Taking it to the Streets

The Rushdie Affair in 1989, the banning of Taslima Nasreen's Lajja in Bangladesh in 1993, and most recently, the disruption of the shooting of Deepa Mehta's Water in Benares by the BJP in January 2000: these incidents of violent protest, book burnings and the vandalization of film sets bring the issue of censorship in South Asia into sharp focus.

The academic discussion on censorship that these incidents have generated has become polarized as a debate between the universality of the right to free speech and a challenge to this assumption from the perspective of cultural relativism. In its most widely publicized versions, the censorship debate unfolds as a contest between secular and religious ideologies, one which has been particularly intensified by the hardening of religious orthodoxies on the one hand and the pervasive economic and cultural impact of global capitalism on the other. Thus, the issue is positioned as a contest between the west and the non-west, secular modernity and tradition, the global and the national. The defense of the right to free speech by literary celebrities like Rushdie is not a limited elitist concern, although it may have been depicted as such. In fact, it bears a complex relationship with issues of freedom facing people who live under neocolonial conditions.

Academic discussions provide only a partial perception of the dynamics of censorship under conditions of global capitalism. These discussions on censorship have tended to focus exclusively on two genres, the novel and Wlm, which have the widest currency in the market of global culture. However, when we examine other genres of public expression like popular theater, we Wnd that the debate gets more complex, and oVers some unique insights into the workings of censorship. I will attempt to trace the workings of censorship on popular theater by examining the careers of Ngugi WaThiong'o in Kenya and Safdar Hashmi in India, in the Weld of activist theater.

Ngugi WaThiong'o was already a critically acclaimed English language African novelist before his serendipitous involvement with a People's Theatre project in Kenya. Born in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya, Ngugi began his writing career with the publication of Weep Not Child (1964), followed by The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977), all of which firmly established his position in the canon of contemporary African literature in Europhone languages, following in the tradition of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Sembene Ousmane and others.

In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi narrates the incident that catapulted him into theater activism. One morning in 1976, a woman from Kamiriithu village came to his house and said "We hear you have a lot of education and that you write books. Why don't you and others of your kind give some of that education to the village? We don't want the whole amount, just a little of it and a little of your time." Thus, it was at the specific invitation of a resident of the village that Ngugi, a famous English language novelist at that time, became involved with the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Center. For Ngugi, Kamiriithu marked the culmination of his attempt to decolonize African culture in the realm of theater. He had already written The Trial of Dedan Kimathi with Micere Mugo, which had been performed at the Kenya National Theater, a venue which had till that time been dominated by "West End comedies and sugary musicals with occasional Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw" and managed by British expatriate directors. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi represented the arrival of an anti-imperialist, sharply critical aesthetic in Kenyan drama. For Ngugi, this revolt seemed limited because it remained restricted to a petty bourgeois audience, and the medium of the revolt remained English, the language of colonization. In Kamariithu, Ngugi made the famous decision to write in his native language Gikuyu, a choice that he has described as an "epistemelogic break." It was the question of the audience's ignorance of English that prompted Ngugi's decision. Ngugi's first play in Gikuyu Nagahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) was written and rehearsed between January and September of 1977. The residents were enthusiastic and the experience an extremely fulfilling one for all participants. However, a month after the performances began, the Kenyan government withdrew the license for public gatherings at the Center and arrested Ngugi and detained him in a maximum-security prison for a year, without any trial. The international outrage that erupted as a result of this incident pressurized the Kenyan government to release Ngugi. He has been living in the United States as an exile ever since.

In 1982, the Kamariithu villagers attempted to stage another play, Mother Sing for Me, at the Kenya National Theater. The authorities denied them a license and padlocked the gates of the Theater to prevent their entry. Finally on March 12th 1982, the open-air theater of the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Center was destroyed by truckloads of Kenyan policemen. Ingrid Bjorkman writes in her book Mother Sing for Me: People's Theater in Kenya that the Kamiriithu villagers represented a threat to the neocolonial order by their show of collective strength. Their use of multiple ethnic languages in the play represented a reversal of the colonial policies of divide and rule and the continuance of tribalism as a strategy of electoral manipulation in the neocolonial era. For Ngugi, the memory of his experience at Kamiriithu has remained one of profound and transforming value. During his exile in the United States, he has written all his creative work including the novels Devil on the Cross and Matigari in Gikuyu, the language of his African theatrical experience. In his English writings, he continues to agitate passionately for the necessity of an autonomous African language literature.

Unlike Ngugi, for Safdar Hashmi theater was the primary terrain of artistic and activist expression. Born in 1954 in Delhi, Hashmi was active in student politics and a member of the Indian People's Theatre Association since his student days. He was one of the founding members of the Jan Natya Manch (Janam) in 1973 and a full time theatre activist and party worker for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) since 1983. Since its inception, Janam organized plays in the streets of working class neighborhoods in Delhi. Hashmi was in the forefront, in the writing and production of plays like Aurat (Woman), Masheen (Machine) and DTC ki Dhandli (The Trickery of the Delhi Transport Corporation), all of which explored issues intimately linked to lives of the urban working class.

This career in activist theater was cut short tragically, by the brutal attack on the street performance of the play Halla Bol (Attack) at Sahidabaad, on New Year's Day, 1989. The act of state censorship on Hashmi did not take place through its institutionalized structure of the police force but through the ruling party's nexus with professional criminals who were hired to disrupt the performance of Halla Bol and assault his group. Documentaries made by Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) which retrace the horrific incident, describe Hashmi's self-sacrifice and heroism in the face of this brutality. Eyewitness accounts reveal that he bought time for his colleagues to escape, by fending off the goons, through the flimsy protection of a rickety door. Praveen Swami has written, "Hashmi's crime was to have staged street theater performances on behalf of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) which challenged the ruling party's mafia politics in Delhi's slums."

