While travelling through Maharashtra more than a decade ago, I camped as a student of theatre in a small village of Wallaval. My subject of enquiry was a performance of Walavalkar Dashavtar Natyamandal, a touring company of traditional performers that stages episodes depicting the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. While I sat in a corner of the village temple, I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who had turned up from neighbouring villages and the force with which the company performed night-long, in equal parts.
I was struck by one particular moment of spectatorship. While watching the dance of apsaras, an asura gets aroused in an opening scene, and can’t resist an ejaculation. Upon falling on the ground, his seminal liquid morphs into a fledgling asura, who runs amok, bewildered at his sudden birth, and the father asura chases after him, miserably failing to contain the little monster. The audience burst into laughter watching this farcical series of events unfold (a subversive response to the demonic presence on stage), completely oblivious (and irreverent, might I add) to the laws of censorship governing this country.
The recent actions of Odisha’s culture minister seeking the National School of Drama’s explanation on the “nudity” in the Polish play, Sonka, a 110-minute play by Poland’s Aleksander Wegierko Drama Theatre,
signals to an ever-present ignorance and disregard of India’s cultures of spectatorship. Our folk and classical performance traditions have a long-standing convention of imagining provocative sites of spectatorship. Take the example of an episode in Koodiyattam, where Surpanakha (a pivotal character in Valmiki’s Ramayana) exposes her bloodied chest after Rama severs her breasts, and performs a heart-wrenching lament that lasts two hours. The sheer act of witnessing this performance begins to unpack the politics of the body through the epic in social and pectacular ways that only the corporeality of performance can achieve.
It is worthwhile to remember that the act governing censorship in India is the Dramatic Performances Act. It was implemented by the British Raj in India in the year 1876 to police seditious Indian theatre. India, a colony of the British Empire, had begun using theatre as a tool of protest against the oppressive nature of colonial rule. It becomes imperative today to discuss notions of censorship in consonance with debates on the freedom of expression and the freedom to dissent, as the laws governing these domains have common colonial roots. Minister Ashok Panda’s declaration after the Polish play controversy, “Such plays are against our culture. Such vulgarity in plays will not be tolerated”, displays his inexperience to hold the very portfolio he has the responsibility to manage — culture.
While the audience, reportedly, did not express displeasure during the Polish play, activists of the Odisha Nari Sachetana Manch staged a protest against nudity a day later. The activists also blocked roads for some time, seeking an apology for the “vulgar display of women’s bodies”. In their second show in Delhi two days later, the nudity was appropriately “covered up”. While the official response of the Polish embassy and the International Theatre Festival of India takes refuge in the brilliant tactical statement of circumventing a ban on the show — the nude incident was an “accident” on stage — the fact that we need to turn to prudence that is reminiscent of performance practice under dictatorial/colonial regimes is itself alarming. As the country erupts in solidarity for the freedom of expression in universities and elsewhere, a small scene in a play is quietly murdered to let the show go on.
This brings me to the most disturbing part of this incident — the quietness of the murder. The Polish embassy and the festival in particular buckled under a perceived threat to the show. Social censorship has for years had an identical manoeuvre. In Lucknow, in the spring of 1875, during a scene of Nil Darpan, Torap, an Indian ryot, holds down the European Mr Rouge, who assaults the helpless woman, Kshetramoni. British soldiers among the audience, enraged, rushed onto the stage and disrupted the play violently. The outrage was expressed by the section of audience that was being critiqued. In the case of the Polish play, the barbaric stripping of the female character forefronts the misogynistic brutality of men in the Nazi era. By extension, what do the people who demand a ban on this scene become? The haste with which the Polish Embassy and the festival exercised self-censorship for the Delhi show stifled any possibility for the audience in Delhi to express that they are not the fascist audience they are being presumed to be. Sites of spectatorship are protected through a sustained cultivation of provocation and dialogue, they wither and die when the mere possibility of spectating is aborted.
Do we understand the act of smothering a small scene in the interest of the show as a gambit or a suicide mission in the ethical battles of our time?
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