Festival of plays that almost weren’t

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Over the period of a few months, this Festival with the theme of ‘Plays that Almost Weren’t‘, grew from being a showcase of banned work to something that would illustrate how dissent in the arts and therefore its censorship (or the other way around, it’s a snake biting its own tail) has been happening for centuries. It is not a new phenomenon, it is not just happening to us and it occurs in various forms.

If we look at the line up of plays at this year’s Festival, we see Ahalya B.D.Animal FarmChandâla, impureMahish and Rakshas which are adaptations of censored works and come directly under the mandate of the Festival. However, there is also Rajendra Laxmi, which was never actually censored or prevented from being staged, but talks about a woman written out of history. I am Not Here and Ammi Jaan (both original works) are not adaptations but responses to texts that were censored or banned. Dohri Zindagi is also an original script (adapted from a short story), but is the only play in the Festival that has itself faced a severe backlash from the moral police, to the tune of FIRs and apologies and the attendant drama, off stage.
So the applications themselves challenged, in some way, the theme of the Festival; I am glad that we were able to recognise this and include them on the strength of their ideas, rather than censoring ourselves by sticking to the rule-of-theme.

Two more things I want to address.

This is the first time the Ranga Shankara Festival has invited applications. To me, this is a significant step towards being a more inclusive, aware Festival where we allow access to groups and ideas that we might not have considered before. As testament to this, six of the groups at this year’s Festival have not performed in its 14 previous editions.  Having said that, there is some way to go before we break boundaries and reach out to truly new groups, but if we keep at it… Crossed fingers!

The addition of the ancillary activities. I have always felt that Theatre Festivals, specially ones with a theme, rely too much on the plays to explore and express the Central Idea. There are a thousand different ways of expressing or interpreting an idea and I was keen, with a theme like Censorship and Dissent, to provide as many entry points as possible for audiences and makers alike, so we could all engage with the IDEA, in a rounded, pluralistic manner.

The inclusion of Tathagat was a visceral impetus to include JANAM. How, in a Festival of Dissent, could we not include JANAM?
The Lecture Series deals with the craft of How to Dissent in the Arts. The why of it is a tweet, the how of it demands a lecture.
The Debates are a place for just that – nuanced, dignified debate by people who can back up their stance with facts, measured reasoning and logic that doesn’t degenerate into the all-too-common name calling and virtual-yelling and unfriending.
The Films have been handpicked for their multiplicity of voices, as they look back into time (May ’68) and may provide an insight into the chaos, the struggle for freedom of expression and the cost of it.
The Installations, audio-driven and using the play-of-the-day as a starting point, make the strongest case for the perpetual battle for freedom of expression. They’re available to browse from 10am to 6pm in the foyer, and they change every day, broadening the discourse tremendously.
The Rehearsed Readings were applications which didn’t quite make the cut for the main festival, but the ideas of the adaptations were so strong that we felt we wanted to know more.

So in conclusion – 36 separate events, around 50 audio-driven installations, lots of sabudana vada & akki rotti and coffee & other unmentionables, over 9 days at Ranga Shankara. #sensethecensor #whatacoolhashtag

My sincere thanks to Ranga Shankara, Surendranath, Sushma, Arghya Lahiri, Arshia Sattar, Ekta Mittal, Sunayana Premchander, The Takshashila Institution, Shubham Roy Choudhury, Institut Francais (Paris and India), Q and Sunil Shanbag, JANAM and the team of Tathagat, the entire Festival team and every player, speaker, debater, reader and audience member. It simply would not have been possible without all of you. Until next time!

                                                                                                                                          Vivek Madan
                                                                                                                                  Festival Director