Plays that almost weren't: Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2018 takes a creative look at censorship

When it feels as though creative dissent is being increasingly clipped, and censorship has us hemmed in, theare is among the few spaces that seems unbowed. This seems especially true with Bengaluru's Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival. For its 14th edition, the prestigious festival has chosen a dramatic theme — "plays that almost weren't". And it is that "almost" which makes the case for artistic freedom.

A haven for new Indian theatre, Ranga Shankara — since its inception in 2004 — has consistently staged “a play a day”. Created by theatre actor Arundhati Nag in memory of her actor-director husband (the legendary Kannada star Shankar Nag), Ranga Shankara is looked up to as an inclusive forum that gave local Kannada theatre the boost it needed, while also bringing in international plays and perspectives.

Every year, theatre-goers and practitioners from all over India await the annual festival in Bengaluru, looking to it to make a statement, a difference, and set a new benchmark. In this 14th edition, there’s history in the making in another way too: for the first time, the festival is calling for applications (otherwise groups are invited to perform).

 Plays that almost werent: Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2018 takes a creative look at censorship

2018 Ranga Shankara Festival curator Vivek Madan

“I don’t want this to be hype(d) and something sensational,” says the curator for this year's Ranga Shankara Festival Vivek Madan, referring to the theme. The call for applications has been made, and inquiries are pouring in. “The potential for it to become inflammatory is there,” he admits. “We are not looking for protest. It is simply a question of expression. The festival is trying to highlight that censorship has been around, regardless of governments and ideologies. If we claim that the right to dissent is universal, it is! If you don’t like a play, don’t watch it. Anyone may disagree with what is (shown) on stage, but this is a forum for a person to say what he or she thinks and to be open to the way others think.”

Ranga Shankara's open call to theatre groups declares: “For as long as there have been plays, there has been resistance to plays. Throughout history, there have been attempts to alter, silence or even completely destroy works of theatre due to ‘unacceptable content’, whether the motivations for censorship were religious, social or political. Yet theatre-makers have long pushed boundaries of ‘offensive’ through their imagery and content.”

Still from the play Mayajalagannadi, directed by Murugabhoopathy

Still from the play Mayajalagannadi, directed by Murugabhoopathy, performed at a previous edition of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival

Among those who're excited about this year's edition of the Ranga Shankara Festival is Mumbai-based theatre director Quasar Thakore Padamsee. Quasar, who has co-founded the theatre and arts management company QTP, says of the departure from the festival’s usual theme-based approach: “This time, they are actively asking for groups to create a particular type of work. So it's new and exciting. It means that many more productions will be added to the theatrescape of the country. I think the theme is very current, and important. Especially coming from a place like Karnataka. There has been such a clamp down on the freedom of expression in recent days. The assassination of writers for being critical of things is despicable.”

Ranga Shankara's artistic director Surendranath, a theatre veteran and NSD alum, points out that the plays staged this year should focus on the “why” of its banning, re-examine the reasoning behind the decision, and whether it holds good today. “Re-view, re-imagine and re-play” should ideally be the approach, he believes. “History bears testimony that irrespective of time, place or faith, seething intolerance has always raised its ugly head. Literature has countered this challenge most potently all along. The efficacy of overcoming intolerance increases with every new trial that time throws at people. Today, the exigency to revisit our logic and reaffirm our faith in what we rejected in the past, is a lot more relevant than ever before. A festival that focuses on these themes, by re-staging, re-interpreting plays that were banned during their times is not only the need of the hour, but a cogent response to the challenging times that we are passing through,” Surendranath asserts.

Performance in alternate spaces at the Ranga Theatre Festival 2015 — Youth Yuga

Performance in alternate spaces at the Ranga Theatre Festival 2015 — Youth Yuga

Intolerance is something even the greatest playwrights — be it Shakespeare or Ibsen — have had to contend with, Surendranath says.

