The Performance of Protest in a Post-COVID World: A Theatre Critic’s Perspective from India

Deepa Punjani*


Just before COVID-19’s first lockdown in India, there were huge protests against a new arbitrary and discriminatory citizenship law. The performance of protest and resistance which has had a long tradition in India was an integral part of these protests. The lockdowns that followed targeted the protesters and the performers. This article deals with these protests and the performers, stressing on the symbiotic relationship between art and politics. It elaborates on the live-ness and immediacy of these performances that cannot have an online or a digital parallel. 
Keywords: Hussain Haidry, Aamir Aziz, Roger Waters, Sambhaji Bhagat, CAA NRC protests, Surendra Gadling, Stan Swamy, Suvarna Salve, Bhima Koregaon

The Pandemic-Induced Performance

In keeping with COVID times, on June 8, 2020, the International Association of Theatre Critics organised its first online conference to discuss and debate digital theatre and issues surrounding it from the academic to the aesthetic, from the phenomenological to the philosophical. While these inquiries are not new to theatre, which is forever the most evolving and transforming among the genres of the performing arts, the onslaught of COVID-19, and its continued development, is an event that demands we push beyond the recent iterations of digital theatre.

To do this, we will need to be expansive in our inquiries as well as be courageous. We will also have to restrain, perhaps even deliberately so, our aesthetic response to the performance per se, and critically examine the larger ramifications of the pandemic in the context of theatre in particular and the performing arts in general—we must critique holistically and with understanding of contextual barriers.

We will need to view the pandemic-induced performances as not merely showcases of varying creativity, but as expressions that are necessarily confined by the pandemic, no matter how ingenious these may be. This confinement, which we share as viewers too, is not entirely obvious, and can even appear to be compensated and glorified by the Internet’s ability to connect humans far and wide.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to emphasise that I refer not to videos of live performances that allow us to experience performances which we may not otherwise have the opportunity to watch live, or which can prove to be a valuable visual archive. The sophisticated technology accompanying videography of certain live performances is not an outcome of the pandemic, as we know, but has instead existed for several years now. Here again, we are necessarily watching mainstream performances most of the time, with little or no access to a variety of theatre as it unfolds against unique sociocultural backgrounds while taking on multifarious forms.

The post-COVID performance, on the other hand, is a creature spawned by necessity, as well as by the itching and irresistible need to be digitally connected. Technology is an enabler, and there will be no dearth of imagination as a new generation of digital theatre artists and their interlocutors emerge. AI and cybernetics may even re-imagine theatre and live performance in surprising and innovative ways.

Anything is possible, but here is the rub.

Even this theatre must be experienced in the same space at the same time for it to be legitimately called theatre. A screened theatre performance is a mediated, hybrid endeavour at its best and a negotiation at its worst. We may speak of the spirit of such experiments, but for now we would be remiss to sideline or ignore the social and political paradigms of the pandemic amidst which a range of these “new” performances have emerged.

The pandemic is effectively the largest social re-engineering project of our modern history. This seemingly bloodless feat would not have been possible without the digital technology which stopped being benign long ago. The pandemic has thus simply reaffirmed autocratic tendencies emanating from the vested corporate interests of tech oligarchs to State repression in which surveillance is paramount. Thus, the data barons and the State work together, and even reinforce each other, in spite of the frictions they need to constantly manage. Meanwhile, our basest fears are now regularly exploited under the pretext of our health and our security, while political polarisation is actively encouraged and supported by social media.

Nowadays, no consensus is the best consensus, and dissenters are merely troublemakers.

More significantly, as we are aware, the pandemic’s draconian measures have led to a rippling effect wherein entire artistic ecosystems have collapsed or are barely surviving, thus leaving all those employed in the arts and entertainment sectors fundamentally vulnerable. A health crisis has fast turned into an economic crisis, where recovery is as unstable as it is unpredictable. Even beyond the arts, entire populations have been left desperate and hungry, while public health systems in countries worst hit by the pandemic, including India, are brutally exposed. This is then a tragedy of gargantuan proportions amplified by the decline of democracy, the subversion of independent institutions such as the media and the judiciary, the proliferation of fake news and the relentless suppression of dissent.

