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Indian theater activists see rise in political risks

Anish Victor performs his play Koogu in Bandra, Mumbai in July 2016. (Photo by Tom Vater)

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI -- "First they come for the movies. Then for the books. Theater will be the last to be hit, but the clamp-down is coming," said Anish Victor, a founder of Rafiki, a theater collective from Bangalore, in India's Karnataka state.

"They constantly test how far they can push their agenda and how much resistance they encounter," Victor said of the Hindu-based Bharatiya Janata Party government that took power in 2014. "It happens in the courts, on the censorship boards. They push their moralistic values to suppress all public means of expression."

Victor's comments reflect growing concerns among many intellectuals in India about the impact of resurgent Hindu nationalism, which is widely thought among artists to have had a chilling effect on artistic values and contemporary theater.

In October 2015, 40 novelists, playwrights and poets returned awards they had received from the country's most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi, as part of a protest against what they saw as a creeping climate of fear. One of the most prominent writers, Nayantara Sahgal, a niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, told local media that "India's culture of diversity and debate is now under vicious assault."

The writers were particularly outraged by the August 2015 murder in Karnataka of the prominent scholar Malleshappa Kalburgi, who had frequently spoken out against what he saw as superstition and false beliefs in Hinduism. Sahgal suggested that the academic had been "killed for not agreeing with the ruling [party's] ideology."

Yuki Ellias (Photo by Tom Vater)

A month later Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim laborer, was lynched by a mob on the outskirts of New Delhi on suspicion that his family had stored and consumed beef at their home. The authorities' lackadaisical reactions to these cases further inflamed anger in India's cultural circles.

As a result of growing intolerance and violence, artists are becoming more careful when discussing social and political issues in their work. For example, Yuki Ellias, an actress, director and coach at the Drama School of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra state, felt she had to take the ugly political mood into consideration while writing her latest play.

"I am currently working on a story of Hindu god Ganesh looking for his human head," she said. "But I have changed his name in the play because friends warned me against a backlash if I wrote explicitly about a Hindu deity."

Shiv Sena Bhawan, or the Shiv Sena headquarters, in Shivaji Park, Mumbai. (Photo by Tom Vater)

Mumbai artists like Ellias face two challenges. First, they have to submit everything they produce to the State Scrutiny Board of Maharashtra. But they also face potential problems from extra-constitutional censorship by groups such as the Mumbai-based Shiv Sena, a pressure group involved for the past half-century in the politics of the Marathi people, the principal ethnic group in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena campaigns against artistic exploration of subjects such as sex, politics and religion.

Other powerful political and religious groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have the ability to mobilize popular protests against what they see as infringements of public morality and conservative values in movies, plays, visual art and books. These organizations promote Hindutva, or "Hinduness." The BJP adopted Hindutva as its official ideology in 1989.

"Ridiculous debate"

Ellias has now changed Ganesh's name in her play to Master Tusk. "Right now, there is a real resurgence of the feeling of being Hindu, powered by the government," she said. "Featuring a Hindu god in popular culture remains a big problem. But I am not out to create controversy. I just want to write a story about this boy who is half-human, half-God, and I don't think about these old fashioned notions. For me it's a ridiculous debate."

Political pressure is not the only challenge facing contemporary theater. Since economic liberalization began in India in 1991 the art form has been increasingly abandoned by the public for more mundane reasons. Traditional theater forms such as Jatra in West Bengal or Katakhali in Kerala are dying off or turning into trivialized spectacles staged for tourists. And contemporary urban theater continues to fight for survival in the face of a multitude of new entertainment media, new technologies, changing lifestyles and a shortage of venues.

Shanta Gokhale (Photo by Tom Vater)

Shanta Gokhale, a veteran theater critic, author and translator, provides an insight into the state of contemporary theater in the Maharashtra capital. "There are four languages in theater in Mumbai," she said. "The most commercial theater is in Gujarati. Plays are squarely aimed at the trading community, tickets are expensive, content is entertainment-focused and generally pro-BJP."

Marathi language theater has been around for 160 years and is a very-self-contained industry appealing to the middle-class and the poor, Gokhale noted. "Its biggest success is 'Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla,' a play written by Rajkumar Tangade and performed non-stop for the past 24 years, which challenges the illegitimate appropriation of Hindu culture by groups like the Shiv Sena," she added.

