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Black Day in U.K.'s History of Art?


The Times of India, London, Dec. 22, 2004

Photo: Behzti (Honor)

In an unprecedented and unexpected showdown between Britain's powerful and networked artistic communty, a leading British theatre company has told The Times of India it blames sections of the country's unruly and violent Sikh community for 'opening the door' to a disturbing and unwarranted censorship of theatre, books, novels and paintings.

Philip Compton, administrator of the Birmingham Stage Company, which was prepared to weather Sikh fury and stage the controversial play Behzti [Honor], told The Times of India on Wednesday it would no longer run the play because its author Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's life was threatened.

Compton, whose theatre wanted to stage Bhatti's play after it was forced to close at another leading, 100-year-old theatre in the central English city of Birmingham, said, the Sikh threats of violence suggested 'any minority group will be in a position to dictate especially to British live entertainment.'

The Birmingham Stage Company's decision to drop its planned performances of Behzti is seen to be a watershed in Britain's perception of the rights and responsibilities of its several-million strong minority communities. Compton said it was probably the first time in British theatrical history that an ongoing performance was pulled for reasons of 'health and safety' of the audience and actors.

The only other, if rather remote, parallel is thought to be the enforced abandoning of Perdition, a 1987 London play that enraged the Jewish community and was pulled before it even opened.

Meanwhile, in a statement obtained by this paper, the Sikh Federation, which is seeking registration as the U.K.'s first and only Sikh political party, insisted Britain's 350,000-strong Sikh community was overwhelmingly 'law-abiding and in favour of freedom of speech, provided it is within the law.'

The Federation's chairman Amrik Singh Gill said Bhatti's play, which depicts sexual abuse and murder in a gurdwara, was obviously breaching the code of acceptable conduct and that Birmingham's 'Repertory Theatre knew full well it may be seen as abusive and insulting to Sikhs.'

The Sikh Federation's remarks are the first in a 96-hour period since an appalled Britain learnt that 400 Sikh protestors had vandalised the Repertory Theatre and forced the premature - and apparently permanent - closure of Bhatti's play. The play's closure has prompted anguished debate over the merits of allowing British minority communities free rein in policing the arts.

Meanwhile, Compton of the Birmingham Stage Company said the Sikh violent protests at the weekend had been the 'blackest day in the history of arts in this country.' He said his organisation had been prepared to stage Bhatti's controversial play in a somewhat forlorn attempt to safeguard Britain's increasingly-endangered tradition of freedom of expression.

In a remarkable unity across communities, British Punjabi poet Roshan Doug lambasted British minorities' desire for 'Bollywood, slushy, sentimental gloss' rather than a more realistic 'expose of certain communal anomalies, certain injustices that were (and are) clearly visible in some parts of the Asian community, especially in its treatment of girls.'

'This consists of such subjects as the abduction of children abroad for the purpose of marriage of convenience, sexual abuse against young girls, incest and rape in Asian families.' Doug, who is Britain's first Asian poet-in-residence at the very theatre now being lambasted for staging Bhatti's play, said he himself had previously been a victim of the self-censorship that afflicts U.K. Asians.

'I wanted to depict that strange relationship young Asians have with cultural suppression on the one hand and freedom of expression on the other,' he recalled, adding that in 1995, he was nudged by his publisher to drop a poem potentially offensive to Sikhs.

'I have regretted it ever since,' said Doug, even as his words fanned the white hot flames of communal-mainstream tension across western Europe's first officially multi-cultural country.