In a scenario such as this, theatre critics must fundamentally realign their priorities. Deep questions must be fearlessly raised even though the answers may be uncomfortable or not immediately forthcoming. As observers of the shows we watch and write about, we must work towards consolidating our voices as part of an independent and free media that speaks as much of the amazing possibilities that theatre offers to being its fieriest anti-status quo voice.

The View from India

On March 22, 2020, India went into its first COVID lockdown, which was not only arbitrary and hasty, but also unimaginably inhumane. The first victims of this shutdown were the migrant workers, many of whom died in the long walk to their homes. This has now come to be regarded as the greatest displacement of people with the greatest suffering since the Partition.

As lives and economies continued to collapse in subsequent lockdowns and the health system broken, the mainstream media barely reported on the various emerging crises and, instead, targeted a Muslim order known as the Tablighi Jamaat as a super spreader of the virus. The role of this Jamaat now stands vindicated by at least one judgment of the Bombay High Court, but the atmosphere was already vitiated by communal tension and hatemongering.

Meanwhile, something more sinister had begun to unfold.

In the months preceding the first lockdown, several protests had erupted across the country against a new citizenship law. Known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, the new law not only violates the progressive and humane ethos of the Indian Constitution, but it is also arbitrarily discriminatory against Muslims, not to mention the upheaval and difficulties it will present to the average Indian at a humongous cost to the exchequer. The law, as well as its accompanying exercise, undertaken by the Executive in the form of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), has been challenged in India’s Supreme Court, but has not been taken on board. The Act has also not been stayed until the court can hear it.

Needless to say, this measure caused societal angst and anger, and there were raging protests. The most famous of these protests took place in the capital city, Delhi, and was predominantly led by Muslim women from an area known as Shaheen Bagh. The word “Shaheen” means falcon and has now come to be seen as a powerful metaphor for freedom in this struggle, resonating words from Allama Iqbal’s poem “Sitaron Se Aage Jahan Aur Bhi Hain” (“There Are Worlds Beyond the Stars”): “Tu Shaheen hai, Parwaz hai kaam tera, Tere samne asman aur bhi hain” (“You are a falcon/ Your task is to fly/ Before you there are other skies as well to cover”).

Shaheen Bagh, which has also captured international attention, thus came to epitomise not only the immediate struggle, but also revealed an amazing fortitude and political engagement by ordinary Muslim women hitherto unseen in post-Independent Indian history. This was then doubly unsettling for the far-right Narendra Modi-led government, and further riled it as the protests coincided with Donald Trump’s visit to India from February 23–25 February, 2020.

The tour event Namaste Trump was in reciprocation to the Howdy Modi event in Houston, Texas, in September of 2019. Both were PR exercises on steroids. Namaste Trump began in the city of Ahmedabad in the State of Gujarat, the home State of Modi and from where he began his ascent in politics in 2001. In 2002, the Godhra riots, effectively a pogrom of Muslims in Ahmedabad, happened on his watch as Chief Minister of the State. Now, even as he was away hosting Trump, North East Delhi erupted into one of the most gruesome riots since Godhra, openly encouraged by extremist Hindu politicians of his government. The riots disproportionately affected Muslim families as their homes, mosques and schools burned; hundreds were injured, and more than fifty people lost their lives.

As the lockdown took hold, in the most twisted of ironies, many residents of North East Delhi, along with the activists supporting their cause against the CAA and the NRC, found themselves implicated in fabricated cases by the very police force that was meant to protect them but instead colluded with the politicians and the rioters. Many are in prison and have still not been granted bail.  

Other reprisals followed.

On June 25, 1975, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi proclaimed a state of national emergency that lasted 21 months (March 21, 1977). The order bestowed upon the Prime Minister the authority to rule by decree. Photo: Wikipedia

The year 1975 is regarded as the darkest phase of Indian democracy, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi installed the Emergency, yet today the country is in the throes of an undeclared Emergency. In 1975, it was the arrogance and insecurity of one leader who happened to be a sore loser. The situation now, by no means comparable, is entirely different, vicious and pernicious. Its roots are founded in fascist ideology, and it promotes a vision of an India that is completely antithetical to the democratic and progressive ethos that has guided the Constitution of the country at Independence.

