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Act With Honour


The Stage, Dec. 31, 2004

Photo: Behzti

In the wake of Birmingham Rep.'s cancellation of a play following Sikh protests, artistic director of Mán Melá Theatre Company Dominic Rai discusses the tension between artistic freedom and religious beliefs.

The continuing controversy about Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti (Dishonour) has raised a number of important questions about artistic freedom and the extent to which plays in Britain can be censored by people who feel their religion is being insulted.

The play - which incidentally was a sell-out at the Rep's 100-seat studio theatre - is a black comedy which became a sensational news story during the season of goodwill, when larger theatres were enjoying full houses with pantos and Christmas shows. At the time Behzti was the only Asian play showing in the U.K.

About 400 Sikhs demonstrated peacefully outside the theatre about what they believed was a mockery of their faith before a breakaway group of young people attacked security guards, broke windows and set off fire alarms inside. Five policemen were hurt while three arrests were made. Eight hundred people who were in the theatre building at the time had to be evacuated.

Two days later the theatre announced it was cancelling the production because of fears for the safety of its staff and theatregoers, who were mainly children, their parents and grandparents. Sikh leaders warned the theatre that they could not guarantee against further violence. Bhatti had to go into hiding after receiving death threats.

Behzti has upset the Sikh religious establishment because of its setting in a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Any play which depicts swords being brandished in a Sikh temple should not lead to objections because Sikhs carry swords for ceremonial purposes. What is unacceptable to many Sikhs is the depiction of rape in the temple.

In fact, Sikh leaders have no issue with the content of the play - just the setting.

Britain has a 340,000-strong Sikh community, 40% of which is under the age of 25 and which is concentrated in London and the West Midlands. The community has been searching for a stronger voice after many Sikhs suffered abuse following the 9/11 terror attacks on America. Some members of Britain's white community thought the turban-wearing Sikhs were Muslim Afghans plotting against the West.

Of course, the Sikh religion is entirely different from Islam and the Sikh community has proved itself to be the most open and liberal of the South Asian communities in Britain. Its contribution to music, comedy and dance is well known.

Second generation British Sikhs have not sidestepped serious issues in drama. Blood (1987) by Harwant Bains was like a Jacobean tragedy in its depiction of communal violence, including necrophilia, in the Punjab of 1947. Parv Bancil's Ungrateful Dead (1996) dealt with gang culture in Southall and showed a gang member unknowingly raping his own sister.

In 2000, I developed and directed The Cornershop, a triple bill by three new British Asian writers representing the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities. I wonder whether these plays, which were all controversial in their own way, would provoke a similar reaction to Behzti if they were staged in the current climate. One of The Cornershop plays, Yasmin Khan's Resham (Silk) dealt with honour killings in Britain's Muslim community from the woman's perspective. It featured a scene in a mosque where a grandfather prays before killing his granddaughter.

Bhatti, aged 35, is herself a Sikh and is no stranger to dealing with difficult subjects. Her first play, the tragic-comedy Behsharam (Shameless, 2001) looked at the lives of two British Sikh girls involved with family feuds, prostitution, racial tension and drug abuse.

The honourable thing for Sikhs to do now is to let Behzti be performed and to also assure the safety of Bhatti. One only has to look at Sikh history to find that they have an honorable record in fighting for civil rights, including those of other communities. They also fought oppression in India, first against the Mughals and then against British colonial rule.

People used to Britain's long tradition of freedom of artistic expression were shocked by the decision to cancel the play. Alice Mahon, Labour M.P. for Halifax, said 'art had been censored by the mob.' She said it was unacceptable that the protesters could decide what everyone else was allowed to watch.

British intellectuals, including poet laureate Andrew Motion and director Richard Eyre, signed an open letter to The Guardian calling for the play to be staged, stating: 'It is a legitimate function of art to provoke debate and sometimes to express controversial ideas.' Salman Rushdie, who famously fell foul of the Islamic religious authorities for his novel The Satanic Verses, called on the British government to do more to ensure artistic freedom.

Neal Foster of the Birmingham Stage Company also commented: 'Freedom of expression is more important than health and safety. I think it is one of the blackest days for the arts in this country.' Foster has offered to stage the play himself but will not be doing so at the request of the author.

Behzti is now to be staged by London's Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. The venue wishes to stage the play in the name of free speech and artistic integrity. Spokesman Ramin Gray said: 'Irrespective of the quality of the play, I think we need to see it.'

It may be possible to stage the play in the safety of Sloane Square. Staging it somewhere like the Watermans in West London would be a different matter altogether. Yet Bhatti is one of several interesting voices in theatre that we need to hear.