Staging freedom of expression


A source of major consternation this week, in theatre circles and beyond, was the draconian diktat issued by the Firodiya Karandak — a collegiate theatre competition based in Pune — outlawing plays dealing with

‘Hindu-Muslim, Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370, India-Pakistan, Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid or subjects that comment on caste or religion’. When questioned, the organisers put forth a series of disingenuous explanations, stating that these subjects have been “done to death” and that the participants were “too young and amateur [and lacked] the knowledge and depth required to handle such sensitive issues”. Despite their clumsy denials, this was unequivocally seen as an attack on freedom of expression and closely aligned with the growing partisan politics of our times. It certainly cast a pall on Firodiya’s 45-year-old legacy as a much-beloved multi-disciplinary contest, in which all allied performing arts came together for intrepid live theatre presentations. Following much outrage, they rolled back their decision yesterday.

Calling the lie on Firodiya’s initial claims is the line-up for Thespo, the all-India under-25 youth theatre festival whose 21st edition will take place in Mumbai all of next week. This writer was one of its two-member screening panel, alongside director and Thespo regular Alok Rajwade. While the programme is not curated around a specific theme, our brief, as we embarked on a 40-day nationwide tour, was to ‘bring back plays’ exhibiting a requisite degree of creative accomplishment. That these new productions all provide strong political and social commentary is a testament to the younger generation’s unwavering engagement with the topical issues that affect the country and its people. These include, as happy coincidence, almost all of Firodiya’s previously off-limit topics, and the selected plays are just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to the collective output from which they have emerged.

Traditionally held in Mumbai, this year’s Thespo sees plays — full-length, fringe performances and platform pieces — from Jabalpur, Pune, Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. If they are still in doubt, the organisers of Firodiya could do well to attend and gauge the mature and committed outlook, or lack thereof, that these groups have invested into the making of their plays.

Breathe new life

One feature of the Thespo itinerary is the repurposing of classics to craft contemporary tales. For instance, echoes of Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words might be found in Amrith Jayan’s Baksa, but it is ultimately a gripping two-hander that meditates on the capitalist machinery that makes guinea pigs of all its adherents, stripping them of identity and individuality, but perhaps, not sentience or agency. Similarly Girish Karnad’s Agni Aur Barkha, in the able hands of the Samagam Rangmandal from Jabalpur, gets a rousing visual treatment that draws from traditional physical theatre forms. Even as the production seeks to viscerally engage, the play’s inherent caste politics never ceases to unnerve. Then there is Vishal Sonawane’s Bain, adapted from a compelling Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi afsana, about a devout Muslim couple’s encounter with the apparatus of organised religion, and the price they must pay to live within its supposedly hallowed precincts. The last of the full-length plays is Sane Ani Company, written in Marathi by Jaywardhan Khot and directed by Devendra Charankar, in which a theatre company finds itself at the cusp of social activism in the early twentieth century, as it seeks to move from ornate sangeet nataks to more hard-hitting realist fare. Then too, as now, forces of censure take up cudgels against plays aiming at the uplift of women.

Permits and limits

Among the shorter plays are Vedika Singh and Rohan Verma’s Dear Bapu, a paean to Hindu-Muslim unity, and Aksariyat Akliyat, a take on Kashmir’s chequered past. The former is fashioned from Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ Bachchon ka Khat Mahatma Gandhi ke Naam, a short story in which two friends write to Gandhi about their concerns regarding the growing polarisation between Muslims and Hindus in post-Independence India. Abbas’ penchant for open letters to Gandhi dates back to 1939, when he wrote to him about the potential of cinema.

The play on Kashmir, written by Karan Chaudhury and directed by Vivek Tyagi, is literally performed on a platform — a tightly delimited rectangular area within which the performance takes place — and “takes stock of the narratives and counter-narratives that continue to colour our perspectives of the valley and its people”. This history includes, unapologetically and accurately, the abrogation of Article 370. Rather than taking political sides, the play attempts to resurrect the point of view of the Kashmiri people, who are still egregiously under lockdown.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 4:20:45 AM |

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