Play about Queers Cancelled, As VHP and Right Wing Organisations Protest

Image Courtesy: Jagriti Theatre

The staging of the play titled Shiva, which explores queer identities using dance, music and theatre, was cancelled by Jagriti Theatre following threats from Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right wing Hindu extremist group. The queer community in the country is prepping for its (not so) new struggle against social and cultural prejudices after its legal victory  on September 6, 2018. This incident demonstrates that alternative and dissenting voices are still under threat. The play directed by Dayasindhu Sakrepatna was to be staged at the Jagriti Theatre in Bengaluru on 13 and 14 October 2018 till the self-proclaimed saviours of Hinduism decided that the play hurts their sentiments. Arundhati Raja, an artistic director of Jagriti Theatre told The Hindu, “Three right-wing groups turned up at the theatre on Saturday morning and declared that they found the play offensive. When asked if any of them had watched the play, they said, they hadn’t, but that they found the name offensive. They threatened to create trouble if we went ahead with the shows as scheduled.”

Shiva is a choreography of eight dance pieces, Karnatik music, and poetry and is based on Dayasindhu’s personal struggles with his own sexuality. The India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), who aided the production of the play, described it as the story of a young man, a poet, coming out of the closet to his mother, through a series of letters and poems that express fear, conviction, choice, and most importantly, a deep longing for his mother’s acceptance. Each of these four themes branch out into other short stories, which are woven into the larger narrative. The play raises questions and prompts dialogues on alternative identities, relationships, gender, sexuality, masculinity, peer-pressure and mob-violence. The attack on this play brings to light, yet again, the rising intolerance and curbing of freedom of expression in the country. As the director puts it, it also highlights the “resistance to queer identity”.

The role of the Hindu fundamentalist organisations
All Hindu fundamentalist organisations in the country function on the premise that Hinduism is under threat. According to them, this threat is not only from what they believe to be “foreign” religions, but also from democratic discourses of rights and freedom. These organisations, thus, have assumed the task of waging a war against other religions in the country and curbing all constitutionally granted rights by redefining them in their own terms. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu right-wing party and the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), came to power at the Centre in 2014, fundamentalist organisations like VHP and RSS have been terrorising minority communities and various other dissenting voices. Writing about the growth of Hindu extremism, Mandakini Gahlot, a senior journalist, notes that the “Hindu nationalist movement is attempting to hijack our religious identity to serve its own vision, ignoring, and often attacking, any opposing viewpoint.”

Hindutva organisations, since their inception, have been claming that their views stand for the “sentiments” of the entire Hindu population of the country. The attack on Shiva is an attack based on such claimed “sentiment”. Speaking to The Hindu, the director noted, “It was so easy to suppress the voice of an artist. Some people took offence and the play did not happen. It should leave us worried.” It, indeed, is worrisome. These extremist forces are increasingly assuming authority over what can be said, what can be seen and what can be done. Anyone, a journalist, an artist, a writer, or a rationalist, who attempts to give a voice to the oppressed in the country is silenced either by disrupting such attempts as what was done with Shiva or by killing as in the cases of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.

The claim that a play about queer identities cannot be named after a Hindu God reminds one of the case of the film Padmavat, wherein the extremist elements did not show any interest in the content of the film.  Even if the VHP had known that the play was about the problem of discrimination of the LGBTQI+ community and had nothing to do with religion, they would not have allowed the play to be staged. VHP’s problem was with the name “Shiva”. Being an organisation which believes that homosexuality is an imported disease which needed treatment and was against Indian culture and values”, its “sentiments” were indeed hurt. As Gahlot notes, the VHP conveniently passes off this prejudice as the “sentiment” of all the Hindus.

“Resistance to queer identity”
The Supreme Court of Indiain its historic verdict of September 6, 2018, decriminalised homosexuality by striking down the draconian Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (IPC). The queer community in the country won its legal battle after a two decade longstruggle. This victory, however, is not the end of the struggle. It is rather the beginning of a new one. Shiva, a play about acceptance of alternative identities, is a representation of this struggle. The community still has a long way to go in terms of acceptance of their non-heterosexual identities. As Rashmi Patel wrote in Livemint, “Homosexuality and queer identities may be acceptable to more Indian youths than ever before, but within the boundaries of family, home and school, acceptance of their sexuality and freedom to openly express their gender choices still remains a constant struggle for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).”

According to a report in The Hindu, Dayasindhu Sakrepatna intended the play to build bridges for people with a “closed mindset” on queer sexuality, and move them into thinking about it humanely. The community, through its protests, discussions, and various events, and, most importantly, by stepping out of its urban mileu and into semi-urban and rural localities, has initiated an attempt to raise awareness among the people. The attack on Shiva shows that just like religious minorities, dalits, workers, and other marginalized groups the queer community in the country too are on the radar of the growing intolerance and hatred spread by the fundamentalist organisations.

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