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Letters to Brinda Miller – Axing of play ALI J at The Kala Ghoda Art Festival, Mumbai #censorship

Dear Director of the Kala Ghoda Festival,

Although it is heart warming that you cancelled the show with much concern for our “security and the best interest of the festival”, we wonder whether it is in the best interests of any public platform for the arts.

Apparently we fear terrorism. As the media and various governments feed to us a picturesque description of terrorists, we sometimes manage to lose perspective when, more often than not, there comes a group of people who oppose the Preamble of the Constitution by pledging to build a Hindu Nation. This group emerging from within the confines of the ‘secure’ society that we believe we live in seems ‘harmless’ at first sight. And why not? These people do not match up to that picturesque description of terrorism. But the illusion is broken when they threaten to not allow the performance of a play with a Muslim protagonist who might or might not bear references to the life of Jinnah. Is this not terrorism in its best disguised form? By complying with the demands of these anti-social elements, don’t you think an atmosphere of fear in a constitutionally democratic society is being fostered?

In the best interest of the festival, we urge you to hold your head high against this terrorism. The Kala Ghoda Festival has a long tradition of supporting the arts. Through the years it has created a platform and legacy which is unmatchable. It is a festival that artists from all over the country look forward to. It brings art directly on the street and in conversation with those audiences who otherwise do not have access to it. What better avenue can an artist ask for? Numerous artists have found in the Festival a platform from where their ideas and careers have taken off, owing to which they have created art which is fearless.

We urge you to uphold that fearlessness of an artist in a free society. We urge you to be a platform where multiple stories, including those which are heard the least, can be heard. We urge you to consider that your endeavour of supporting the arts also extends to the fearless exhibition of it. We urge you stand strongly in the way of any force that threatens to curtail it. We urge you to trust your audiences. For if they have the power to vote for their leaders, they must not be fed only those stories which make these terrorists happy.

We have had enough fear of moral policing. Of those who to attack minorities with complete impunity in riots and pogroms. Of those who perpetrate mass murders of dalits and other caste atrocities. We cannot now start fearing the art police as well. We have just about had enough. And we demand that the group performing ALI J be called back to the city and a performance be held with complete security for the group and the audience.

With the way things have unfolded, freedom has already taken a step back. And if we do not act now, it would be no one else but us who would be held responsible for being complicit with those forces that threaten freedom of speech and expression and democracy.

We urge you to take a stand. For the Arts. Not in support of these terrorists.

A caged bird sings for freedom. A free bird makes a song of its freedom. The bird has to keep singing.

 

JASAM (Jan Sanskriti  Manch); AISA (All India Students Association)

 

Dear people of JSM, AISA, KKM

I am extremely sorry about being compelled to cancel ALI J at KGAF’14

The Kala Ghoda Association is these days, in a very vulnerable position these days. We have our own matter in court. There is a certain group of people in the area who have opposed us in court regarding a “Silent Zone ” issue . They are extremely difficult and look for any excuse to attack us through the press as well as through their lawyers.

We have had to cancel our entire street programming

So far we have been successful in warding them off. This years edition  has been the most outstanding one  so far.

As you may know, most of us work in an honorary capacity for one of the best cultural event in India– arguably one of the largest in Asia too.
As Festival Director , I do my best to see that there is no disruption whatsoever- to the smooth working of the festival. We face similar issues each year and cannot afford to take any chances,especially since it is a free festival… we have a lot of security in the area – Mumbaikars feel safe here.  We cannot take a chance with  safety issues- and when the Mumbai Police direct us to stop a certain program, we have no choice but to comply.. Also- we hire privately owned venues for our various activities.  These  also feel threatened and therefore do not want to get involved.

Thanking You for your understanding

Regards

Brinda Miller

ear Brinda Miller,

We welcome your response. Although we do have a few concerns and proposals.

First and foremost, we must clarify; we salute the endeavour of Kala Ghoda Arts’ Festival for being a “one of the best cultural event in India- arguably one of the largest in Asia”. We understand and are with you in your struggles to keep the festival going. Yet we disagree with your response on many accounts.

It is our belief in the festival that stunned us when a mere apology was issued and the play was cancelled. The threat by the right wing organisations was an opportunity for us, as citizens of a democratic country who believe in freedom of speech for all of voices of dissent and critique, to hold our head up against the increasing threat of the Hindutva forces.