The lockdowns thus became a laboratory in tyranny.

As I write, the country is witnessing a massive protest by farmers against three farming legislations that were literally forced down with no regard to the democratic processes. Very unpopular labour laws have also been made during the lockdowns, while the protestors are conveniently branded as “terrorists” or “separatists.”

What better than lockdowns then to round up these “anti-nationals”—all enemies of the State.

The Performing Artist as Enemy No. 1

It is well known that a repressive State fears its artist the most. Entire dramatic licensing laws in India, first passed by the British colonial government and inherited by independent India, revolve around the State’s anxiety to control and censor the theatre artist. These laws are playbooks of an oppressive regime of censorship, regarded as seditious by the State. They feed right into the controversial law of sedition, one that is still very much alive in the penal statute of India.

The CAA and NRC protests preceding the COVID lockdowns saw an outpouring—even a flowering of art. These were performances marked as much by passion as by brilliance. While these performances reaffirmed India’s great tradition with protest performance, these were also catalysts in an awakening of political consciousness among younger generations.

Evocative and inspiring poetry emerged.

From his poem “Hinustani Musalman” (“Indian Muslim”), Hussain Haidry recites, “. . . Mujhme Gita Ka Saar Bhi Hai/Ek Urdu Ka Akhbar Bhi Hai/ Mera Ek Mahina Ramzan Bhi Hai/Maine Kiya Toh Ganga Snaan Bhi Hai . . .” (“The Gita and the Urdu newspaper both reside in me/ I fast for Ramzan but I have also bathed in the Ganges”). The poem is a lyrical accomplishment, underlining the pluralistic and multidimensional culture of India in which a Muslim person’s identity is not a religious identity alone, but a more unique identity of a Muslim who is Indian first and foremost. For that matter, no Indian identity is monochromatic—there are nuanced layers to each and every one.

Aamir Aziz recites from his “Sab Yaad Rakha Jaayega” (“Everything Will Be Remembered”) “. . . Tum Zameen Pe Zulm Likh Do/ Aasman Par Inquilab Likha Jaayega . . .” (“You write injustice on the Earth/ We will write revolution in the sky . . .”). Images from the dastardly attacks on students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in January 2020 are embedded in this YouTube video. A portion of the poem in an English translation was recited by Pink Flyod’s Roger Waters at a protest in London condemning the arrest of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, in February 2020.

Dalit and anti-caste activist and performer Suvarna Salve of the Samta Kala Manch was recently labelled as a habitual offender by the Mumbai police. The police sought a surety for an absurd amount of five million rupees (approximately 75,000 U.S. dollars) from her for “good behaviour” when she participated and performed at a protest in solidarity with the students of JNU who were attacked. Performing artists like Salve are doubly under threat on account of their art, as well as their marginalization, within a deeply hierarchical and unequal, caste-ridden Indian society.

Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer, has been in prison since 2018. He had been closely associated with the theatre group Avhan Natya Manch in the 1980s and 1990s, which was known for its progressive performances. As a lawyer, Gadling has represented many human rights defenders. He is not alone in his repression for speaking truth to power.

Surendra Gadling. Photo: Web

In 2018, a Kafkaesque plot was set in motion whereby Gadling was put behind bars under a draconian law known as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Four others were arrested, with Gadling and other arrests subsequently followed.

The latest arrest in this series of what is known as the Bhima-Koregaon case is of eighty-three-year-old Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who has been standing up for the rights of the indigenous people of India known as the adivasis (the original inhabitants). Those who have been arrested are academics, scholars, lawyers, teachers, journalists and activists. Not only have they been consistently denied bail, but they have also been subjected to some of the most callous and inhumane treatment in prison, such as being denied sippers and spectacles.

Photo: Web

Performing artists Ramesh Gaichor, Sagar Gorkhe and Jyoti Jagtap of the Kabir Kala Manch have also been arrested as part of the same plot whose genesis lies in an event called the “Elgaar Parishad” (“Victory Council”), which took place at the end of December 2017 in the city of Pune.

Bertolt Brecht was prominently named in the First Information Report (FIR) that came to be filed.

