The state’s intelligentsia was up in arms against the attempt to ban the staging of the play Poshu Khamar.
When a group of theatre artistes, students and others congregated in front of the Academy of Fine Arts, the cultural hub of the city, last Wednesday to protest the ban on the staging of the play Poshu Khamar, it brought to the minds of many the street protests during the turbulent ‘70s against a ban on the anti-establishment plays Dushwapner Nogori and Kallol of veteran theatre artiste Utpal Dutt.
Poshu Khamar, the Bengali adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a theatrical satire of Stalinist Russia, was scheduled to be staged in Bansberia in the Hooghly district on March 14 by city-based theatre group Pancham Baidik. “We were ready to perform and the show was to start at 6 pm but, at about 4 pm, the district administrative authorities ordered that the show be cancelled,” says Arpita Ghosh, director of the play. The local police authorities armed with the directive of the additional district magistrate intervened to stop the play, citing the violation of the model code of conduct ahead of the upcoming election. The ADM was asked to take action following a written complaint by Rupchand Pal, a CPI(M) member.
The news of the ban spread swiftly, inviting condemnation from the state’s intelligentsia, and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was compelled to apologise for the incident through a press statement the next day. “This incident must not be treated in isolation as theatre groups have been targeted time and again and the government has either forcefully or tactfully tried to gag the voice of this performing media,” says well-known theatre personality Saoli Mitra. “Such incidents are common in suburban areas where the ruling party, through its local cadres, pressures the organisers to stop hosting shows that speak against the establishment,” adds Mitra. “The charge of violation of model code of conduct is a lame excuse to stop the play from being staged as the same play was stopped by the local CPI(M) party cadres at the same venue in December 2006,” says Ghosh.
Veteran theatre actor Manoj Mitra recalls the days when the Congress government banned Kallol and Dushwapner Nogori, two of Utpal Dutt’s plays based on the political upheavals of the ‘70s. The Left Front, which was at that time in the opposition, organised protest where people took to the streets chanting slogans like “Kallol cholche, Kallol cholbe” (roughly translated as Kallol is on, and it will be on). However, the same Left Front government is now being accused of gagging the voices of the intelligentsia. “It’s very easy to target theatres and plays and there are instances where groups were beaten up by goons of the ruling party,” says Mitra.
Traditionally, Left leaders have been sympathisers of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) and are known to be patrons of culture. “The government which once nurtured culture and popular art is today out to suppress any voice of dissent,” says Ghosh. “The suppression has become vehement following the Singur and Nandigram agitations where a section of those once loyal to the Left began to criticise the government,” adds Ghosh. “Theatre is a medium through which we connect with the masses by educating, informing and entertaining them but such ruthless opposition cannot dampen our spirit. As they say, the show must go on — we shall stage Poshu Khamar on 10 April at The Academy of Fine Arts,” says Mitra.