He was just 18 when Kaizaad Kotwal directed his first play. Moved by Mumbai-based feminist Kamla Ramchandani’s The Witness, Kotwal adapted the script for a theatre competition in high school. The play, which focuses on dowry deaths, won the competition, received critical acclaim and was performed at several venues outside the school.
On Monday, the 46-year-old faces a far bigger challenge: the premiere at National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai of his adaptation of John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, about a nun who gives birth to a child, which has drawn calls for a ban from the Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). CSF claims the play is a “misrepresentation of the religious belief of the Christian community”, and the CBCI has written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh against “the wrongful portrayal of the character of lakhs of our clergy, who are committed to a life of celibacy”.
But Kotwal says he is not stepping back. “Once the premiere is over, I will seek out venues that will allow us to stage the play. The idea isn’t to stick a thumb in the nose but make sure our voice isn’t stifled. India is a democracy, and until the time it remains so, we will not give in,” he said.
The first step of this battle is a meeting on Monday morning — in the presence of Maharashtra Minister of Minority Affairs Eknath Khadse — with CSF general secretary Joseph Dias, who has launched a protest against the show, saying it has been made by a group “whose earlier work is The Vagina Monologues” and who “are not Christians”.
Kotwal, however, defends his adaptation of Agnes of God, saying it doesn’t attack the Christian faith in any way. “It’s a nuanced piece that talks about spirituality and faith among other things. Once the dust has settled, I’d like to use it also to highlight issues of child abuse and lack of mental health services,” said Kotwal.
The play highlights the story of a nun who gives birth to a child but continues to insist that she is a virgin, leading to an investigation by a psychiatrist.
What has also riled Christian groups is the play’s tagline in the print advertisement — ‘A virgin birth, or a blatant lie?’ — which is being interpreted as a reference to Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception. “Let’s be honest, virgin birth is not the sole domain of the Catholic faith. In the Mahabharata, Kunti conceives Karna in a similar way. In the ad, we use the tagline to refer to the character’s claim,” said Kotwal, adding that he will be looking at a different campaign after the premiere, for ticketed shows.
Beyond the controversy, Kotwal says he has always been drawn to strong feminist themes, starting from that early adaptation at the Cathedral and John Cannon High School in Mumbai.
The success of that play nudged him towards women’s rights and issues of social justice. The original also became part of the thesis for his master’s degree in performing arts at The Ohio State University. Kotwal stayed on in the US for 22 years to work in television, films and stage as an actor-director. His work on the American docu-drama Once I was Young…Now I am Wonderful, on how the performing arts can improve the standard of living of senior citizens, won him an Emmy in Art Design in 1996.
He was also teaching theatre at his alma mater until he returned in 2009 “for personal reasons” to India where he went on to produce one of the most successful and controversial commercial plays in the country, The Vagina Monologues, an adaptation of American playwright Eve Ensler’s iconic piece by the same name.
“I grew up among three very powerful women, my maternal grandmother, mother and sister Nairika. That attuned me to what women go through in this patriarchal world,” said Kotwal, who co-owns Poor-Box Productions along with his mother Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal.
Mahabanoo, who plays a Mother Superior in Agnes of God, is among those who have been targeted by the protesters forcing Kotwal to approach the police last week.
However, Kotwal’s run-ins with Christian organisations aren’t new. A 2000 production, (W)Hole in the Head, written and conceptualised by him, had Naseeruddin Shah play a homeless, mad man who believes he is god and talks about Mary Magdalene and Christ. Certain Christian groups in Kolkata had protested against it and shows were subsequently cancelled in that city.
The Vagina Monologues, which uses women’s voices to narrate personal stories of misogyny, patriarchy, abuse, wasn’t allowed to be staged at various auditoriums, particularly those run by Catholic institutions.
“Sophia Bhabha auditorium, where we were to premiere and showcase Agnes of God until they backed out recently, didn’t allow us to show The Vagina Monologues for many years. But earlier this year, they came around after watching it. We had our first show there in March,” said Kotwal.