Sunil Shanbag

New Performance

Grant Period: Over seven months

This grant will enable theatre director Sunil Shanbag to undertake preparatory research towards a theatre production tentatively titled, ‘Who Says No? Sakharam Nam Ka Ek Vag’. Sunil, along with a researcher and a dramaturg, will investigate the relationship of censorship to theatre practices. The team will examine the history of censorship and its impact on theatre in India, particularly in Maharashtra. They will focus on notable cases, such as Vijay Tendulkar’s important, yet controversial play, Sakharam Binder. With the introduction of the Dramatic Performances Act in 1876, the performing arts became subject to state control and censorship for the first time in India. Maharashtra has a long history of banning theatre productions, starting with Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s Keechak Wadh in the colonial period and, following independence, Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder and Gidhade, Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story, Santosh Pawar’s Yada Kadachit, Suresh Chikhale’s Golpeetha and Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi.

However, the performance of plays has been blocked not only by state censorship but also by the actions of non-state agencies and groups. Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghasiram Kotwal was banned following objections from Brahmins that their community had been portrayed as licentious and the Maratha hero Nana Phadnavis had been depicted in an unflattering light in the play. This incident is widely regarded as marking the beginning of a virulent form of censorship of artistic expression promoted by the Hindu right wing. In July 1998, the issue of theatre censorship in India attracted worldwide attention when angry protestors prevented the staging of Pradeep Dalvi’s Mee Nathuram Boltoy, compelling the Maharashtra government to ban the play following advice from the Congress government at the Centre. Sunil Shanbag and his team will mainly focus on the 1970s, a decade in which censorship spread its wings, particularly during the time of the Emergency. Gidhade and Sakharam Binder were two plays that were banned and many theatre artists were jailed in the 1970s. Daringly, theatre in the 1970s did not yield to state pressure. The research will be anchored in the saga of censorship surrounding Sakharam Binder. This production will provide the lens through which the history of theatre censorship will be seen, including how the relationship between theatre practices and censorship changed in subsequent decades.

The research will therefore not be limited to the 1970s, but also reflect on developments since the early 1990s when theatre practitioners started succumbing to the state and public pressures, abandoning principles for convenience. Irawati Karnik, a young playwright, will help Sunil research and acquire documents from different sources, while critic, writer and translator, Shanta Gokhale, will provide leads and conceptual inputs, and draft a performance script in which the on-stage characters from Sakharam Binder, and the off-stage personalities associated with the controversy, will play a significant role. The pre-production research work will involve interviewing artists and theatre activists from the 1970s, perusing newspaper archives, and excavating textual, photographic and audio-visual material from personal and institutional sources. Some of the acquired audio and video material will be incorporated in the envisaged documentary drama. Following a review of the resulting performance script, Sunil Shanbag may be awarded a follow-up production grant.