Plays that have been banned over the centuries range from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in ancient Greece, Dinabandhu Mitra’s Neel Darpan, Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar’s Kichaka Vadha in British India,  Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Genet’s The Balcony, Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Havel’s Memorandum, and Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder in the 20th century, and most recently Orwell’s 1984 and Kalakshetra’s production of Draupadi.

“Theatre and theatre artists have always been anti-establishment (no matter who is in power). Though our reach is limited to small numbers when compared to cinema, those in power have always been afraid of theatre artists,” says Nimi Ravindran, theatre director-producer and co-founder of Sandbox Collective, a Bengaluru-based arts collective, pointing to the slaying of Safdar Hashmi as an example of the power theatre artistes wield in society.

As for what she hopes to see from Ranga Shankara's 14th edition, Nimi says, "Courageous takes on some fantastic works from the the past, as well as contemporary examples. However, it can't just be a lesson in history; it has to be relevant to us today. Sakharam Binder, done for the thousandth time as per the text, is not what I'm hoping for. If contemporary theatre needs to talk about Binder, a great example would be Sex, Morality and Censorship by Sunil Shanbag.”

The Shankar Nag Theatre Award bein presented to Quassar Thakore Padamsee at the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2016

The Shankar Nag Theatre Award being presented to Quasar Thakore Padamsee at the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival 2016

Chennai-based Rajiv Krishnan, creative director of the prolific theatre group Perch, is looking forward to cutting-edge, radical work and younger/newer practitioners at this edition of Ranga Shankara. Surprisingly, Krishnan says he's also anticipating some irreverence. “The theme is particularly relevant in the times we live in, where state-sponsored fascism is on the rise, freedom of expression is under threat, and censorship is very real. I hope this theme will enable some truly challenging work to find space in this festival, both in terms of form and content. And I hope that theatre makers treat the 'plays that almost weren’t’ with as much irreverence as what inspired them in the first place!” Krishnan says.

Surendranath agrees that with this year’s open call for applications, the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival will be moving out if its comfort zone, and beyond the circle of 'usual suspects'.

The festival's approach this year will have a two-fold benefit, feels Quasar Thakore Padamsee. “Firstly, it challenges theatre makers looking for plays that have rubbed the establishment the wrong way. This means the theatre community is now looking at hard-hitting plays. Secondly, it will provide the audience with a buffet of plays that have been 'banned' for various reasons from around the world. In the cold hard light of hindsight, the reasons that some of these plays have been banned borders on the ridiculous. Hopefully, this will stir up a conversation about censorship and whether plays should ever be banned at all. What I am really hoping though is that the ancillary events planned around the festival make a much larger conversation. In India some shows are banned by the government but others are stopped because of the threat of violence. I think healthy debate around this topic is very important in this day and age.”

Inaugural performance in the Ranga Shankara foyer at the 2015 festival — Youth Yuga

Inaugural performance in the Ranga Shankara foyer at the 2015 festival — Youth Yuga

The  Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival will be held from 27 October to 4 November, 2018. The last date for applications is 1 August 2018. A curatorial panel will review applications and shortlist the best productions. The announcement of the selected plays will be made on 20 August. Click here for more details. 



Quasar Thakore Padamsee — 

*Touch of Brightness by Partap Sharma

* Sizwe Bansi is Dead, shut down by anti-apartheid authorities in South Africa

* Life of Gallileo by Brecht, banned because of its disproving of the concept of Heaven

*Juno and the Paycock

*The works of Daxin Bajrange from Gujarat, or pieces by the Kabir Kala Manch

Nimi Ravindran —

Harold Pinter's Mountain Language.

It's very powerful and perfect for what I see happening in my country right now. It’s a play that mirrors my realities and concerns; in it, language is a metaphor for everything that is under threat today, including democracy. I'm not a great fan of propaganda masquerading as theatre, but I love works that speak to us now — no matter when they were written or performed, they will always be relevant.  Like Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, or Macbeth — 450 years after it was written, you feel it was written for what's happening now.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 12:36:25 IST