A celebration of dissent


‘Words have been uttered…’ is a novel show that celebrates dissenting voices in India and outside, who have taken human history forward, writes Prof. Avinash Kolhe.

Any democratic country when it begins its journey, moves from freedom to more freedom. This is what was expected from India too. The artist community enjoyed tremendous freedom during Pandit Nehru’s regime. Even Mrs. Indira Gandhi, despite her dictatorial tendencies, was quite open to criticism. But in the 21st century, instead of more freedom, we are witnessing restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Every day, we read about a film being banned here or some film being removed from International Film Festival there, or a cartoonist being arrested. It seems that we are living in regressive times. Taking this reality into account, Sunil Shanbag, a senior Mumbai-based theatre director and producer has put together a novel show, Words have been uttered…

This show comes under the banner of Tamasha Theatre and is a centrifuge of dissent, and a celebration of dissent. Sunil Shanbag, Irawati Karnik and Sapan Saran have scanned the global scene, past and present, to identify the dissenters who challenged the system during their times, and suffered for their views, opinions and positions. No wonder the show has Galileo, Bob Dylan, lady saint Janabai, Lal Singh Dil and many others like them. Shanbag has used poetry, readings from plays, video footing, dance and songs to drive home this point. It is a group presentation which lasts for about two hours with a small interval. Sunil and his team have used Hindi or English translations for their play.

Of dissenting voices, then and now
Words have been uttered… starts with a piece from Brecht’s play The life of Galileo in which Galileo (1564-1642)is forced to withdraw his discoveries about Sun being stationary and earth rotating round it, a scientific truth contrary to Biblical wisdom. Galileo argues in favour of the heliocentric system of Copernicus, a heretical stance that resulted in his house arrest for the last eight years of his life. Though Galileo submitted to the orders of the Church, nearly 350 years later the Roman Catholic Church in October 1992 accepted that Galileo was right. But then he had to suffer for his views. Since then Galileo has become an icon of dissenters all over the world.

One of the rebel poetesses from medieval Maharashtra, Janabai had declared ‘I have let my veil drop to my shoulders/ Bare-headed I shall walk through the market/ In my hands the cymbals, on my shoulder the veena/Let who will try and stop me now/ Come wish me well, anoint my wrists with oil/ Jani says: I have become your whore, Keshava/ I have come now to wreck your home’. Such rebellious voices set the tone of Shanbag’s play.
Then comes Bob Dylan’s world-famous song ‘Times they are a changing’ which is sung and played on guitar. Dylan’s album was released in 1968 and this song immediately became the anthem of counter-culture movement raging thorough Europe and USA. The poet said “Come together ‘round people/wherever you roam/ And admit that the waters/ Around you have grown….for the Times they are a changing/ Don’t stand in the doorway/ Don’t block up the hall….It’ll soon shake your windows/ And rattle your walls/ For the times they are a changing”.

The show comprises of 28 pieces culled from various sources with one common theme: dissent. It could either be challenging religious power or state power. These ‘naysayers’ took the human history forward.

The title of the play comes from a famous poem in Punjabi by Lal Singh Dil that says ‘words have been uttered/ long before us/ and will be/ long after we are gone/ chop off every tongue/ If you can/but the words/ will still have been uttered.’

Then there is a long poem by Sachin Mali ‘Dear Democracy’ in which Mali exposes the dirty side of democracy which is nothing but a sham democracy. This poem was performed by Hemant Hazare and was an able rendition.

Any discussion on Indian dissenters cannot be complete without the mention of Ismat Chugtai and Sahir Ludhiyanvi. And when one mentions Ismat Chugtai the Lihaaf Trial held in Lahore court comes to mind. She wrote this short story in 1942 and was taken to court for depicting lesbian relationship.

Nearer to our times came an excerpt from late Prof. G P Deshpande’s play Uddhawasta Dharmashala. In this Marathi play, the protagonist Prof. Vishwanath Kulkarni, a Marxist, is being tried for unionising the non-teaching staff of the university. Remember the Moscow Trials in the 1930s or the McCarthy era in USA in the 1950s? These are modern-day inquisitions where a dissenter is hauled over the coal for holding a contrary opinion.
No wonder things have not changed much for the dissenters. Even today, artists/writers/painters are either forced to apologise for their work or leave the country. A writer like Perumal Murugan decides to declare his own death. The likes of Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi are getting killed in broad day light just because they refused to walk with the crowd and continued to question the dominant mood of the times. These dissenters, through work and exemplary courage, hold the light for generations to come. May their tribe multiply.

The team that has mounted this show includes: Director, Sunil Shanbag, Artists, Ayesha Raza Mishra, Jaimini Pathak, Mansi Multani, Nachiket Devasthali, Iravati Karnik, Yasir Iftikhar Khan, Sapan Saran, Hemant Hazare and Rohit Das.

Prof. Avinash Kolhe

Prof. Avinash Kolhe is Asst. Professor in Political Science at D.G. Ruparel College, Mumbai.