Brecht’s verses from The Good Woman of Setzuan were allegedly sung by Dalit rights activist Sudhir Dhawale and were considered seditious. Dhawale is a poet and a founder of the left-leaning cultural magazine Vidhrohi (The Rebel).

“We are not here to entertain you. We are here to disturb you.” This is one of the classic lines often roared by Sambhaji Bhagat during the course of his performances. His performance is steeped in the Shahiri and folk culture tradition of the State of Mahrashtra.

Lok Shahirs (People’s poets) such as Sambhaji Bhagat have sung and performed some of the most inspiring and stirring words in history. Their art derives from progressive strains of thought that speak against the evils of caste, inequality, poverty—of human rights, of women’s emancipation and always of revolution. They follow in the footsteps of visionaries like Jyotiba Phule and leaders like Babasaheb Ambedkar who used performance as a powerful tool to communicate to the masses through their Satysashodak and Ambedkari jalsas, to address social issues through a unique performative style amalgamating storytelling, song and music.

These are then performances whose expression is in the live and in the immediate.

Even if these were to be screened or digitally reimagined, it would simply not be the same performance. Besides, a lot of people that these performances speak to, simply do not have the digital access that we may take for granted. COVID-19 has in fact sharply exposed the digital divide. Recently, a young Dalit woman who was a student at a prestigious college in Delhi committed suicide because she could not afford a laptop to participate in online classes. Her caste status perhaps inhibited her from reaching out to her teachers, or maybe she was simply overwhelmed by the pandemic’s brutal effect on her family’s finances. Needless to say, this kind of despair is frequent amongst Dalits who have no caste and are therefore even worse off.

Performing at the People’s Square

In an Indian context, the kinds of performances described above are rooted in spatial prerogatives described as the nukkad (street corner) and the chauraha (square). These are secular places where people meet and talk; ideas and thoughts are exchanged; protests take place; sometimes, even revolutions happen. Not only are these people-oriented, public spaces fast disappearing, but they are also now being actively discouraged by a hardened executive and a reluctant judiciary.

The performance of resistance saw a renaissance during the CAA and the NRC protests preceding COVID-19. The protest sites were transformed into improvised art and literary hubs with makeshift stages. The performances were inspired by the protest and, in turn, inspired the protest. Their symbiotic relationship is a throbbing and pulsating depiction of the people’s square, which can have no digital equivalent.

In the Q&A section of IATC’s online conference, Maria Shevtsova from the U.K. raised a very important question about the interface between art and politics, the lack of democratic thinking and even greater isolation that the pandemic has brought about. This question stayed with me and compelled me to re-assess my own enthusiasm towards digital theatre. In a way, then, this article has been an attempt to highlight some of the more recent artistic endeavours and performers from India that demonstrate the great synergy between art and politics—a synergy which cannot translate to cyberspace.

The pandemic, on the other hand, has been vastly instrumental in surreptitiously and sneakily targeting artists among others.

While we can independently view the new wave of digital theatre for what it is, and as an exigency of our times, it is imperative nevertheless for us to contextualise this period within the larger social and political framework that has become fragile to say the least and, in the process, has given a fresh lease of life to authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies.

History shows us that autocratic and fascist regimes do not resist art and theatre. They only control it and legitimise it in their lexicon. Some of this may even be technically brilliant or daringly subversive. We will be witness to the whole range, no doubt. In this scheme, digital theatre can either be compromised or be audacious. It can submit to a predefined narrative, or it can transgress it. In any case, it will be carefully monitored, which is also why the present government in India wants greater control over digital content.

We must be aware that we are deliberately being encouraged, and sometimes even forced, to lead digital lives to the extent of exposing our bodies to invasive technology—all this, euphemistically, for our own comfort and security. We are being cajoled to part with the freedoms we have come to cherish.

This we must remember though: our streets and our art will be the poorer for it. 

*Deepa Punjani represents the Indian National Section of the IATC and serves on the IATC’s Executive Committee. She has been involved with theatre and theatre criticism for several years. Her M.Phil thesis (2004) focussed on two, prominent Indian women in theatre in the context of feminism and gender on the Indian stage. Deepa is a lawyer and her legal work includes supporting and helping performing artistes in areas of law ranging from criminal law to intellectual property rights law.

Copyright © 2020 Deepa Punjani
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