Indian Play About Muslim Identity Canceled Over Fears of Violence

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Karthik Kumar, actor and director of the play Evam Karthik Kumar, actor and director of the play “Ali J,” said he would upload the play to the Internet.BANGALORE, India — An Indian play on the Muslim identity, “Ali J,” had a strong start last year, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August to good reviews during its 25-day run and then making its first domestic appearance in October at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai.

But since then, “Ali J” has caught the attention of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, whose stated mission is to establish a Hindu nation. It has argued that the play would “hurt the feelings of Indians” and could lead to religious violence. And now, the play’s producers say that with election season in full swing, it has become impossible for anyone to attend an “Ali J” performance in India.

“Ironically, I have offers from a Pakistani theater group to show it in Karachi, and another U.K.-based group too,” said Karthik Kumar, who directed the play and has the title role.“Ali J” is a one-hour monologue by Ali, a Muslim everyman on death row for a crime he is accused of committing during the Gujarat religious riots in 2002. In the play, Ali recalls the major events in his life, exploring what it means to be a Muslim in today’s India and his identity outside India.

The play encountered its first hint of trouble in January, when the Ranga Shankara Theater in Bangalore staged the play, but only with police protection. Then in February, the popular Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai canceled “Ali J” because festival organizers could not get extra security. On March 9, shows in Chennai, India, were canceled after the police commissioner there issued a letter to Evam, the Chennai theater group behind the play, advising it to desist from showing the play to “maintain law and order.”

Knowing the risks, Arundhati Raja, the director of the 200-seat Jagriti Theater in Bangalore, decided to put on “Ali J” anyway, arranging for police protection for the shows that had been scheduled for last week. The police had agreed there was nothing objectionable in the play, Ms. Raja said, but they changed their minds at the last minute.

“An hour before the first show on Wednesday, policemen came into the theater and told us to stop the play and leave the premises,” she said.

Ms. Raja said one of her friends with connections to the Home Ministry of Karnataka State talked to people in the ministry, who said the play could not be staged before the national elections this spring because it might cause religious violence.

“We are being forced to kowtow to fundamentalists,” Ms. Raja said. “We want to stand up for the arts, but we have no support from police or the spineless government.”

However, the Karnataka home minister, K.J. George, denied any knowledge of the incident and said he had not issued any instructions to cancel the play. Kamal Pant, the additional commissioner in the law and order division for Bangalore, also denied that the police had stopped the performance.

On its website, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti noted the most recent cancellation of “Ali J,” saying, “Hindus should offer gratitude at feet of God for this success.”Mr. Kumar said he had given up on staging a live performance in India and would instead put “Ali J” online through Vimeo on a pay-per-view basis, in an attempt to recover the approximately $10,000 he has invested in the play.“I’d be happy to do the play without protection,” he said. “But I can’t act if the police actually stop us in the middle.”

Shekinah Jacob, who wrote the play, denied that her work was unpatriotic but also argued that this was immaterial. “Even if it contains passages criticizing the government, I have the right to say what I want,” she said. “Apparently it’s fine if we make art with songs, dances and running around trees, but the minute we say something important, there are protests.”Ms. Jacob has won a Charles Wallace Trust scholarship to study in Britain and hopes to discuss the play further there.“At Edinburgh, we had people crying, laughing, Indians and non-Indians. It will be interesting to see where ‘Ali J’ goes from here. It could go anywhere,” she said, just not in India.

(KAVITHA RAO-Kavitha Rao is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore. Follow her on Twitter @kavitharao).

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