The stories that played out in a medley in the play, Kuchh Afsaney, were gripping snapshots of dark regions of life. But, there was more — all these tales had attracted the ire of the authorities and out writer Saadat Hasan Manto in the dock. Delhi-based theater director Kuljeet Singh has responded to recent attempts by the government to censor works of art, from literate to films, by revisiting the banned stories of Manto in his play, Kuchh Afsaney.
When did you decide to work on this play and why?
The genesis of the idea of Kuchh Afsaney finds its cues in the February 2014 lawsuit for the banning of renowned Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. In 2016, the essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations, which forms part of the BA History (Honours) course, had attracted the ire of Hindutva activists because it talks about 300 different versions of the Ramayana that abound in our country and beyond. Kuchh Afsaney emerged out of rage to resist the ‘culture of banning’, especially in academia, which is supposed to be free and open to showcase dissent. The space is shrinking with each passing year and we strongly felt to invoked Manto to fight for the works of Wendy Doniger and AK Ramanujan and various other works in the pipeline which may undergo the similar ordeal.
What was the process of adapting these banned stories to the stage?
Long improvisations based on the stories, at times, imagining beyond the narrative, reading between the lines, vocalising the unsaid, remained the process of exploration and adaptation for Kuchh Afsaney. The performance script hasn’t taken the final shape yet and with each performance, there is addition/modification of the text or performance code. One thing, I was very keen on, was retaining the silence which Manto offers.
Do you think that, apart from being banned in their time, these plays have a contemporary significance? In what way?
The clear intent of the production is to contest the idea of “censorship” and create space to discuss the perennial debate about “obscenity” and “literature”. Moreover, the play also probes the relationship between “religion, violence & sexuality”. The performance piece doesn’t provide straight answers but problematises the concerns of ‘aesthetics of performance’ on one hand and experiments with ‘silence’, on the other.
Please tell us about the stories you chose.
There are six short stories which were banned: Bu, Dhuan and KaaliI Shalwar (three times in India before 1947) and Khol Do, Thanda Gosht and Upar Neeche Darmiyan (three times in Pakistan after 1947) under section 292. The play includes four stories at present and we are planning to add Khol Do and Upar Neeche Darmiyan to complete the circle.