Keval Arora's Kolumn

The importance of being thin-skinned & sensitive

Above: a still from the Film 'A DAY IN THE LIFE OF PONGA PANDIT'

produced and directed by Sanjay Maharishi & Sudhanva Deshpande

During August-September 2003, India's pre-eminent theatre director, Habib Tanvir, and his troupe of rural actors, Naya Theatre, faced the wrath of stormtroopers of the Hindu Right for performing a traditional Nacha play, 'Ponga Pandit'. In town after town, wherever the actors went, they were greeted by slogan-shouting strongmen. Habib Tanvir and the actors of Naya Theatre, however, refused to stop. Vidisha, 21 September 2003. This film chronicles what happened in that city on that day

First, the facts. Habib Tanvir’s theatre group, Naya Theatre, was commissioned by the Department of Culture, Government of Madhya Pradesh, to perform two plays in various cities in August 2003. The two plays were Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya Vo Janmya Hi Nai and Ponga Pandit (also familiar to spectators as Jamadarin). Activists of the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal-BJP combine regularly disrupted the productions at different venues. The plays were attacked at Hoshangabad on 18th August, at Seoni on the 19th, at Balaghat on the 20th, and Mandla on the 21st, while the performance at Narsinghpur was cancelled. The protests weren’t confined to shouting slogans or picketing the venues. Actors were physically intimidated at several places, the power supply at the Hoshangabad venue was snapped, and the police had to order a lathi-charge at Gwalior to clear the area. A protest march taken out to the BJP office in Bhopal by intellectuals, artists and members of various organisations was stoned.

What happened? Were these plays by one of finest practitioners of the Indian stage so provocative that the spectators perforce experienced a kind of spontaneous combustion leading to a rash of violent protests? BJP MLAs justified the protests as a people’s response to a “direct attack on our sanskriti”. It’s another matter of course that these spontaneous outbursts by people appeared thoroughly planned and co-ordinated. I suppose in an age of miracles, wonders need never cease. If mosques can be razed through a simple act of congregation by the people (with the appearance of pickaxes and crowbars from nowhere being proof of divine benediction rather than political conspiracy), a play being disrupted once in a while barely merits comment. So, why is it that these damned ‘secularists’ always misinterpret planned spontaneity as orchestrated vandalism?

The play that got the Sangh Parivar combustion engine going was Ponga Pandit. Revolving around a bumbling priest whose authority is challenged by the innate commonsense of low caste characters, this satire on untouchability, the caste system and exploitative Brahmanical practices is not designed to warm the cockles of the Sanghi heart. But, to see Ponga Pandit as an incendiary text that attacks “Hinduism” and foments communal hatred is, in fact, to defend the religion’s moribund historical elements as aspects of its greatness and glory. Can there really be any takers for the argument that superstition, casteist prejudice and untouchability are aspects of a divinely ordained superiority (perhaps like the pickaxes and the crowbars)? It’s difficult to imagine anyone with even half a brain espousing such causes. Maybe it’s the ‘half a brain’ that explains the thin-skinned sensitivity of the Parivar storm trooper as he goes around trampling over Delhi, Mumbai, Gwalior, and all over India.

Even if one were to sympathise with the Sangh Parivar’s epidermal insufficiency, it still comes as a surprise to learn that the mob also vandalised Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya Vo Janmya Hi Nai, Asghar Wajahat’s play about Muslim fanaticism and bigotry during the Partition. Such was the quality of mind that reared its head this August that not only was it blind to these plays’ evident arguments in favour of social amity and harmony, it was also unable to seize the advantage provided by one play to feed its own subcontinental variation of Paki-bashing.

These plays aren’t at all provocative as claimed by their opponents. Nor are they new. Ponga Pandit was created in the 1930s by two Chattisgarhi folk artists, Sukhram and Sitaram — don’t miss the delicious irony here, for the BJP, always alert to reaping benefits from a politics of denominational identity, had obviously assumed that the Naya Theatre plays had been authored by the muslim Habib Tanvir! In its 70 year-old performance history before rural and urban audiences, never has Ponga Pandit faced the sort of hostility that greeted it some months ago.

Several newspaper reports quoted leaders of the agitation arguing that their not having seen these plays did not in any way compromise their ability to sit in judgement over them. Now, wouldn't that be a wondrous skill for theatre critics to learn, for surely we need all the help we can get to catch each play performed in town. Jokes apart, it’s glaringly obvious that these protests had less to do with the actual plays and more with a larger agenda, in whichever way you to wish to define it. Tanvir watchers have noted that Ponga Pandit, which has been in the Naya Theatre repertoire since the 1960s, came under attack only in 1992 following the demolition of Babri Masjid. In the past decade, the theatre director and his plays have been constantly targeted by the Sangh combine. As for the latest attacks, newspapers have attributed its timing to the impending polls in the state. In an editorial comment titled “Staged for the Polls”, the Hindustan Times in fact predicted things would settle down “once the elections and its theatrics are over”.

