly praised the achievements of Nana Phadanvis, over and above, stating that the play was not based on the true history. Theatre Academy followed the court order.

Some of the major auditoriums in Mumbai have refused permission to stage Vagina Monologues. Theatre managements have denied permission on grounds of morality. They are “revolted’ by the title of the play.

But is the theatre building absolutely necessary for a theatrical performance to occur? Theatre can and has been done on street corners, in fields, in living rooms, storefronts, etc. Tom Stoppard reported an occasion in which Vaclav Havel did a five-person living room performance of Macbeth using only a small props suitcase because the Czechoslovakian authorities had forbidden him and his company from performing Shakespeare in public. Its amazing how Sunil Shanbag and his actor team did the same in a community hall. They staged an impromptu, guerilla styled show for an audience of over hundred. It was a hair raising experience.

Safe” theatre is usually supported by the authorities with grants, foreign funding, subsidies, and special favours. “Safe” theatre is safe as long as it remains a supporter of the government. In order to remain safe it must become an active arm of authoritarian propaganda as is (or was) or, at best, be a producer of the innocuous and bland and the popular. It may be true that the theatre may attempt to subvert the authorities by only appearing to be “safe”. This can be done by presenting “metaphors” which a receptive audience will understand but will be opaque to the censors.

A prime example of this kind of theatre was the 1943 Paris production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone that was presented during the Nazi occupation. There’s a documentary on the same. Its chilling. The play was on the surface a re-working of the classical Greek play by Sophocles. But on the metaphorical level, the play was a denunciation of totalitarianism. Opposition to the occupying powers could only be safely stated indirectly through metaphorical disguise. Innumerable plays did it during the Emergency. Julius Caesar directed by Alyque Padamsee became a symbol for Madame Gandhi – and everyone in the audience knew it.

And can we ever forget the indomitable Habib Tanvir…HABIB TANVIR evoked another sort of reaction from some rather predictable quarters.

Imagine the scene: the auditorium is full, and there is the usual air of anticipation that surrounds you just before a play begins. The Naya Theatre is about to perform two of their much-loved plays, Jamadarin urf Ponga Pandit and Lahore. Then one man in the audience gets up and raises his voice. He objects to the plays the audience is waiting to see. The man has seventeen supporters in the large audience. What happens next? Surely the little group of hecklers will be shown the door so that the play can go on? This is what should happen. But it doesn’t. Instead, under the watchful eyes of the district collector, the police “escort” the audience out of the auditorium to protect them from seeing the plays. The actors perform to an empty auditorium.

This incredible scene is just one of those that have occurred in the last few months. Like their colleagues in the preceding scene, the goons of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal-BJP ilk have also displayed their love for living Indian culture by throwing rotten eggs and chairs on the stage; by slogan-shouting during performances; by cutting power-supply to the auditorium; and by forcing audiences into leaving, or performances into being cancelled. It is as if our acultural fundoos have taken it upon themselves to illustrate that the bigotry Habib Saab’s plays meet head-on is only too real.

Given their passionate interest in culture, the attackers have not even seen the plays they are attacking. On being questioned, some of them have come up with reasons such as “a jamadarin being shown striking a Brahmin” in the play, Ponga Pandit. “This is a direct attack on our sanskriti.” Or: “a man is shown entering a temple with his shoes on.” Or: “a pandit should not be called a fraud (ponga).”

Obviously, these self-appointed theatre critics do not know that we cannot write a play or a poem or a film or a novel with set rules about characters, action or ideas and beliefs. Even worse is the implication that “Muslim artists” should only portray and criticize the “Muslim” thread of our complex social fabric.

The play Ponga Pandit is accused of being anti-Hindu. The play is critical, but not of Hinduism. The caste system; superstition; priest craft; Brahmanism; and untouchability are portrayed with a combination of pure fun and social incisiveness, and are aspects of our society that need critiqueing. Any self-respecting Hindu would be indignant if told that this is what constitutes Hinduism.

As always with instances of cultural vandalism, the timing is important. The play is by no means a new one that has instantly given offence. Two Chattisgarhi actors, Sukhram and Sitaram, put the play together in the Thirties, and since then, the play has been performed by generations of rural actors. Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, in fact, “inherited” the play from the rural actors who joined the troupe. Naya Theatre has been staging the play since the Sixties, and all over the country. No one found it objectionable or called it “anti-Hindu” all these years. What then has happened to the play since 1992 to make it offensive? Could it be that those who pulled down the Babri Masjid have since been looking for more and more victims in our shared cultural life to demolish?

The first thrust of control is usually directed towards the performing art. Since they are easy, soft targets. Recent history indicates that authoritarian powers are now aiming first at control of the performance arts media rather than the print media since the latter are more vulnerable to manipulation.

This is the main reason, Maharashtra has witnessed a longish saga of “banned” plays: Keechak Wadh by K P Khadilkar, Sakharam Binder, Gidhade by Vijay Tendulkar, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, Yada Kadachit by Santosh Pawar, Avadhya by C T Khanolkar, Golpeetha by Suresh Chikhale. The list is endless.
Khalsa College’s production of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi was banned because of the obscenity.

Years later, the same bunch blackened the face of Sriranga Godbole in Pune for staging Ram Bharose. Interestingly enough, a few weeks later, Sriranga hosted Pan Amhala Khelaichya (a youth play that makes a passionate plea for communal harmony) for Shiv Sainiks at the Rang Sharda auditorium.

Mumbai is replete with such instances of real politiks. The Congress Party disrupts a show of Mee Nathuram Bolto Ahe because it depicts the Mahatma in poor light. But among other things, everyone knows, this play is produced by Vinay Apte, who is close to the Shiv Sena Supremo. Later, Machindra Kambli’s popular Vastraharan is targetted by the saffron gang. Kambli was a NCP candidate (he lost) and the badshah of Konkan. Kambli deflects the aggression from the protestors. He sends chai and nashta for them before a show.

Chetan Datar, playwright & director & co-sufferer, once said: “in Mumbai, we need a censor clearance for plays, for one acts, for tamasha, for lavani, for public meetings, for condolence meetings, for a dance in a bar.”

Subtle forms of censorship may be more dangerous than obvious attempts at control because they are harder to identify and oppose.

Prime examples are: Santosh Pawar having to stage a special show of Yada Kadachit for Shiv Sena big wigs and get their approval. But along with approval, he got an outpouring of public support. The play became a box office hit. This sort of thing has become common in Mumbai. Theatre groups aspire for the blessings of Saheb. Be it: Bandra or Baramati. In the process, mainstream politics has co-opted the theatre world into its maze.