January 26, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we discuss the ban on the play ‘Chintamani Padya Natakam’ in Andhra Pradesh. We then look at the link between police suspensions and alcohol in Gujarat, among other news.
Also, we wish you a Happy Republic Day. We are on leave today, so the newsletter will not be published tomorrow. Enjoy your day!
📰 FEATURE STORY
Andhra Pradesh’s ban on Chintamani play
From Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, an anti-war play from 411 BC, to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in the 50s, banning theatre plays has always been an in thing. While some were embargoed because of a compulsorily prudish zeitgeist, simply blaming the public doesn’t paint a clear enough picture. For centuries, rulers, administrations, and the no-nonsense nationalists have banded together in hopes of a perfectly dogmatic world, and critical theatre productions throw a heavy wrench into that work.
This is what makes Andhra Pradesh’s recent ban on Chintamani, a play written in the 1920s, so strange. The stage play wasn’t proscribed because of a differing ideology. It was disallowed because of its offensive content. Content that, apparently, could be taken out without changing much of the story’s core. What we’re dealing with here is an age-old question: does the punishment fit the crime?
Chintamani Padya Natakam is a stage play written by the social reformer, cinematographer and playwright Kallakuri Narayana Rao in 1920. For over a century, the Chintamani has been revered by audiences, especially in the rural parts of Andhra Pradesh. Usually, the play is performed throughout the year at fairs, village and temple occasions, and other social events. Clearly, it’s a big part of the state’s cultural identity, so what got it banned?
Well, it all comes down to representation. The story revolves around the courtesan Chintamani who also happens to be a devotee of Lord Krishna. Mostly focusing on the evils of prostitution and greed, the story arc ends with Chintamani rescuing herself through salvation. Thus, adding to the literary legacy of the pure heart trope where one’s devotion to a higher being is enough to correct your wrongs.
The problem arises when we look at the characterisation of Subbi Shetty, one of Chintamani’s many visitors in the play. Subbi Shetty is supposed to be a trader from the Arya Vysya community who comes as a source of comedic relief for the audience. The only thing he does is lose all his money due to his need to regularly visit brothels. Over the years, the dialogues and mannerisms attached to Shetty have been exaggerated so much that the real Arya Vysya community sees it as an indignity.
The Arya Vysya community, a Telugu merchant class, has been demanding a ban on the play since 2020. And finally, on 17 January 2022, the Andhra Pradesh government issued orders to disallow Chintamani Natakam across the state. Predictably, the Vysyas were elated at the news. But artists and several theatre personnel see this as an unnecessary overreaction to a problem that can, otherwise, be easily solved.
Way too offensive to fly today
It doesn’t matter if you think Twitter’s turned the youths into an army of snowflakes or you’re simply sensitive to the socio-cultural changes in society. You know that things that were okay to say or do even 10 years ago aren’t appropriate anymore. And that’s something the Chintamani Natakam fans need to get used to. Over the years, the moral underlining of the play kind of got lost in an attempt to make it more approachable to an audience. Punchlines were punched up, the objectionable and crass dialogue was added, and harmful caricatures of entire communities were exaggerated to the point of no return.
When it comes to representing Arya Vysyas, Subbi Shetty’s incompetence was really all they had. Everything about him was subject to ridicule. Even the makeup used for his character is steeped in archaic notions of class as charcoal is commonly used for his face to depict him as “ugly”. Through all of this, what we stand to lose is the dignity of the theatrical piece and reinforce some rather harmful and racist stereotypes. According to PhD scholar and founding member of the Progressive Theatre Group, Shaik John Basheer, the modern adaptations of the play have “turned out to be downright vulgar.”
You see, keeping an audience’s attention during a village fair that often features a lot of external stimuli is difficult. And a foolproof way of overcoming that hurdle is by filling a presentation with sexual innuendos and over-the-top characters. Unfortunately, adding a “recording dance” – a form of erotic entertainment that stems from folk dance – to the play does take away from its noble message. Even in 2014, the police in Andhra Pradesh had to stop giving permits to productions of Chintamani as certain lines and songs used in it were triggering violence in villages.
Way too extreme to make sense
While it is hard to miss the vulgarity and racist caricatures in the recent adaptations of Chintamani, the original text features nothing of that sort. According to the President of the Andhra Arts Academy, Golla Narayana, “the language used by the author in the original play has nothing objectionable.” The play was simply written as a reflection of the norms and mores of the time, i.e. 1920s pre-independent India. In 2002, when the Arya Vysyas community moved the High Court to get the play banned, the courts ruled in favour of Chintamani as the original text lacked any profanity.
This is why the state government’s move to ban the play has been met with mixed reactions. Most culture champions believe that a blanket ban is simply too harsh a sentence. Since all the objectionable content in the play has been added to it in later productions, directing those companies to remove the same should not be too difficult. In fact, most artists even believe that the Arya Vyasa community is well within its right to object to the portrayal of Subbi Shetty in recent iterations of Chintamani. But indefinitely prohibiting a piece of Telugu history and culture is not the best way to deal with it.
