The accidental Arrest of an Artist #mustread

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Issue No: 52    September 1, 2012  
THE ACCIDENTAL ARREST OF AN ARTIST- RAMU RAMANATHAN
Two Kabir Kala Manch artistes were arrested on 12 May 2011 by the state under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and branded Naxalites. Ramu Ramanathan, a Mumbai-based playwright and a member of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, reports.
Knowing this, we meet the Maha Maharajaof the State in his home-cum-office at Varsha. Our agenda: to request the state government to withdraw false charges against Shahirs (singer-poets) from the Kabir Kala Manch and ensure them a right to perform.The security is polite. The Maha Maharaja is a statesman. Pleasantries are exchanged. Tea and poha are served. Anand Patwardhan boots up his Apple Mac and showcases excerpts from his documentary Jai Bhim Comrade on a white-washed wall. On screen, Sheetal Sathe and co-members of Kabir Kala Manch mobilise audiences in the name of Ambedkar and Phule. There are some sharp witticisms about the abject poverty and slum discontentment. The 15 minute screening is concluded.

For one nano-second, there is darkness.

The Maha Maharaja returns to his seat; the meeting with the leading lights of the defence committee is re-convened.

The point is made: the state should promptly withdraw charges against Deepak Dengle and Sidharth Bhosale of the Kabir Kala Manch. Also Sheetal Sathe, Sagar Gorkhe and Sachin Mali who are underground due to the fear of beatings and a longish jail term, be provided an opportunity to come ‘overground”. Above all, artistes be allowed to perform.

The Maha Maharaja agrees that human rights are meant to be defended. Then we chit-chat about the proliferation of Naxalism into urban centres in the state; and how it should be curbed in a humanitarian way. This goes on for 35 minutes.

Promises are made. We exit.
Time passes.
A bit slower for Dengle and Bhosale in jail.
Meanwhile the official record of the above meeting with the Maha Maharaja goes missing.

The game is afoot.

There are other mini-skits in the other power-corridors. We hear stories of another Maha Maharaja in the cabinet who is casteist; and yet another who abuses all and sundry.

There’s a story about one who is surrounded with a raft of telephones; none of which are connected. On these phones this particular Maha Maharaja conducts Jean Cocteau type monologue to no one in particular. But we the people in front of him applaud for his prompt support.

Sadly, prompt state support which we need is absent. For the two Kabir Kala Manch members, Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle who are behind bars at Arthur Road central prison. For every court date, they are brought to Sewri court for the hearings with heavy police escort. They were arrested on 12 May 2011 by the State under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and branded Naxalites.

The court hearings are proceeding inside a bleak-looking Sewri Court. The security is humongous and they keep a strict vigil. One day, the judge does not turn up. On others, the legalese and the administrative wrangles seem insurmountable. Plus there is the lack of funds to mount a serious challenge.

Meanwhile as the saying goes, time passes faster, backwards …

Kamayani Bali Mahabal, a founder member of the Kabir Kala Manch defence committee says: “The main trouble, it seems, is re-kindling the kind of public opinion that was present during Dr Binayak Sen.”

Film-maker Anand Patwardhan adds: “KKM members are Dalits from poor families who do not carry weapons. Their crime is they sing songs. Had a mainstream musician sung the same songs or uttered the sentiments through songs, I doubt the State would have branded them Naxalites and forced them to go underground.”

The long arm of the State is now reaching out to KKM family members like Sheetal Sathe’s mother, who has lost her job at the Ruby Hall Clinic in Pune, where she worked as an assistant “due to the 24/7 scrutiny of the state”.

It’s become a matter of desperate survival; and the prize money of Rs. 51,000 that Patwardhan was awarded for Jai Bhim Comrade is rapidly depleting.

A portrait of Kabir Kala Manch

Kabir Kala Manch appeared on Pune’s theatre scene in 2002. This is the once intellectually proud city that now practices an indifference to politics. The group members sang songs and staged agit-prop plays. They repudiated aesthetics for politics of the stage.

