Why Andhra Pradesh government banned 100-year-old play Chintamani Natakam

The Arya Vysya community has been demanding a ban on the play for several years.
A scene from the play featuring Subbi Setty's character
A scene from the play featuring Subbi Setty's character

The Andhra Pradesh government on Monday, January 17 issued orders to ban Chintamani Natakam, a popular play across the state. The play is particularly enjoyed with much fervour in rural areas. The government decision came after the Arya Vysya community objected to the 100-year-old play, claiming that it had offensive content that targeted their community. The community has been asking for a ban on the play since 2020. Their grouse is about the portrayal of the character of Subbi Setty, a trader from the Vysya community who is subjected to ridicule. He is shown as a comic character who loses all his wealth owing to his vice of visiting a brothel regularly.

Elated by the government’s decision, M Dwarkanath, Andhra Pradesh Arya-Vysya Mahasabha president who had given a representation to the Chief Minister’s Office seeking a ban on the play nearly four months ago, told TNM, “Our community has been objecting to the play for several years now, but no government paid heed to it earlier. The present government has reviewed the play and taken the right decision.”

Explaining the objections to the play, he said, “The play has hurt our community’s sentiments.” Referring to the Subbi Setty character, he said, “We are shown as people who are dark, short, and speaking a funny language. This could have been acceptable 100 years ago, but not anymore. It is offensive.”

He added, “Some are asking why not ask the artists to remove the Subbi Setty character, make some changes and allow the play to continue… but the entire play is based on Subbi’s character.”

The play, written in 1920 by social reformer Kallakuri Narayana Rao, is about Chintamani, a courtesan, who attains liberation because of her devotion to Lord Krishna.

“Originally, the play was written as a reformative one with a social message in it. But over the years, several adaptations were made to make it more entertaining, particularly after the entry of ‘recording dance’ (erotic entertainment that branched out from folk dancing), the play turned out to be downright vulgar,” said, Shaik John Basheer, PhD scholar and founding member of the Progressive Theatre Group, University of Hyderabad.

To appeal to the masses during village festivals, theatre groups have included several sexual innuendos and sexual references in the play with crass language, and desecrated the actual intent of the play, Basheer observed.

However, objecting to the government’s decision, he said, “It is condemnable. Censorship should never be encouraged. In 1876, the British introduced the Dramatic Performances Act, to curtail dissent expressed through art. The present decision should be seen as an extension of that.”

Some have argued that instead of putting a blanket ban on the play, the government should have asked for changes. The Hindu quoting playwright and actor Govada Venkat said, “All plays contain a good message to society. It is not correct to highlight only a few characters in the drama.” He added, “The government has a right to either remove a character or edit objectionable dialogues. But imposing a ban on the historic play is not correct.”

Observing that the decision of the government will not stand the scrutiny of the courts, social scientist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd urged the affected artists to approach the High Court. “This should not be entertained. If you do not like a play or film, do not watch it. If you do not like a book, do not read it. Banning should not become our prime objective.”

Kancha Ilaiah had earlier faced the wrath of the Vysyas, also known as Banias, when they sought a ban on his book Samajika Smugglerlu: Komatollu. The booklet, published in Telugu in 2017, was extracted from a chapter from his book Post-Hindu India (2009). Objecting to the booklet’s release, as it was titled ‘Social Smugglers: Vysyas’, the community members issued death threats to Kancha Ilaiah, burnt his effigies and books, along with subjecting him to various forms of harassment.

Referring to his own trouble with the community in the past, the social scientist said that they had an influence over the government because of their caste power, which is essentially their monopoly over capital. “Vysyas are a very rich community. So every politician wants to be in their good books. It is not for votes but for their money that governments want to please them,” he said.

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