Theatre

Sentinels looming at the door

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Performing studios that have mushroomed in several local neighbourhoods in Andheri have, on one hand, democratised creative expression and provided an outlet to a host of theatre practitioners, who would otherwise have remained perennial outsiders.

It has also allowed provocative works to be staged for limited and increasingly liberal audiences, seemingly outside the purview of the culture police. It is in this emerging fringe that, alongside regular fare, plays on prickly matters like caste, or alternative sexuality, or Article 370, or even the polarised politics of our times have received an airing.

This is not necessarily because these spaces have suddenly become hotbeds of activism — more likely it is the inviolable freedom of expression (so threatened elsewhere) and the sacrosanctity of theatre that is being given free rein by venues in individual capacities, and this has certainly led to a shifting of audience sensibilities especially when it comes to live performance.

Big brother is watching

However, in recent months, increased police surveillance of theatre activities has added an unsettling new dimension to this burgeoning arts scene in suburban Mumbai. One instance reported in the press includes the incident of the ‘sentinels looming at the door’ — two plain-clothes policemen ‘sitting in’ for a performance of Abhishek Majumdar’s Tathagat, staged by the Jana Natya Manch (Janam) at Harkat Studios in August. This was part of a Mumbai run of several shows, most of which proceeded without incident. A play on caste, Tathagat is set in a Buddhist kingdom in ancient India, where a shudra sculptor is sentenced to death for carving a statue of the Buddha with three missing fingers. The 45-minute piece examines the difference between a ‘traitorous’ and a ‘rebellious’ act, particularly resonant at a time when dissent is instantly regarded as treason. The narcissistic king at its centre could be regarded as a stand-in for Narendra Modi. For the casual watcher, this subtext might not be immediately accessible, which is why the police left the performance finding nothing incendiary, but not before photographing the set (a minimalist panoply of banners and pastel garments) and questioning Janam’s Sudhanva Deshpande and Harkat’s Karan Talwar.

Earlier this month, policemen raided another Andheri venue, the Shakuntalam Studio, where the Kabeera Foundation, a local theatre troupe, was rehearsing Tafteesh, a play by Rajesh Sharma that is ostensibly inspired by the Batla House encounter. In actuality, it is a fictional take on communal profiling, in which a young upstanding Muslim journalist, Rehan, is labelled an extremist and incarcerated. Due process spectacularly fails Rehan and thousands like him because the institutional machinery is stacked against those of his ilk. Directed by Shahid Kabeer, the play opened in 2017, and has done several shows over the last couple of years. In Delhi, a production of Tafteesh, directed by Shilpi Marwaha for Sukhmanch Theatre, has also been performing for more than a year, so this isn’t exactly new material. The imbroglio casts a shadow on the police’s sudden extra-curricular interest in Tafteesh’s staging at a venue that can, at the best of times, seat not more than a 50 people (who are mostly acting aspirants). Kabeer was finally allowed to stage the play on November 14, but only after making rounds of the station for questioning and counter-questioning — something eerily similar to the circumstances in the play.

Confronting discrimination

Like Tathagat was about Dalit identity, Tafteesh is a work in which demonised Muslim men are given a human face, and these themes bring the plays into direct opposition with an establishment that is responsible for the oppression selectively afflicted on its citizens. Which might explain why the powers-that-be might consider such works a threat to their one-size-fits-all brand of allegiance to the stage.

Kabeer’s troupe features a mix of actors from all backgrounds, and his plays — like Aftab Hasnain’s Yaha Ameena Bikti Hai or Sharad Joshi’s Ek Tha Gadha urf Alla Daad Khan — have not shied away from political themes, and from dissecting the Muslim condition.

Elsewhere, at Pune in August, Sharmishtha Saha’s Romeo Ravidas Aur Juliet Devi, that delves into the relationship between a couple belonging to Dalit and Savarna castes, hit a roadblock when a midnight raid by police at a hotel where the team was put up, singled out its young Muslim actor, Yash Khan, to furnish identification details. Earlier in the day, their performance at the FTII had been cancelled at the last minute by authorities. Once again, this was a performance that focuses on everyday casteism, and plays with fire when it comes to forging a parallel between the plight of a young Dalit boy killed for owning and riding a horse, and Kausalya Shankar, the feminist crusader from Tamil Nadu who survived an attempt at an honour killing.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 3:00:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/sentinels-looming-at-the-door/article30099570.ece

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