In February 2005, Kabir Kala Manch members got a crash-course in radicalism in the form of the heavy weights of the “vidrohi movement” like Bharat Patankar, Kishore Dhamale, Kishore Jadhav, Dhanaji Gurav and Sudhir Dhawale.

The vidrohi chalwal in its heyday was a disingenuous counter-code to the mainstream. The mainstream Sahitya Sammelan was held at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. It doffed its hat to Bal Thackeray, Manohar Joshi (chief minister of Maharashtra) and the Shiv Sena, while the Vidrohi Sammelan hosted in Dharavi was the literature of the Dalits, Muslims, workers and women. While the main meet was funded by the Shiv Sena-BJP government, the parallel meet was self-funded. The main sammelan was a meet of people with “shendi” (hair knot) and “janva” (religious thread), the parallel sammelan was that of people with “lathi” (stick) and “ghongdi” (a rough cloth). While the main sammelan served upma and sheera (publicised on the front page of most Marathi newspapers), the Vidrohi Sammelan served beef and pork. The Vidrohi fine-tuned their tradition to mock. They protested in front of the World Social Forum in 2004, and pooh-poohed it as the “social world’s forum”.

Kabir Kala Manch’s “mission” became an acquired taste. The arresting language which its urban shahirs belt out, tackle themes like anti superstition, gender equality and education, and have the usual appeal of that which is deemed street theatre.

Illegal art

Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat (a radical poet and political activist) who mentored the group in “the art of composing songs and a few performance tricks” says: “Kabir Kala Manch is a talented group made up of young Dalit boys and girls. They sing political songs. But they also combat social evils and promote inter-caste marriage.” He points out how Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali had an inter-caste marriage for which there was a lot of opposition.

Bhagat continues: “Ambedkarites are today’s bad boys in Maharashtra. All that we say or do is under surveillance.” Bhagat also known as the “Maharashtra’s Gaddar” knows what he is talking about. His play Shivaji Underground in Bhimnagar Mohalla, has run into a spot of bother with the State. The play which has had 37 stagings in the past two months in Mumbai and Pune has been denied a show in Parbhani Zilla Parishad and likewise in Sangli because of its “provocative content.”

Bhagat says, “We refused to show the script to anyone and went ahead with the show. The response was stupendous. Today, this is the problem with theatre in Maharashtra. Gratuitous art is the norm. Anything other than that means indictment either from the State or from angry demonstrators.”

The play has a simple intent; i.e. to re-claim Chattrapati Shivaji from a militant right-wing mascot to being “a Raja of the Shudras” and highlight his administrative abilities. The musical play directed by Nandu Madhav (who plays Harishchandra in Harishchandrachi Factory) transpires in the here and now. Shivaji is no more and while Yama is escorting his atma back to Swargalok, he goes missing. The musical piece performed by 17 farm workers from Jalna frequently lacks narrative coherence which it makes up with a pastiche of the absurd, and focuses on who owns Shivaji and why. This is a dense biography of Maharashtra’s tallest warrior king and, in spite of the occasional Powada thrown as dramatic device, no historical liaison is left unexplored to its furthest implication.

Bhagat says he had a lot of misgivings about staging the play since it would be denied a genuine run of shows due to its “Jai Bhim” tag.

Unsurprisingly the play has become “a critically acclaimed hit”; and that has muddled the plot.

As Sunil Shanbag, a veteran director who has grappled with all types of theatre censorship says: “Maharashtra is well endowed with methodologies and means to prevent plays that irk the State’s peace of mind.” So on the one hand the Culture Department and its cronies will say the show must go on, come what may. On the other hand there are the permissions and NOCs and clearances from the state office cultural secretary; NOC from BMC after paying venue charges and deposits; BMC show department’s NOC; fire brigade NOC; PWD electrical and stage compliance report; collector Mumbai for entertainment tax clearance after pre-payment of entertainment tax; police station NOC; RTO – NOC; RTO bandobast charges; DCP Zone; Rangbhoomi Permission for script and lyrics; censor board clearance; police station permission in the ward; and 33 other licenses.

