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By Zafar Aafaq / Clarion India

NEW DELHI – Anger and resentment are brewing among theatre artists in Karnataka since July 3 when a Bajrang Dal mob forcibly stopped a live performance of a play, ‘Jotegiruvanu Chandira’, midway claiming it to be ‘controversial’. The right-wing activists stormed a theatre and held the audience hostage while some of them clambered onto the stage and disrupted the play. They snatched microphones from the performers and forced the 150-strong audience to leave the hall.

Muslim Characters

The reason for this hooliganism was that they (the rightwingers) could not digest the portrayal of Muslim characters and interfaith marriage which is said to be the theme of the play. Reports said soon after forcing their entry into the theatre, the Bajrang Dal men led by one, Sridhar Achar, started intimidating the audience asking them to join them in their protest amid chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’  and other slogans associated with Hindutva.
Under the circumstances, the organisers of the play, Rangabelaku, a theatre group at the Veerashaiva Kalyana Mandira, had no option but to give in to the the demands of the hoodlums and call off the play at a time when it was at its climax.

The incident, which took place in Anavatti, a village in the Shimoga district, has left the theatre community in the southern state in deep shock and anguish. They had never anticipated that the saffron activists could target them. Though Hindutva activity is not new to this part of the state, the saffron brigade never targeted artists or theatre in the past. Civil society and the media was equally baffled by the unwarranted assault. They all condemned the attack in no uncertain terms.

Play Based on Communal Harmony

Jotegiruvanu Chandira, the play in question was written by Jayant Kaikini, a lyricist and writer. It has a social message of communal harmony and coexistence. The Kannada play is basically an adaptation of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, a story by Joseph Stein. The plot of the story runs around a Jewish milkman and his daughters, who wish to marry for love in Russia of 1900.

The Kannada version of the story is set in post-Independence India against the backdrop of the partition of the country and the ensuing mass migration. Bade Mian, a baker, is striving hard to marry off his three daughters. In an unenviable socio-cultural situation, he allows them to marry their respective suitors notwithstanding the outside influence. His youngest daughter opts for an interfaith alliance.

This is not the first time that the play was staged. According to reports in the media, it has been staged many times over in the past two decades, once even by inmates of the Mysore jail. The last time the play was staged was in mid-June in Shivamogga itself, but there was no resistance from any quarters.

Freedom to Marry

Kotrappa, a senior member of the Rangabelaku team, told The News Minute that he watched the play for the first time in 1997. “It is a play that evokes emotion,”  Kotrappa was quoted by the website. “It talks of a man who resists society’s influences and allows his daughters the freedom to marry who they want. The fact that communal feelings are common to the point where plays like this are stopped is testament to the times we live in.”

The police is accused of turning a blind eye to the nefarious activities of the Bajrang Dal, a group that has close links with the Bharatiya janata Party (BJP), the party that is in power in the state.

Attack on Freedom of expression

The Havyasi Rangakalavidara Okkoota, an artists’ group, sought strict action against the men who stopped the play even as the organisers had taken prior permission to stage it.
“This is a dark day for democracy. The act that a play was disrupted on-stage is an attack on the freedom of expression that our constitution guarantees. The threat to push the artists off the stage if they did not stop the play is a criminal act,” the group wrote in a memorandum submitted to the Shivamogga District Commissioner.

“There are no words to express the anguish one feels on learning that the audience of 150-odd people in the auditorium did not protest against the stopping of the performance that was underway,” noted theatre personality Raghunandana S was quoted by TNM as saying. “The Department of Kannada and Culture, the Karnataka Nataka Academy, and the Anavatti unit of the Kannada Sahitya Parishat that had sponsored the performance are all answerable to the people of Karnataka for not taking action against the fascist thugs, even after four days since the incident,” he said.

The critics of right-wing politics see the incident as part of the larger Hindutva politics that has an assured pace in recent months in the state under the BJP dispensation. Months back, some Bajrang Dal men forced Muslim traders in Shivamogga to pack up from the Marikamba Fair.