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‘We Are Storytellers…Stop Censoring Our Stories’

The play 'Somayanam', performed at Pondicherry University, challenged ancient notions of female chastity and was not based on the Ramayana. However, this incident raises questions over how free we are in exercising our right to freedom of speech and expression.
Pondicherry University's Performing Arts department. Photo: Abhiram K Suresh.

Trending on Twitter, flashing on news channels, faces in the spotlight, and DMs flooded. This is the unexpected fame surrounding the artist-performers of Pondicherry University’s Performing Arts department students, due to their involvement in the play ‘Somayanam,’ which was performed as part of the World Theatre Day festival ‘Ezhini 2K24’ on March 29.

Yet, behind this buzz, a different story brews. Surrounded by fear, the students yearn to be left alone.

I have witnessed the play and it’s disheartening to witness every word of the story twisted, each line blurred to fit a narrative, turning a student production into a controversy. The students are hurt to see that the essence of the play was altered, leading to harassment.

A backstory, straight from the artists’ mouths, is warranted. However, amid threats, nobody is willing to speak openly.

Women’s empowerment and challenging ancient notions of female chastity

On March 29, students performed ‘Somayanam’ on stage. It was initially praised. However, it soon became the centre of controversy for hurting religious sentiments.

Let’s clarify. In the words of its director and writer, Pushparaj, a first-year student:

“It’s not [adapted from the] Ramayana. Repeating this assertion is tiring to hear. No journalist, writer or anyone bothered to inquire with me about this. From childhood, I’ve questioned stories I hear and watch. Through various mediums, I’ve raised queries, including in this play as well, adopting the improvisational style of Therukoothu.”

‘Somayanam’ questioned patriarchal norms through Therukoothu, challenging ancient notions of female chastity. It questioned why a woman’s virtue hangs on chastity while men get away so easily. This play delved into the deep-seated patriarchy that has been penetrating our society for centuries.

As an audience member, I affirm this.

He further added, “The story is set in the Brazilian forest, and all the characters existed within its depths, shaping their food culture, including discussions on a food item. It [the play] has been misinterpreted and taken out of context.”

The next day, on March 30, cries of ‘Mocking Ramayana’ surfaced, misconstruing select clips on WhatsApp by the ABVP student wing of Pondicherry University. They were saying, “Mocking the Ramayana in the name of creative liberty is not acceptable.”

However, as earlier mentioned, the play did not depict any version of the Ramayana.

So where did this assumption come from?

This, despite a disclaimer issued before the play began: ‘All characters are fictional, and any resemblance is coincidental.’

How free are we in exercising our right to freedom of speech?

Let’s simplify it: A love story is a common theme, often mirrored in various narratives like Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu, among others. Hence, a coincidental resemblance doesn’t necessarily imply any deliberate representation or adaptation. And so it was for this play.

The play did not even name any of the characters as Sita, Ravan, Hanuman. However, some of the performers tagged with these names are being mocked and harassed to no end.

The next day, while another play, ‘Kottayam ’17’, was being performed, by another student production, ABVP students disrupted it with chants of ‘Jai Shree Ram,’ falsely claiming ‘Somayanam’ was being performed again.

The ABVP protesters also demanded the removal of the ‘Somayanam’ poster from the department where it was put up, which caused unnecessary tension. The performers didn’t wish to accept this, so they countered. Why accept such demands when nothing wrong was done?

The ABVP protesters also demanded the removal of the ‘Somayanam’ poster from the department, where it was put up. Photo provided by author.

This incident raises questions over how free we are in exercising our right to freedom of speech and expression. An artist was performing as an artist and not trying to mock anyone. The play didn’t intend offence. The performers were only sharing stories.

However, the performance of a play escalated to such a height that the performing arts area turned into a scene of interrogation, leaving the director and students alienated by the college administration’s inaction to stop this.

Death threats, vulgar messages on DMs, but no action taken

Following the incident, the head of the department of performing arts was removed from his post for approving the play, on April 1. Cases were filed against the student director and a few students who performed. Several threat messages were sent, privacy violated, and performers vilified in the media without consent.

“We started getting killing threats, vulgar messages, DMs, we were all over the news, some of the performer’s photos without consent were [used] in the news article,” said Pushparaj.

“I reached out to the police with copies and proof on these threats but they refused to accept our complaint. We raised this complaint to the dean of the department as well, he said this matter will be looked at. But the threats are ongoing as we wait for some action to be taken,” he added.

The unsettling reality is that every individual involved in the play is being stalked and inspected based on their caste and political stances. This phenomenon of being judged and questioned in the political sphere is baffling.

I vividly recall someone saying during the protest, “Forget about the play, have you seen (one of the performers)’s social media page? It’s not acceptable.” But what makes it unacceptable? Simply because it goes against your preferences? And even if it is, it’s personal.

Sexual harassment

One of the female artists has been forced to go back home. “I was being stared at on campus; it got scary and it was not safe to roam around. It has been mentally exhausting to deal with it,” she said, on condition of anonymity.

While speaking on the matter, she shared displeasing DMs, calling her names and slut-shaming her. She has been on a roll blocking them, but she questions for how long this will go on.

She and other performers have final year exams. Instead of focusing their energy on studying, they have to deal with threat messages and the fear of the administration’s action against them.

Why this treatment? They were merely performing.

Perhaps, communicating could have led to some understanding. Yet, flags and slogans replaced dialogue. We’re part of a civilised society. Disagreements merit discussion, not aggression.

Amidst the polarised reactions, the team has only one thing to say: “We are artists and storytellers – let’s focus on that. Stop your propaganda and censoring our stories. Period.”

Note: ‘Somayanam’ play artist/performers contributed to this story. 

The author is a writer and photographer based in Pondicherry.

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