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Industry: Theatre Comment


Censorship - Life after Behzti
15th July, 2005

by Dr Sarita Malik
Writer and Researcher

Historically, certain expressions of artistic freedom have given rise to accusations of blasphemy and offence but in recent months this clash has appeared to heighten. Dr Sarita Malik investigates the politics of race, religion and censorship in the arts.

Few could have predicted that ‘Behzti’ (‘Dishonour’), staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (the Rep) in December 2004, would become one of the most publicly and privately talked about pieces of live art in decades; the landmark case in the arts and censorship debate.

Those who protested against the play – a new piece of writing based around issues of hypocrisy and located within the context of a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Britain – accused the writer, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, and the theatre of degrading their religion.

So, what was it that repositioned a small play by a British-Asian playwright, into a piece of living theatre that was staged so prominently in the protests outside the Rep and in subsequent (British and international) public debates? Whether or not Behzti was fairly criticised is not the question I want to ask here. Nor do I want to get too preoccupied with the ‘freedom of speech’ versus ‘freedom to offend’ conundrum.

Instead, I want to try and unpack a bit of what the surrounding discourse has revealed in relation to race, religion and censorship, with specific reference to South Asian arts.


The boundaries of expediency
During the furore, there were broad concerns that the protests and the ‘forced’ closure of the play mid-run, indicated that artists were under threat from those who opposed their work on moral or religious grounds. Of course, artists through time have probed difficult issues and sensibilities, and have been celebrated for utilising the imaginative value of the artistic experience to do this.

For some, the fear of this possibility being inhibited was further intensified by the Government’s measures to combat incitement to racial and religious hatred in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill. The Behzti episode also began to draw comparisons with other challenges to artistic freedom, most obviously with the Rushdie Affair in the early 1990s and, more recently, with the protests by an alliance of Christian groups against the BBC screening of ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’.

A more pertinent comparison could have been drawn with Parv Bancil’s ‘Ungrateful Dead’ in the 1990s.

The post-Behzti experience has so far provided little evidence that these fears have been justified. The Rep, for example, continued with its season of new plays, which each attracted quite racially mixed audiences (as Jonathan Church affirms overleaf).

The affair has, however, begun to challenge the particular strain of liberal thought that presides in the arts. This is based on the internal and decontextualised ideal that the subsidised arts would never go ‘too far’, particularly in a culturally diverse, liberal society.

The prevailing intellectual idea within the industry is that the dangers of stifling freedom of expression far outweigh the potential for unacceptable material – and, moreover, that it is better to risk offending a handful of people who ‘will always complain’ than to inhibit freedom of speech (the lynchpin of liberalism in the arts). This principle may now need to be reviewed, as communal pride within certain faith groups is growing and, it would appear, so is a heightened awareness about how these groups are being publicly represented.

(This is an issue that also extends to the media; the BBC recently published its 2004 Impartiality Review into religion, which suggested an increasing defensiveness felt by Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims when it comes to how their religions are portrayed.)

The typical arts sector response to so-called ‘religious fundamentalism’ has been a more widespread ‘liberal fundamentalism’: a position that suggests that any artistic representation has absolute licence because it is an expression of art derived from a creative impulse. An interrogation of this may not be as daunting a prospect as recent discussion has suggested, since there are already deep political contradictions in how ‘freedom of speech’ is shaped.

The fact is that art, on the whole, does operate within boundaries of political expediency and we do live in a society actively dictated by codes (both legal and self-regulated) around what is and is not acceptable. One need only think of age restrictions on DVDs or theatre performances, of censorship by ownership (of the press, for example) or of web-content filtering systems in public sector organisations to find examples.

Interestingly, some venues – typically those with a larger Asian audience profile – might not have risked producing or even platforming Behzti had the ‘anti-Sikh’ claims been anticipated. The reality – led by both funding anxieties and political forces – is that, in any case, ‘controversial’ plays such as Behzti are currently the exception rather than the rule when it comes to supporting ‘Asian arts’.

The fallout is that South Asian audiences are currently being kept sweet – literally – on a diet of ladoos and Bollywood-style frivolity, with clones of comfortable mainstream formulas such as ‘Bombay Dreams’ or ‘Goodness Gracious Me’.


Institutional challenges
Alongside these broader concerns, the Behzti episode has also revealed that the gap between policy and practice in culturally diverse arts has yet to be bridged. Culturally diverse arts policies are still confused in how they distinguish between their artistic and political questions, aims and agendas. For example, the origins, implications and processes behind the cultural production of the work tend to become secondary concerns to who is ‘fronting’ the work (e.g. the writer or performer).

Crudely speaking, this becomes much more about box-ticking than about real joined-up thinking with culturally diverse artists and audiences. It becomes more about blanket celebration than about being critically equipped to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples of culturally diverse work. We cannot escape the fact that sometimes a Black or Asian produced piece of work (like any other) lays itself open to mixed reactions or is interpreted as offensive precisely because of its lack of coherence or muddled artistic agenda (one of the criticisms that has been levelled at Behzti).

We all know that the audience for a piece of art is one that cannot be wholly determined; there is no one set of audience responses. And so, in our strained arts organisations, the tangible delivery of ‘cultural diversity policy’ becomes the priority in how outputs are measured and evaluated – easier to commission an art-piece by six Black or Asian artists than to guarantee satisfying six Black or Asian audience members!

Any analysis of the Behzti moment needs to situate it within the broader arts industry context. Arts Council England (ACE) has been engaged in efforts, primarily through decibel and Eclipse Theatre, to provide a platform for culturally diverse artists. ACE is also currently trying to establish frameworks for South Asian Theatre Touring, which includes forming venue networks and undertaking audience research.

Set against the local and national strategic context it is clear that much of the debate around the rights and wrongs of Behzti was only part of the story. Broadsheet press headlines like “Theatre’s role is to challenge religion” and “Censors in the stalls” and a repetition of the basic anti-censorship line that “We can all look away from art that offends us” made little or no reference to the broader framework, or the artist and audience development issues at stake.


Building solutions
Behzti exposed the fragility of certain relationships in the arts; in general, there remains a deep disconnection and disengagement between minority ethnic communities and ‘our’ gallery, museum and theatre spaces. The response produced by an audience member does relate to the context in which the work is presented. It is important then to observe that the main contention over the play was that it was set in a Gurdwara, one of the few shared, community public spaces where Sikh communities do feel integrated.

Given that cultural identity is derived from a series of identifications, each being shaped and created all the time, there is a strong argument that venues need to acquire ‘expert’, bespoke and up-to-the-minute awareness of the different ethnic communities that they are referencing or trying to build relationships with.

Asked about the key issues for Sikh communities prior to the staging of Behzti, such an expert might have mentioned Government proposals for the incitement to religious hatred Bill, the turban campaigns in France, the rise in prejudice and attacks on Sikhs post 9/11 and the 400th anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy scripture).

Awareness of such concerns – indicating a probable rise in defensiveness, honour and communal pride – might, in turn, usefully add context, influence timing and inform approaches to this kind of relationship-building.


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Dr Sarita Malik is a researcher and writer in the field of race and the cultural industries based at Brunel University. She is the founder of Research Culture Ltd. and the author of ‘Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television’ (Sage 2002).
sarita@researchculture.com

This article was first published in ArtsProfessional magazine in issue 101, July 4 2005 - www.artsprofessional.co.uk




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