Next month Natarani and Aktors Theater, a group of youngsters, mostly graduates or students of Gujarat College’s drama programme, will present a festival of plays by young artists from the State, an attempt at encouraging serious theatre where it is abysmally absent – in the recently concluded National Drama Festival of the National School of Drama there were 130 entries for Bengali drama, none for Gujarati.
The Festival was planned for four days, with two short plays each day. Now it has been reduced to three, and that might go down to two and a half. Courtesy Gujarat Sangeet Natak Academy aka the Censor Board.
What is vulgar? What incites violence? Whose sensibilities are being considered when we say “the audiences’ sensibilities will be offended?” We, all five and a half crore Gujjus, with a single sensibility? Further, who are the arbitrators? What qualifications do they have? What strange sense of decorum or prudishness?
You may or may not know that Gujarat is one of the very few stats in this country which has its own prude system for theatre – over and above the guidelines for performances laid down by the Center. Each public presentation of a play needs a script approval. NO guidelines are provided. But an unsees set of eyes and unseen minds arbitrate, and often arbitrate as late as a few hours before a performance, to decide on the fate of the play.
A few years ago there was a celebrated play on Maulana Azad touring India. The then PM Vajpayee declared it to be one of the best plays he had seen in a decade. We were going to present it at Natarani. The cast and crew had arrived. The script had been with the authority for weeks. And then the axe fell, on the afternoon of the show. “AISA koi Miyaka natak thode kar sakte ho?” No written fatwa, just a verbal brush off. The distinguished cast stood outside the gats and turned away the thronging audience with a gentle – permission has not been granted!
Three years ago, when Darpana started its nationwide student motivation project with UNSUNI, both the Hindi and English script went to the SNA. One of the real characters portrayed in the play is Narayani Amma, a manual scavenger from the south who has since become a fiery activist. In her own words she talks of the stink from the skin when one carries human excreta on the head every single day. But he censors in Gujarat had their own take on it. Narayani was disallowed from saying “Tatti” in Hindi but allowed to say “shit” in English! Our sensibilities are offended by a woman who carries human shit saying the word shit, but we remain unbothered by the fact that she has to carry shit!
A few years ago, I am told, a local theatre company was producing a play called Sambandh. The script came back with a note, “Approved as long as the character called Sophia’s name is changed. There is an activist called Sophia who might object”! Wah Sophia Khan. The censors are afraid you will make trouble!
And so back to our Aktors Theater Festival. They have had two innocuous plays cancelled. In the first, an ugly woman who is unable to get married and is insulted by a string of suitors, gets into a sexual relationship with an elderly neighbour and then decides that as society will never leave her alone, commits suicide. Alas not an uncommon or unheard of incident in real life. Censored because it will disturb the”suruchi” of the audience. The second has a hero with a physical defct, whose girlfriend leaves him to get married to someone else. He spends the play imagining the violence he will commit on her and her new husband, till in the end he admits that it is in fact he himself who has sent her off with another man. Censored because “it will incite violence”.
What about Gajhini? What about the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? What about the news on the television and in the papers? What about real life?