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Industry: Theatre Comment


Censorship - life six months after the Behzti controversy
15th July, 2005

by Dr Sarita Malik
Writer and Researcher

This is an edited down version of the full article.

Few could have predicted that the play Behzti, staged at the Birmingham 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.

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.

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. 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.

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
Culturally diverse arts policies are still confused in how they distinguish between their artistic and political questions, aims and agendas. 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 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!


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. 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.

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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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