Bhopal, Aug. 19: A play exploring Rabindranath Tagore's differences with Mahatma Gandhi on the ideology of nationalism was dubbed "anti-national" by the BJP culture police during its staging in Bhopal last evening.
BJP supporters heckled Bhanu Bharti, the director of the play Tamasha Naa Hua, while the convener of the party's state culture cell, Rajesh Bhadoriya, threatened a police case.
"The theme is blatantly anti-national. I shall take the matter up with the higher authorities," Bhadoriya said before mouthing what he would have deemed the ultimate insult: "This play should have been staged in Pakistan and not here."
Two days earlier, alleged pressure from BJP activists in the name of "Indian culture" prevented the staging of Kneel Down and Lick My Feet, a satire by Japanese author Amy Yamada which, in its director's words, has an "adult and mature theme".
Both controversies have a familiar ring in a BJP-ruled state whose government has repeatedly got involved in adventurism over "Indian culture" and "nationalism". These range from a directive for Vande Mataram to be sung at all government and local body offices to compulsory Surya Namaskar for schoolchildren.
Tamasha and Kneel Down were part of a drama festival organised from August 16 to 19 by final-year students of the National School of Drama, Delhi, at Bhopal's premier arts and culture centre, Bharat Bhavan.
Tamasha shows a group of theatre actors rehearsing Tagore's play Muktadhara, which pits a universal humanism against the idea of nationalism.
At Tamasha's beginning, a discussion starts among the actors on Muktadhara's relevance, which leads to a debate on citizens' freedom in the current political, technological and cultural context. After serious arguments and counter-arguments, the debate remains inconclusive.
Bhadoriya was in the audience as the actors exchanged heated dialogues that mentioned the Farakka Barrage and its effect on Bangladesh's agriculture and fisheries, and cited how the Baglihar dam on the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir was causing water scarcity in Pakistan.
As soon as the curtain fell, a furious Bhadoriya threatened to drag the director to the police.
Bhanu Bharti, who has over 50 productions to his credit, said he was not afraid. "The play has been staged many times across the country. I see nothing objectionable in it," he said.
Anil Sahi, who heads the drama division at Bharat Bhavan, sought to underplay the protest and said: "Some people in the audience felt some dialogues reflected anti-national sentiments but we clarified the matter and tried to dispel their apprehensions."
Sahi made the clarifications to Bhadoriya after the play but, sources said, failed to pacify him.
Kneel Down portrays the life of three women who work at an S and M (Sadist and Masochist) Club.
While the organisers claimed the play could not be staged because of the "sudden illness" of three key actors, local BJP leader Shiv Shankar Pateria insisted that he had come to Bharat Bhavan "prepared" to stop the play.
"It was good that the organisers saw reason. I would not have allowed this derogatory drama to be staged at Bharat Bhavan. This was a matter of the dignity of our sacrosanct Bharat Bhavan," he said.
Bhadoriya too said that after seeing the brochure, which contained a synopsis of the play, he had decided to protest. "How could Bharat Bhavan give permission to stage a play based on sex?" he asked.
Sanjay Upadhyaya, director of the Madhya Pradesh Drama School, accepted that key actors had been indisposed but said without elaboration that "there were other issues too".
The National School of Drama's production manager, Parag Sharma, too said that "circumstances" were not favourable for staging Kneel Down.
The play's director, Sarika Parikh, said: "The theme of the play may be mature or adult but there is nothing obscene in it. Kneel Down is based on the delicacy of human emotions and there was much beyond sexuality."
In April 2007, singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan had to call off his concert midway at Bharat Bhavan when Bajrang Dal activists stormed in, alleging his songs were "vulgar" and that the "blare" was too loud.
The Madhya Pradesh education department has banned fashion shows in schools and girls' colleges saying these are alien to "Indian culture". The state government has declared a dozen cities and towns as "holy", banning the sale of liquor, meat and eggs there.
In November 2007, when M.F. Husain's Meenaxi ' A Tale of Three Cities was to be screened at a film festival in Bhopal amid protests, state culture minister Laxmikant Sharma had told the audience: "I don't know how it has been approved; I'll see how it can be stopped."
Eventually, the film was screened at the intervention of chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan.
The BJP, however, is not the only party guilty of cultural policing.
In the run-up to the Bengal polls last year, the Hooghly administration had blocked the staging of a Bengali play based on George Orwell's Animal Farm ' an anti-communist allegory ' citing a complaint from a former CPM member of Parliament.
Then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee later described the administration's action as "improper".
The 1975 Hindi film Aandhi was banned for sometime over alleged similarities between the lead character and then Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.