I'm not so sure. The attacks were of course politically motivated but to yoke their shelf life to an election schedule, or to imagine that the Parivar’s propensity for coercion has an expiry date stamped on it, is wishful thinking. There’s a pattern evident here. Nafisa Ali was accused of fomenting communal tension in Gujarat even though she had clearly said just the opposite. What fun it must be to accuse your accusers of your own crimes? Maybe it’s all that rioting and killing: your jagged nerves ache afterwards for peace, your skin becomes unbearably thin and you contract sudden fits of sensitivity that need to be bled through further expressions of rage. Perhaps that’s why the BJP blamed the media reporting on the riots for sullying Gujarat’s image in the world! What next – will it also berate Zaheera Sheikh, as she pursues her case through the Supreme Court, for trying to stir up communal hatred? Clearly, this is not the last we shall have heard of such creative bloody-mindedness.

That’s why at a protest meeting held in Delhi on 1 September ’03 (the day Habib Tanvir turned 80), members of the theatre fraternity reiterated that such attacks are best countered through the most effective tool the performer has – the theatre. Of the several things said there, I was struck how some statements, notwithstanding their good intentions, need to be carefully articulated lest unintended implications be read into them.

For instance,, I’m slightly queasy about the way our condemnations of the violence have repeatedly highlighted the stature of the person/group being attacked. In one sense, it makes sense. I still find it unbelievable that Uma Bharati could have stigmatised someone as fiercely wedded to the secular ideal as Habib Tanvir when she declared in Parliament, without using names, that a certain theatre group was creating communal tension in Madhya Pradesh. Our regard for Tanvir’s eminence will inevitably colour our outrage at his having been targeted. (It is equally probable that Tanvir’s ‘celebrity’ status could be a reason why the goons were let loose on him.)

But, as the iterations of Tanvir’s special place in the making of a modern Indian theatre increase, I begin to wonder just how much of our condemnation is tied to our regard for his achievement. How would we react if the artist attacked was small fry? What if s/he was not specially talented or significant? Attempts to proscribe artistic activity are contemptible irrespective of the stature of the artists concerned. That it happened to Tanvir is significant primarily because it reveals the vulnerability of the ordinary performer. That, to my mind, is the only reason why it is necessary to remember Tanvir’s achievement and reputation. Else, our condemnations will always have an aura of celebrity politics about it.

Further, by discounting these attacks as the handiwork of political elements that couldn’t care less what the plays were about as long as they could play out their game of political brinkmanship, or by trotting out the phrase “it’s only politics”, we can end up minimising the seriousness of what happened. “It’s only politics” is a convenient shorthand for conferring innocence upon the Naya Theatre productions — for declaring that the plays didn’t have anything provocative about them, that they were perfectly above board and, therefore, that this was an unjustified attack on the theatre.

Accurate though this diagnosis may well be to the facts on the ground, it’s unwelcome for the simple reason that it is, in the final analysis, irrelevant. In the heat of the moment, the unreasonableness or otherwise of the saboteurs, their misconceived slogans or their playing out of a distant agenda, doesn’t matter. All that matters to us, given our inability to stomach or counter the effrontery of the violence, is the very idea of such an attack, a form of protest that so vitiates the ideal of vibrant cultural expression that it becomes irrelevant to wonder if the protests were justified or not. It is alarming to see the growing intolerance towards the freedom that societies have conventionally accorded to cultural production; the increasing conviction that cultural works must be confined within an ever-shrinking circle of permissible articulations; and, the widening demand that artistic texts should be as inoffensive as possible. Not to mention the nauseating obscenity of small groups of vandals holding large peaceful assemblies to ransom through threats of running amok, and leaving you nonplussed as to how these hurt ‘sensibilities’ of some seconds ago could author such goondaism.

Given such assaults on the freedom of cultural expression, does it matter that the Madhya Pradesh agitators were clueless what they were raving and ranting about? Their knowledge or ignorance wasn’t, at any rate, a factor in the launching of the protest. Their ignorance is relevant only to the extent that it forestalls any possibility of engagement through debate. Further, there is some risk in defending the Naya Theatre plays as completely lacking in provocation. To do so would suggest that plays which do have ‘objectionable’ matter in them are fair game for protests and disturbances, or that violence can be condoned when there is cause. Apart, of course, from denying the basic function of art — its obligation to ask questions, to push for change, to disturb.

An earlier version of this article was first published in FIRST CITY (October 2003)

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