Censorship: Enforcement of Norms through Repression in India

By: Devika Ranjan

October 19, 2015

For her final project as a Doyle Undergraduate Fellow, Devika Ranjan explored the intersection of political theater and social justice. Through a series of blogs, she engages issues of faith, women’s rights, and free speech in South Asia.

SCENE ONE. LIGHTS UP.
A performance of Nil Darpan in Calcutta, Bengal, India in 1872.

The ACTORS perform on a raised stage.

The SPECTATORS are both Bengali and British and are visibly disquieted by the black humor.
 

On stage, WOOD, the indigo plantation overseer, curses and beats his laborers SADHU and RAY.
 

WOOD: You dolt, you are very wicked, you scoundrel! You must take the money in advance; you must cultivate the land; you are a scoundrel (kicks SADHU). You shall leave off everything when you meet with Shamchand.
 

Shamchand is WOOD’s leather whip, which he holds threateningly.
 

SADHU: My Lord, the hand is only blackened by killing a fly. We—  

RAY (angrily): O my brother, you had better stop’ let them take what they can; our very stomach [sic] are on the point of falling down from hunger. The whole day is passed [sic], we have not yet been able either to bathe or to take our food.
 

A British OFFICER, one of the spectators, stands up. HE is outraged.
 

OFFICER: This play must stop!  

AUDIENCE MEMBERS, ad libbing: Yes, this is a great injustice, how can this continue, etc.  

OFFICER: Nil Darpan is full of lies and libel. As an officer of the British Raj, I command this performance to disband immediately.
 

SADHU, as actor: What? On what grounds?
 

OFFICER: On the grounds that… that… this performance does not agree with the public interest of the people!  

SADHU, outraged: The public interest? According to who?
 

OFFICER: Umm... According to the British Raj! A cacophony breaks out, which turns into a fight.  

LIGHTS FADE. END SCENE ONE.              

The real performances of Nil Darpan (The Indigo Mirror), though perhaps not interrupted in such a way, were certainly disturbed by censorship. Dinabhandu Mitra wrote the play in 1858 to showcase the oppression of indigo workers under British rule—from lack of labor rights to beatings to rape. Through performances and literary circulation, Nil Darpan sparked the Indigo revolts of February 1859 in Bengal. Indigo farmers went on strike to protest colonialism under the British Raj (Bhatia 32).

Although Nil Darpan was positive towards the monarchy, it was heavily critical of plantation owners and missionaries who regularly exploited indigo farmers (Mitra). As a result, the play was highly controversial among the British elite. Reverend James Long, the first person to translate Nil Darpan into English, was incarcerated because of his translation work (Bhatia 22) He claimed that he merely published the work to inform the governor and British Parliament of the planters’ sentiments. However, his associations with the play were damning, and he was imprisoned under charges of slander (Bhatia 22).
           

Reverend James Long’s courtroom trial brought international attention to Nil Darpan, but it was not the only controversy associated with the play. In March 1875, British audience members rushed the stage at a performance of Nil Darpan, enraged at its portrayal (Rao).
Performances of Nil Darpan showed that theater could be used as a powerful and effective means of protest. It was the first nationalist drama to earn such notice and proved that political theater is an effective tool to fight colonialism. Nil Darpan brought attention to the injustices of the British Raj, especially the oppression of indigo farmers through “extortion, violence, kidnappings, murder, sabotage, destruction of their homes, and sexual assaults on women” (footnote 16). The play also encouraged revolts throughout the country, most famously the aforementioned Indigo revolts in 1859. The British Raj noticed this, too. In 1876, the British Empire imposed the “Dramatic Performances Act” which aimed to censor Indian theater because of its progressive and anti-colonialist nature. Despite the Act, Long’s translation and Nil Dharpan itself stirred national sentiments and encouraged Indians to fight British oppression (Bhatia 35). Although the indigo riots and some plays were suppressed, theater as nonviolent protest set the precedent for activism around the country.  

References

Bhatia, Nandi. Acts of Authority, Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2004.

"South Asian Arts" Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015.

Mitra, Dinabandhu, and James Long. Nil Darpan; or The Indigo Planting Mirror. Calcutta: C.H. Manuel, 1861.

Rao, Amiya. The Blue Devil: Indigo and Colonial Bengal. Calcutta, Bombay, Madras: Oxford University Press, 1992.  

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Censorship: Enforcement of Norms through Repression in India