For Gokhale, the most dynamic work comes from the small English and Hindi theater scenes. Lacking a large network of traditional venues, Hindi and English theater companies have to improvise. "Theater remains an elitist form of art but there are more and more production companies that aim to include the local community," she said.

"New plays in unusual venues reach a wider audience and take on social issues, thanks to the participation of the fringes -- feminists, Marxists, and Dalit (Untouchables). Following [a] widely reported gang rape in Delhi, we saw more plays on sexual assaults. But there was never a political theater in Maharashtra as such. Theater becomes political because its opponents politicize it."

Anish Victor (Photo by Tom Vater)

Victor has performed his play Koogu in English and in Kannada (the language spoken in Karnataka, his home state) more than 100 times in all sorts of venues around the country. In July 2016, he brought his show to a communal gym in the affluent suburb of Bandra in northern Mumbai. There had been no promotion, in part because Victor does not submit his plays to the censorship office. But the venue was packed; word of mouth was enough to bring in a curious audience from all over the city.

"I think theater is the last bastion of free speech because it is less supervised and controlled than other art forms. I plan on the fact that [the authorities] are too lazy to find us," said Victor, adding that the relative invisibility of the theater world in India is its greatest strength.

"As a strong and quite small community, we will always find a place to perform. After the shows, we often discuss topics such as nationalism, communalism, sexual abuse, without filter. Theater enables us to talk to each other, while the public debate becomes more and more constrained."

Political violence

There is no censorship board in New Delhi but as in Mumbai, performers and theater companies have been targeted by political violence. One of the most prolific theater companies in the Indian capital, the Hindi language Jana Natya Manch (often called Janam) has been staging plays for more than 40 years.

Janam's roof top rehearsal space in Delhi (Photo by Laure Siegel)

The troupe addresses workers rights, communal tensions, women's rights, and the caste system. Its most recent play is based on the last letter of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student from Hyderabad, who committed suicide in January 2016 after his student funds were suspended in response to his activism in a Dalit student union.

Janam's director Sudhanva Deshpande, who joined the group in 1987, said that Janam is as relevant today as during its inception. "This kind of public performance is keeping the spirit of democracy alive and provides a vision of equality," he said. "We occupy the public space to offer discourse, discussion, alternative viewpoints, looking at what neoliberalism and patriarchy do to people's lives."

Janam has its roots in the Indian People's Theatre Association, a vocal force for independence and an umbrella organization for virtually everybody who was anybody in the arts field from the 1940s to the 1960s. The troupe, currently numbering around 60 directors, performers, producers and writers, was formed in 1973 and has staged thousands of outdoor performances -- from elaborate productions on large stages to street plays in rural areas.

Its track record has been as remarkable as it has been tragic. On Jan. 1, 1989, its founder Safdar Hashmi, who was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was murdered by a mob associated with the Congress party, then India's biggest political party, while performing in the run-up to elections.

Sudhanva Deshpande (Photo by Tom Vater)

"It was such a huge shock at the time," said Janam secretary Komita Dhanda. "I wonder if we would be as surprised if the same incident took place today. Assassination has become a common occurrence. We live in a dangerous place in dangerous times."

Deshpande said that performing in the bustling streets of India comes with huge social responsibility. "We firmly stand against politics of hatred and we oppose those politics through humor," he said. "It's strategic and consciously done, because people become enraged very quickly. Humor blunts the opposition's response."

Back in Mumbai, Ellias is on the same track. "I use comedy as a filter. I like writing fun plays. It's my way of conveying messages. If one is too direct, it doesn't work; audiences need to be shown slowly and gently what it's about."

Trade unions are planning a general strike across India on Sept. 2, in protest against what they regard as unfair changes to the country's labor laws. Janam is getting ready to take to the streets of the capital.

"We will perform everywhere, all over Delhi," said Moloyashree Hashmi, Jamam's president, who took over the group after the killing of her husband Safdar. "For some years now, the police turn up and record our plays. There is always a risk they will stop our performances. The closer to the strikes, the more tense it will get. For the moment, there is still opportunity to go out and perform. But this could change tomorrow."

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