“Sex, Morality and Censorship” staged in Mumbai recently brings to the fore the realities that dog playwrights who are historically conscious.

When “Sex, Morality and Censorship” — a new play directed by Sunil Shanbag with a script developed by noted writer and critic Shanta Gokhale and theatre person Irawati Karnik — opened in Mumbai's Prithvi Theatres for nine successive shows last month, it made an immediate connection with audiences.

The only state in the country where a Stage Performance Scrutiny Board has been created under the Police Act and is administered by the State Cultural Affairs Department, such a response was perhaps expected. Theatre groups in the State have had to submit to a scrutiny of their scripts by the “authorities” who often play a waiting game, granting a new play a temporary permit of a month. If it has managed not to offend anyone during this time, the play is awarded a longer license.

In complete disregard for the cultural and social function theatre is supposed to perform, the Board rewards the kind of theatre that toes the official line on every significant issue.

The plot

“Sex Morality and Censorship” comes as a refreshing reminder of the force and entertainment that a good argument can offer its audiences. At its core, the play presents the well-documented history of Vijay Tendulkar's classic play ‘Sakharam Binder', a study of violence and depravity, which had made several groups very uncomfortable back in 1972. The entire incident, including the spirited fight put up by its young director Kamlakar Sarang and its defence by lawyer Ashok Desai who succeeded in getting the ban rescinded, constitute the basic plot.

Director Sunil Shanbag, who has a body of plays based on original scripts to his credit, reiterates his commitment to a theatre of ideas minus the intellectual insularity of what he calls “boutique” theatre. Fortunate to get a grant for Rs 3,00,000 from IFA (India Foundation for the Arts) the play went through research and rehearsals for almost a year. “The challenge in this play was to make a historical period and an argument dramatically viable,” says Shanbag. That has certainly been achieved. As the play recreates these events it is a revelation to today's audiences to learn that Ashok Desai won the day by focusing on the unconstitutionality of the ban arguing that it violated the freedom of expression, rather than addressing the rights and wrongs of the charges of immorality. Disturbing excerpts from “Sakharam Binder” intersperse the narration of this episode and remind us of the raw power of Tendulkar's playscript.

However, that is only half the story. The success of this play owes a great deal to the structure and meshing of several other arguments, the subaltern mingling with the main narrative, the little traditions and folklore of the times appearing both as narrative and comment in a timescale from then to now. This framework was created by Shanta Gokhale whose long years as a cultural commentator, translator, writer of plays and screenplays with close ties to Marathi theatre, enabled her to expand the particularities of the “Sakharam” banning case into a deeper, more disturbing look at ourselves as a people and as a culture then as well as now. She began by reading again the story of Kamlakar Sarang, taken from his book Binderche Divas (Binder's days), which is the chief resource of the play. That part is played with quiet dignity by Shubrajyoti Barat. The play is presented by folk artists belonging to Maharashtra's homegrown tamasha or local drama form and include a lavnidancer (Ketaki Thatte) and a Lok Shahir or poet, (Nagesh Bhosle) who perform their parts with flair. They begin by etching the broad facts of the case.

Their comments on the here and now of the Sakharam case are filled with seemingly casual references to the changes within the tamasha format in Maharashtra. Other characters who are instantly recognisable in this milieu are the Delhi-based academic who has offered the dancer and the shahira project seeking to document their survival in contemporary India, and her intermediary the historian. Three other actors, led especially, by the very talented Puja Sarup, fill the narrative breaks by presenting a number of character studies and anecdotes. All of this adds a great deal of verve to the production. However, the heart of the play lies in the multiple questions it raises. Gokhale points out she was interested in opening up the very question of censorship and in emphasising that there was more than one kind of censorship.

Subtle methods

The political parties censored material that offended various groups and the state found it expedient to comply with their demands. But the play refers to even more subtle forms of censorship such as that practiced by playwrights like Tendulkar and Sarang, who, for all their liberal colours, could not bring themselves to regard tamasha as an artistically or politically valid form. Lastly, there was the more insidious censorship of the tamasha artists themselves, who with changing times, began to alter their traditional art forms to suit the sensibilities of their new patrons. Gokhale suggests that this is the problem posed by any attempt to define censorship and exercise state control of the arts in a country like India. “We are living in so many ages all at once and simultaneously that the question of censorship and even the bigger question of what constitutes culture and what should be done about it cannot be decided by the state as a governing body”. In that sense this remains a strikingly relevant play for us today.

But by the end of the production its flaws become apparent. Like a great deal of the avowedly middle-of-the-road contemporary theatre in India, this play too seems unwilling to leave the audience in a state of churn and without the benefit of neat answers. This is both an irony and a pity because the play is addressing issues at the very heart of our cultural values and the rot that has set in there. Smooth performances notwithstanding the characters seem to live outside their roles as entertainers, skimming over the central intelligence and intentions of the script, to play to the gallery.

If the idea of the play was to show the many sides of an argument and begin a complex thought process in the audience on a subject as relevant then as it is now, more subtlety and a measure of intelligent restraint was expected.