The point is, no other state in India is so empowered. This means, the State can declare every single live performance “illegal” on a technicality.

This is the main reason, Maharashtra has witnessed a longish saga of “banned” plays: Keechak Vadh by K. P. Khadilkar, Sakharam Binder and Gidhade by Vijay Tendulkar, Mee Nathuram Boltoyby Pradeep Dalvi, Bedtime Story by Kiran Nagarkar, Yada Kadachit by Santosh Pawar, Avadhya by C. T. Khanolkar, Golpeetha by Suresh Chikhale… The list is endless.

Presently, the play Ek Cahavat Sandhyakaal faces a ban in Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) auditoriums because of its vulgar content which is deemed suitable only for men, and not permitted for women. This means exclusive shows for men only audience. Next in line is a ban on plays that depict scenes of tobacco products and gutka consumption. This move has the backing of local parties and the mayor of the city.

For some opaque reason, there’s a cry from certain quarters to include Shivaji Underground… to this list.

None of the rules make sense anymore.

Bad brutality v/s good violence

The shows become chaotic. The performances seem to make no head or tail to ‘we, the people’.

With Kabir Kala Manch’s frequent allusions to democracy’s failures, oppression, and domination of one caste over the other, it was on the State’s radar. When Sheetal Sathe sang about how Ambedkar said if the Constitution did not give people justice — political, social and economic — his people should overthrow it, the State started to act. It’s bad brutality v/s good violence justice — that’s the explanation from the civil rights camp.

The State counter-argues, based on a confessional statement under section 164 of the criminal procedure code of how members of the Kabir Kala Manch had an affair with the Naxalite ideology of the CPI (Maoist) who indoctrinated them. The charge: training camps in Pune’s Khed taluka, lecturing in support of imprisoned Angela Sontakke and others, rubbing shoulders with revolutionaries and visiting campuses and bastis with “a message in the service of a cause”.

When Deepak Dengle meets us at Sewri Court, his literary inspiration is still not exhausted.

He hands me a poem, Inquilab Chaiye. In the poem he seeks in art a fulfillment that had eluded him in life. The poem is in Hindi and has a rudimentary rhythm. He sings the first mukdha.

Ek moothi baandho reh baandho
Ek moothi baandho re doston
Bas ek mukka chaiye
Aur ek dhakka chaiye
Inquilab chaiye doston
Inquilab

The police battalion gather around Dengle to eavesdrop. They are bemused.

Meanwhile suspected women Maoists sympathisers lodged in Mumbai District Women’s Prison in Byculla are brought to the Sessions Court at Sewri by a posse of policemen and policewoman. These are “the dangerous Maoist sympathisers”: Angela Sontakke, Sushma Ramteke, Anuradha Sonule, Mayuri Bhagat, and Jyoti Chorghe.

They had been arrested in Pune by the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) in April last year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.

Two of the young girls (one of them is indisposed) talk about their work in Nagpur where they staged plays in colleges and universities including a play on Einstein, the anti-superstition drive, singing songs.

The last play they staged was about Bhagat Singh for their fellow inmates in Byculla Jail. They describe the show and the stage-craft and the response from the jail authorities. This is the same jail where they say they were assaulted in April, and punished with solitary confinement because they chose to highlight the problems in the jail. Their books which included a biography on Mahatma Gandhi and a pamphlet on prison rights were confiscated.

Susan Abraham, legal counselor says: “This is in complete violation of their basic rights as under-trials, and indeed artists.”

But no one is listening.

And in this way the show goes on.

Click here to read a piece about Kabir Kala Manch that appeared in TEHELKA

Click here to sign the petition

This piece is a sincere request for funds to support the legal trials of KKM members plus the families of KKM members. For further information on how to do so, please send an eMail tokkmdefence@gmail.com

 

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