'Democratic ethos being eroded' under BJP: Theatre artists on why they signed letter asking people to vote against divisive politics

More than 600 theatre personalities, including Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah, Girish Karnad and Usha Ganguli, have signed a letter asking people to "vote BJP and its allies" out of power, arguing that the idea of India and its constitution are under threat.

The letter, which was issued Thursday evening in 12 languages on the Artist Unite India website, said the upcoming Lok Sabha elections are the "most critical in the history" of the country.

Last week, a similar appeal was issued by celebrated indie filmmakers such as Anand Patwardhan, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Devashish Makhija, asking voters to "defeat fascism".

 Democratic ethos being eroded under BJP: Theatre artists on why they signed letter asking people to vote against divisive politics

The letter was issued in 12 languages on the Artist Unite India website. Image courtesy: artistuniteindia.com

Among those who have signed the letter, Purva Naresh, Danish Husain, Sapan Saran, Gurleen Judge and Ramu Ramanathan talked to Firstpost about their decision to do the same.

— Purva Naresh (Playwright, director, dancer)

I believe that the democratic ethos of our nation is being slowly eroded under the current dispensation. And we all collectively felt that there is an imminent need to come together and call out the culprits by their name. Farmers, students, activists, artists, any free thinking person are all under threat and an atmosphere of fear is being created. The elections are our only chance at changing that and thus this had to be done right in time when people go out to vote.

The ethos of theatre is democratic in its essence. It's a coming together of individuals with different skill-sets and different ways of expression to express something together. It doesn't matter whether your individual expression finds a place or not. The way we do theatre is always keeping the collective in mind. The focus is always what we are saying collectively, may it be through dialogue, song, dance, music or any other form. Even those who are not on stage performing come with the sole aim of making an expression possible. Their share of contribution to it is of immense importance. The whole becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. That is theatre. That is democracy.

I think we already are in an emergency like situation. The announcement of Demonetisation brought about an emergency for the poor of this country. GST created an emergency for the small trader community. The systemic erosion of education funds has created an emergency in the education sector. Farmer suicides have increased, unemployment is at a 45 year high, journalists/activists are hounded, artists are being gagged and minorities are being attacked. How is it different from an Emergency? Except this is an undeclared Emergency. The undeclared Emergency is as much, if not more, dangerous than the declared one. Indira Gandhi lost the elections after the Emergency in the 1970s. What I mean is that the nation rejects fascist regime whenever there is one.

All over the nation, writers, scientists, filmmakers, theatre-makers are coming together. Earlier national award winners had returned their awards in the same regime. This is a very big sign. And a bad one. And that is exactly why the nation needs to told firmly and clearly that they are in an undeclared, disguised fascist-like regime which, if given another chance, might stay on for a while.

— Danish Husain (Actor, storyteller, director)

I signed the petition because the atmosphere in the country has become polarised and divisive filled with suspicion, fear and hatred. We want a government that does governance. There are issues like women's safety, health, unemployment etc. They should talk about real issues instead of mythological things. I have never seen India so divided, with so much hatred even when the NDA government was in power between 1999 and 2004. The BJP follows the RSS and is playing out the ideology of its parent organisation. Arts are important in society. It acts as a mirror to society and captures its emotional history at a given time.

— Sapan Saran (Actor, playwright, director)

The right to Freedom of Expression is the most important fundamental right for an artist. That one right defines an artist's art and his/her existence. Today that right is under siege. No conscientious artist will allow for that to happen. The fact that artists from all over the country have come together to make a joint statement against the establishment, brings to attention the current political state of affairs, that are no more acceptable to the people of this country. We are done with BJP and its hate politics. It is time to speak up. More importantly, it is time to vote it out. If we want to live in an India 'where the mind is without fear and the head is held high', then we must bring the politics of this statement into our personal lives and vote sensibly, responsibly and most important, fearlessly.

The petition is not an instance in isolation. It is part of an ongoing and growing political position amongst the people of this country that roots itself in the secular ideologies that our founding fathers valued, imagined and articulated in the constitution. Now is the time to vote. Now is the time to reclaim that value system.

Artists are an important part of any society. They provide the emotional, moral and psychological framework to the society within which it operates. And Theatre is a minority art. By definition, good theatre asks questions — difficult, uncomfortable questions that are critical for the survival of any democracy. One show at a time, two hundred people at a time, slowly but ceaselessly — theatre engages directly with the subconscious of the democracy.
It's different (from an Emergency). It's worse. It's deceptive when it's undeclared.

It leads to self-censorship, inaction, fear, mobocracy, and complete degradation of moral and ideological values at a personal and collective level. These are dark times and we, the people, have to take charge and bring about change. We have to vote. Responsibly.

— Gurleen Judge (Director, writer, light designer)

We are doing whatever we can with the election time coming up. We recognise our responsibility as artists. It is important to come together as citizens and that we don't take it anymore. It feels like we are at crossroads and we don't want this to continue.

All art forms play an important role in a democracy. It is for the human soul. All art makes a fuller, more holistic world. In our country particularly, the theatre has had an important role in movements, such as the national movement and the women's movement. Right now, fascist and violent forces are on the rise and we need to learn from history. So much injustice is going on. I just feel like this election is our chance to save our democracy and our constitution and we may not get this chance again.

— Ramu Ramanathan (Playwright)

The petition is part of a political discussion — and political discussion is key. The Hindi word is rajneeti. Raj is rule. Neeti is policy. I believe there has to be more Raj-Neeti in Raj-Neeti. For this more and more citizens need to have a voice. But they don't want to hear our voice. They don’t care what we believe in. Today all discussion, debate and dialogue have ceased.

Politics is the realm where things can be addressed and resolved. And the loudest political discussions have traditionally begun in the theatre, simply because it is "live". Theatrewallahs can sense what the audience is thinking. Today, there is a sense of unease in the audience every time a joke is told or if an actor utters a line on the stage from Bhasa or Tulsidas or Kamban or Phule.

Soon we will need to download an app called free speech before we enter the theatre. Which is why the footfalls and clickthrough rates in polling booths will increase but you will be told to ‘Be Silent’ after you vote. But theatre is about speaking that speech — and sometimes it is the unspoken things!

What is happening today is much more clever than what happened during Emergency. We are being tuned and hypnotised and trolled and modified. No one will directly approach you, and slap you or kill you or jail you. That's because, to use a theatre metaphor, the main action is transpiring offstage or backstage — and never-ever on the main stage.

That's the difference from Emergency, which is why a flawed, fragmented, noisy democracy is such a key concept in this whole conversation.

With inputs from Press Trust of India

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Updated Date: Apr 06, 2019 14:44:14 IST

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