The art of censorship
The Punjab government is taking active control of plays staged at the Alhamra. What does this mean for art in the province and the country at large?
Though there have been steps taken to set up the arts councils in other cities of the Punjab the entire focus is on the city of Lahore and its Alhamra. It could also be that it is the provincial capital, and Alhamra has a long history that goes beyond the times when it was controlled directly by the government. It had built a reputation for itself in the 1950s and ‘60s, as a body that promoted the arts without compromising on its quality.
The primary area of interest seems to be the performing arts whether it is dance, music or theatre, but more and more meetings have been held regarding stage plays. Meeting after meeting,and subsequently bodies have been constituted and reconstituted for the purposes of improving the standard of theatre plays.The buzzword has always been that plays have to be cleansed of lewd jokes, repartee and double entendre. At the same time, in the recent past dance has been another sticking point with the censoring authorities. It became very popular on stage about twenty years ago, probably the only opportunity at that time for people to see it live on stage. The play in the theatre revolved round dance numbers that were uproariously popular and proved to be hits on the box office.
It has always been assumed that with state-run bodies normal rules of business should not be applied, since these bodies have funding and enough infrastructure and logistical support to operate in an environment that is free from the forces of the market. And if the primary consideration is to make the theatre enterprise liberate itself from the throes of popular taste, then this alternative route is a desirable one to take.
If by good theatre we mean “Sipahi Maqbool Hussain”, the play that Alhamra staged under the orders of the minister for information and culture then we can easily say goodbye to theatre in the country. If that play is a peep into what is seen as good theatre and an example to be followed then less said the better. The helm of arts appears to be in the hands of those who consider direct enactments built on patriotic and moral issues as the real raw material for theatre and performing arts.
One has seen scores of committees being formed amid much talk, the laying down of policy guidelines and then before it is implemented in any meaningful way the government either changes or falls and the entire exercised is then repeated, kickstarted and put in motion once again. The same homilies are repeated and the same good intentions mouthed before it all goes into a sleep mode while the prevalent practices, suspended for a little again comes back with little change.
The forces of the market cannot be ignored, wished away or swept under the carpet. They have to be taken into consideration or factored in because entertainment or the performing arts is show business as is clear from the term business attached to it. The commercial aspect cannot be dismissed, for then there has to be an alternative for financing the arts and with the expressed purpose of not wanting to get anything in return, especially in terms of financial gains.
The problem with this approach is that it becomes very difficult to separate the institutions from the government in power, while the government in power begins to see these institutions, its material framework and its logistical wherewithal as a means of spreading its own political agenda. The pressure from all sides of the ruling party is so much that even people with honest intentions are forced to use the government machinery for their own political purpose. And if run by bureaucrats who are at the mercy of postings and transfers of the minister in charge, it can be executed with relative ease
In conventional wisdom it would be a more feasible option if commercial theatre is not touched. In our effort to do something extra, specially purer or sanitized, we kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Such zealous efforts or drives usually result in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead what the proponents of good or meaningful theatre with good quality should do is to stage their own productions. These will have an edge because these will not be catering to popular taste.
Another step that has also been taken in the past is for the Alhamra-like institutions to extend all possible support to groups that do theatre. And the help can either be offering the infrastructure free of charge or even better buying the entire production, thus relieving the producer of the play from the responsibilities of balancing his own expression with popular taste.
In the past pre-censorship was the severest at the Alhamra and what was left for the directors and actors was some lifeless script. It happened that after the extreme and brutal censorship what was performed was different from what was approved. The actor’s adlib relied on their spontaneous reactions and improvisations to make the production more appealing. The desire to over-skin the arts through censorship always results in a reaction of sorts which is more than equal and opposite. If there has to be an obsession with censorship, it should be about the political discourse and the manner it plays itself out in the media and more formal political platforms these days.