We quote – “As Festival Director, I do my best to see that there is no disruption whatsoever- to the smooth working of the festival. We face similar issues each year and cannot afford to take any chances, especially since it is a free festival… we have a lot of security in the area – Mumbaikars feel safe here.  We cannot take a chance with safety issues- and when the Mumbai Police direct us to stop a certain program, we have no choice but to comply. Also- we hire privately owned venues for our various activities.  These also feel threatened and therefore do not want to get involved.”

Although you speak earnestly out of great regard to the festival and its patrons, we cannot but ignore the consequence of an action elicited by fear. It is this fear inside of us that the anti-secular forces thrive upon. The result is more oppression out of giving in to the same fear. And we can see that all around us.

Recently, Penguin India has agreed to “recall and withdraw” existing copies of American academic Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. At present, the book is reportedly out of stock in book-selling websites, because of a similar threat issued by another such organisation.

But there have been instances of standing up against this fanaticism too. A Film Festival in Hyderabad which was showing and discussing a film made on Kashmir was militantly attacked last year. Film makers like Sanjay Kak were beaten up, the hard drive with the films stolen and destroyed. But the artists did not buckle down and went ahead with the festival. The festival was still not called off and discussions continued to an empty screen.

Artists and organisations who were not TMC sympathisers were not being given venues in Kolkata to perform. Finally, they came together and performed led by Gono Shonshkriti Porishod (JSM) in open spaces calling the event – Gono Shongeet Mela (People’s singing festival) addressing larger democratic concerns. They sang on, unintimidated.

At FTII, within the campuses of a central University, after the screening of Anand Patwardhan‘s Jai Bhim Comrade, and the following performance of Kabir Kala Manch, a group of ABVP youth brutally beat up students and organisers of the festival, for supporting the Dalit cause and thus being labelled ‘Anti-National’, ‘Naxal’. But organisations, artists came together against this crackdown, and performed in protest all over towns and cities in India.

And why go further than Ali J itself? Less than a week before KGAF buckled under pressure threats were issued by the same organisation for the same play in Bangalore in similar manner. A week before the play was to be performed on the 31st Jan and 1st Feb, they submitted a complaint at the Police Station and demanded that the play be stopped. But the Police cited legal procedures demanding a stay order for the stoppage, which this group obviously did not have. The exhibiting authorities (in this case, Rangshankara Theatre) lodged a complaint against the threat, sought police protection and they got it. The play was performed smoothly without any disturbances while the protesting group stood outside helplessly with nothing to do but engage in a friendly chat with the Police. This only shows how hollow and baseless their claims are.

What happened in Bombay is unacceptable. The Police acted with complicity. But by not raising a voice against that and taking a stand, and thinking that “we have no choice but to comply” is more of an invitation to these forces to continue inducing fear into our conscience. A wake up call is hence the need of the hour. And we are saddened to know that an organisation in your position has lost an opportunity to be the bugle blower.

The right-wing fundamentalist forces claim that they stand for the sentiments of the ‘people’. But they speak only for a particular section of which they are the self-proclaimed ‘protectors’. They infringe upon the rights conferred to us by the Constitution Of India. And unless we, as the ‘people and voices of free art come together and join hands against them, ‘freedom’ shall only be a word in the constitution of this country.

KGAF could have been the binding force here. The attack of the fundamentalist right-wing forces has only grown vociferous as the parliamentary elections are coming closer. We believe that there should have been another way of a befitting response to these right wing forces who are trying to hold us at ransom with their recurring threats of violent attacks. A response that would uphold and protect democracy within the Kala Ghoda Festival, a response that would uphold the expression of various voices within the growing atmosphere of terror that these regressive and fanatical forces are trying to engulf the country in! We believe all private groups, organisations involved in the KGAF should have been informed and together, we should have stood against these forces. This was an opportunity to uphold art, not just for Art’s sake…

We condemn the police for not providing security because in doing so it is reluctant of its primary responsibility and complicit with these terrorising voices.

We stand to disagree, that there was no disruption in the festival.  KGAF must not take pride in going ahead by bending down to such forces.

We propose, that all groups who participated at the KGAF must be urged by the Festival to come together to uphold the art it stands for, pledging against this growing threat of attacks on our freedom. We propose that they express solidarity by performing again with the play Ali J. These performances be held fearlessly in full public view with necessary security arrangements. It is only then that we can call ourselves artists; that we can assert our freedom and claim our rights.

 

JSM (Jan Sanskriti Manch)

AISA (All India Students’ Association)

KKM (Kabir Kala Manch)

JAPA (Justice And Peace for All)

EVAM (Evam, Chennai)

Anand Patwardhan (Film maker)

Sanjay Joshi (Cinema of Resistance)

Sanjeev Khandekar (Artist)

Avijit Dutt (Artist)

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