Concerns over the future of creative expression in the state have also been raised. It seems like officials find it more fruitful to hastily drop a controversial topic instead of critically thinking about it. Unfortunately, the precedent being set here is quite alarming. Other observers believe that this issue doesn’t just stop at curtain call; they sense a whole political ploy afoot. Turns out, despite the Arya Vysya community’s relatively small population, they still hold a lot of financial clout in the state. This, politically speaking, makes them a vital asset to the current administration. Thus, even after years of attacking Chintamani to no avail, the play gets banned in all of Andhra Pradesh.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Andhra Pradesh’s blanket ban on Chintamani Padya Natakam is necessary.
b) Andhra Pradesh’s blanket ban on Chintamani Padya Natakam is too extreme.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
The Indian republic was an ambitious project of multiple ideas and identities. Can it be salvaged?
For the Left:
How India had a tryst with democratic and republican values since Vedic ages
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Closing FIRs against farmers (Haryana) – Three months after farmers withdrew their protests against the Centre’s farm laws, state authorities have closed 87 FIRs against a total of 278 cases registered against farmers. The state began the process to withdraw cases and other FIRs also. According to the police, many of the remaining cases will be heard in a week and for some, it will be in April or May. Among the 278 cases, no one has been charge-sheeted. Even for those who have been, the state approved the withdrawal of several cases.
Why it matters: Farmer leaders claimed that court notices were still being sent to protestors even after the withdrawal of cases. They said nearly 48,000 farmers have had cases lodged against them in Haryana during the agitation. Most of them were for breaking police barriers and blocking roads. Some were even charged with sedition and ‘attempt to murder.’
Kannada mandate suspended (Karnataka) – The state government released a circular stating that students who didn’t want to take Kannada in their undergraduate courses won’t be compelled. Students who have signed up now have a choice to choose another language. The original order was challenged in the high court by the Samskrita Bharati (Karnataka) Trust, Bengaluru, and three other institutions. They said the move goes against the goals of the New Education Policy (NEP). The court said this decision requires more consideration.
Why it matters: The state Higher Education Department issued an order that undergraduate students must learn Kannada as one of two languages. Students from outside the state, and those who didn’t study the language in their schooling, would’ve had it as a functional language. The timing of the order was inconvenient as some colleges had already started classes for the first semester. Some students said they found it difficult to learn Kannada and wanted to switch to another language. However, some university officials are disappointed that students won’t learn the local language.
Another market loan (West Bengal) – For the third time this month, the state has taken a loan from the open market suggesting the state’s economy is not in good condition. The RBI said West Bengal borrowed ₹3000 crores from the open market, bringing the total for the month to ₹6500 crores. Due to lockdowns and restrictions imposed over the past year, revenue generation has declined. For the state to meet its expenses, it needs to borrow money. Also, it’s not able to meet its non-plan expenditure based on poll promises made by Mamata Banerjee.
Why it matters: The state borrowed twice before this month – ₹2500 crores on January 12 and ₹1000 crore on January 18. Last month, the state borrowed twice – ₹2500 crores on December 14 and ₹4000 crores on December 24. In the initial months of the pandemic, revenue plummeted, and the state raised around 35,000 crores from the open market. West Bengal isn’t the only state to take this option. As the economy struggled, more than a dozen states have borrowed money.
Police and booze (Gujarat) – In the dry state of Gujarat, alcohol is turning out to be a bane for the careers of some policemen. 53% of the more than 475 cops on the suspension list are there due to alcohol-related issues. Some have been suspended for failing to capture liquor consignments. Others are on the list for running illegal liquor and gambling operations.
Why it matters: The police department plans to crack the whip when it comes to cops being negligent on those who violate prohibition rules. The Monitoring Cell of the state police seized ₹39 lakh worth of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL). In response, the state home department is mulling the suspension of the surveillance staff of a police station that the raid’s jurisdiction came under. The high number of cops on the suspension list adds to staff shortages. The state police have a sanctioned strength of 1.2 lakh, but 25,000 posts are vacant.
Self-sufficiency vision (Tripura) – For the first time in the state’s history, the Urban Development Department started a pilot project to provide skill training on driving auto-rickshaws for 52 women. The scheme comes under the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM). The aim is to ensure women become self-sufficient and help them earn a better livelihood. Once they complete the training, they’ll be given a license and can apply for a loan and get a subsidy to buy an auto-rickshaw.
Why it matters: Last July, the Union ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) released ₹14.16 crores in the first phase of the NULM. The state has been proactive in proposing policies that empower women. Last August, Union Minister for Rural Development Giriraj Singh said he was impressed with how the state was playing a role in empowering women, especially through SHGs. Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Deb Varma previously said women in Tripura can be self-reliant, speaking on the importance of employment and banking services for women.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
53% – The annual income of 20% of the poorest Indian households declined by 53% in 2020-21 from the 2015-16 level. The data was revealed in a survey done by the People’s Research on India’s Consumer Economy (PRICE).