Safdar Hashmi defined street theater as "a militant political theater of protest," and traced its origins to Brechtian agitprop aesthetics. Hashmi believed that Indian mainstream theater was out of touch with the crucial issues confronting the masses, and it was with a view towards expanding the range of his audience that he decided to take his plays to the streets of working class neighborhoods.

In a panel discussion in a 1997 issue of the Seagull Theater Quarterly, Javed Malick pointed out that the Bajrang Dal and VHP had appropriated the techniques of street theater during the Ramjanambhoomi-Babri Masjid agitation. While Mala Hashmi, Safdar Hashmi's wife and colleague, remained confident that street theater appropriated by the right wing would not be able to sustain popular audience support, because of its "shove down the throat," proselytizing approach, she feared that the street atmosphere in Delhi had become more policed and far less conducive to open-air performances.

Mala Hashmi's description of the increasing difficulty in staging street theater in urban India is borne out by the shocking experience of Safdar Hashmi's sister Shabnam Hashmi on September 22 1999, when her theater group was attacked by BJP goons while campaigning for the elections in Lucknow. This increasing intolerance of public expression by Hindu fundamentalists ironically challenges their own representation of Hinduism as a 'tolerant' alternative to 'repressive' Islam. Instead of these fixed categories, we now see "religious fundamentalism" as politically fluid and responsive to political circumstances, rather than the essential attribute of any particular religious group.

In analyzing the censorship practiced by the BJP in the name of Hinduism, it is important to emphasize the political and economic power struggles beneath these acts. If this aspect is ignored it will be very easy to construct another image of the fanatical other, this time the saffron peril, opposed once again to the implicit norm of the rational freedom-championing West. It is beyond the scope of my argument, but I am willing to hazard that censorship struggles are not absent in the west, especially when they impinge on questions of female sexuality and labor. Therefore even Hindu fundamentalist atrocities need to be analyzed from a framework less reductive than a contest between secularism and religion, or modernity and tradition. In Safdar Hashmi's case, it was the threat of the working class challenging the establishment (Congress Party) that provoked the brutal attack. In the latest episode too, it is a political struggle between parties campaigning for elections that provokes violent censorship. The fear of a negative media image by the portrayal of Hindu widowhood in Deepa Mehta's film parallels the fear of real political competition in the uncensored democratic space of an election campaign; hence, the violent reprisal against any threat to the ruling party's dominance. The intolerance of dissidence is particularly acute when the grounds for political consensus are rather fragile, and the platform for the political campaign is the ideological brainwash of Ramrajya.

In examining Ngugi's and Safdar Hashmi's careers in activist theater, it is interesting to note that both saw the similarities between present attempts at state censorship and colonial models. In Kenya, the colonial regime banned the performance of traditional rituals like the Ituika ceremony. In India, a colonial statute like the Dramatic Performances Act has been deployed to police street performances. In colonial India, the vernacular press and native language theater were the most attractive targets for censorship. Ngugi believes that his theater work provoked the most brutal repression precisely because of its use of the native language, and its potential to influence a larger group to political action than the limited readership of his English novels.

In terms of their artistic choices, both playwrights infused their performances with songs, the diverse musical sources often representing a cultural syncretism defying religious and ethnic absolutisms. For both Ngugi and Hashmi, the end of their active involvement in theater marked a spatial reconfiguration of their original theater projects. Ngugi's collaborator in Kamiriithu, Ngugi Wa Mirii was able to continue with his theater work in Zimbabwe, while Janam's productions have now moved partially to proscenium theater.

In the activist projects of Ngugi and Safdar Hashmi, I have tried to foreground that censorship is not an issue restricted to cultural elites. The struggle for cultural self-expressions is waged on diverse terrains, and not all of these arenas get equal attention by the mainstream media or the market of academic scholarship. Analyzing censorship on stage, particularly the street-stage, reveals that the issue is not one that can be neatly divided into the traditional polarities of the religious and the secular, the west and the rest. Censorship is a mechanism of repression which has been clamped repeatedly on decolonization struggles, and which continues to be used to thwart a range of progressive, egalitarian movements. In Ngugi's and Hashmi's cases, censorship was a mechanism used to restrict the entry of the rural poor and the urban proletariat into the performative space of democratic citizenship. Meena Alexander's poem "For Safdar Hashmi" is a haunting evocation of the continuing marginality of the urban poor in the national and global metropolis.

The actors drenched
in black repeating it
to stubborn stones
children crouched by walls
Grown men and women
packed by factory walls
and in the distance
the hodgepodge of state

For too long, it has been assumed that the right to free expression is a narrow bourgeois demand. Censorship operates more insidiously than the representations of it in the media. Only an awareness of the varied forms and terrains of censorship battles can facilitate a continuance of resistance against it, rather than make us dither on the hesitant claims and political stasis of cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism purportedly moderates the absoluteness of the value of free speech. But it does so by casting the right to free speech as a post-Enlightenment, western notion, against the non-western framework of obeisance to scripture. This is a false dichotomy, because struggles for liberty are not limited to the middle class. Indeed, the struggle for freedom of expression encounters the fiercest repression in the terrain of the poor and the working class -- where Ngugis lose their homes and Hashmis lose their lives. Theater activism shows us that the fight against censorship is a fight for representation, for dignity, and for survival itself.


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