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State theatrics

The banning of Habib Tanvir’s Charandas Chor in Chhattisgarh shows how artistic works have become easy targets, writes Shyam Benegal.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2009 21:53 IST

In the last few years, we have been witnessing a sudden rash of objections to the use of traditional verbal expressions, metaphors and similes in our films, plays and other literary works. Such expressions have been part of our everyday speech in all our languages and dialects for centuries. Until less than a decade ago, none of this was seen as offensive.

Recently, several religious sects, political groups and individuals have started raising their voices in the name of their sects, castes, and even sub-castes, claiming that such expressions denigrate their community, religion or their leaders or founders. The latest among these objections has led to the banning of the late Habib Tanvir’s play Charandas Chor in Chhattisgarh, Habib’s home state. The play is based on a Rajasthani tale retold by folklorist and author Vijaydan Detha.

Way back in 1974, I was doing a series of learning programmes for children in the Chhattisgarhi dialect with local Nacha actors from Habib’s Naya Theatre group and other folk theatre groups of the state. Habib was my consultant, adviser and actor. It was while we were creating these programmes that my writer Shama Zaidi suggested that one of the stories that I could consider was Charandas Chor for a feature film project I was contemplating for children.

While I was working towards making Charandas as a comic farce, Habib was planning to turn the story into a tragic play. Incidentally, the film I made featured Smita Patil as the queen. She was the only urban actor in the film. the rest of the cast consisted of Nacha actors belonging to different castes and sects: Devars, Satnamis, Kabir Panthis along with Pandvani singers and so on.

Habib, meanwhile, had written his play that examined the contradictions and ironies involved in the concept of an honest thief. Eventually, the actors in both our productions were more or less the same, since most of them belonged to Habib’s repertory company. It seems strange that 35 years later someone belonging to the Satnami sect should object to a line in the play. Several of the actors in both the original film and play belonged to this sect. I suspect that the person who objected to the play was not even born at the time. How and why the play denigrates Sant Ghasidas escapes me.

If you study the lives (real or apocryphal) of many of the saints and seers of our country, you will find that their transformation and transcendence was due to some extraordinary event or experience in their lives. For instance, Valmiki was a dacoit before his remarkable transformation to becoming the author of one of the two foundational epics of our country.

The banning of Charandas Chor by the Chhattisgarh government would be laughable and moronic, as one commentator has remarked, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s symptomatic of not only the growing intolerance in our society but also the fact that the targets of attack are soft and easy to strike, as they don’t hit back.

Films, plays, literature or painting, the demands for banning artistic works for being offensive is based on the ‘The Theology of Respect’ as Kenan Malik calls it. He says that this is built around three principles: not offend other cultures, respect all beliefs and censor one’s own views in the name of tolerance. Malik adds that it appears as though the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.

Strangely enough, it is because we live in a plural society that we need the greatest freedom to express our opinions even if others find it offensive. Expression cannot remain subservient to religious and cultural sensibility. Pluralism and the right to offend are two sides of the same coin. Clashes are unavoidable and have to be dealt with. Curbing freedom of expression cannot be the solution (Irena Maryniak in her essay, ‘Offence: the Christian case’).

In the process of dismantling caste equations, some of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalit communities give themselves identities that no longer associate them with their traditional professions. The new identity requires a reworking of community histories and mythology. Any reference to the old identity can only seem offensive. As part of the mainstream, they are likely to lose their special identity.

It is largely for this reason that it becomes important for them to adopt dominant forms of expression so that others may hear or understand their points of view. Even more important for them is to establish their view as the last word. Any expression that they perceive as an attack on their identity is responded to with considerable vehemence.

Governments have a tendency to accede to such demands when the community they constitute is a significant votebank — as is probably the case in Chhattisgarh.

Shyam Benegal directed the 1975 film, Charandas Chor, based on Habib Tanvir’s play

The views expressed by the author are personal