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A CurtainUp Feature

Play that Wins Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Still Arouses Controversy
By Alexis Greene

On December 9, 2004, Gurpreet Bhatti's play Behzti (Dishonour) opened at England's Birmingham Repertory Theatre, amid objections from the local Sikh community, which deplored the drama's crucial scene of a Sikh woman being raped in a gurdwara, or place of worship. On December 18, demonstrators broke into the theater, and two days later, Birmingham Rep closed the production. The playwright, who had received death threats, went into hiding.

More than two months after these events, their repercussions are still being felt among both British theater artists and the Sikhs of Birmingham. Many of the UK's theater practitioners have condemned what they see as an attack on freedom of artistic expression, while the Sikh community believes its objections were never taken into account, and that the media has incorrectly portrayed them as religious extremists. On March 7, Bhatti's play won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an international award given to a work by a female playwright in the English-speaking theater. Awarding the Prize to Behzti could re-ignite the controversy.

As for Bhatti, a British-born Sikh, she has remained silent about the production since it closed, except for a statement released to The Guardian on January 13. "I have decided not to say anything else about this matter," she e-mailed this reporter. "All I have to say is in my statement." There she affirmed that "I certainly did not write Behzti to offend. It is a sincere piece of work in which I wanted to explore how human frailties can lead people into a prison of hypocrisy."

Largely set in a gurdwara, Behzti centers around a homely, shy woman named Min, who takes care of her ailing, coarse and obstreperous mother, Balbir. . At the gurdwara, Min hopes to find spiritual solace. Instead, a Sikh priest who once had a homosexual relationship with Min's father rapes the woman. Balbir subsequently kills the priest.

Last October, with Dr. Chris Hewer, adviser on interfaith relations to the Bishop of Birmingham, functioning as an intermediary, the management of the Rep met with leaders of Birmingham's Sikh community, notably Sewa Singh Mandla, chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras, to discuss the play. Mandla had not read the play and knew it only by description. "It was a free and frank exchange of views," recalled Dr. Hewer during a recent telephone conversation. "Both sides made clear that it was not their wish to offend or be difficult".

Still, in November, as the production rehearsed in the Rep's 140-seat studio theatre, and Sikhs who had attended a reading of the play reported back to their leaders, an impasse developed. "The major issue was the setting in a gurdwara," said Stuart Rogers, the Rep's executive director. "But we were clear from day one that we could not change the setting. That's beyond the bounds of artistic interference."

The leaders of Birmingham's Sikh population disagreed. To them, putting rape and murder in a gurdwara was both an affront to Sikhism and inaccurate, since they maintain that there is no evidence of such crimes occurring in these spiritual centers. "In a nightclub, in a community center, all sorts of things happen," said Mandla, reached by phone in the UK. "Then the community would say, 'Yes, the play is depicting things that happen,' and it would not be offensive."

Mandla campaigned against the play. "Faith has to be promoted," he said over the phone. "Wherever faith is offended, it has to protect itself."

According to Rogers, by the opening on December 9, an "aggressive" segment of the Sikh community was threatening demonstrations. Saturday night, December 18, the West Midlands police estimated that 400 people gathered behind police barricades outside the Rep. By reports, only a small number of protesting Sikhs turned violent, throwing bricks through the theater's glass doors and windows, charging into the theater through a side entrance and breaking telephone equipment. Three men were arrested; one, a Sikh, was charged.

On Monday, December 20, both the West Midlands Police and Sikh community leaders told the Rep that they could not guarantee there would be no more violence. Worried about the safety of actors and audiences - a play for youngsters was being presented on the main stage -- the Rep cancelled the rest of Behzti's run. In all, it played 10 out of 20 scheduled performances.

The closing ignited a strong response among British theater artists, who defend what they perceive as a threat to artistic freedom. Lisa Goldman, artistic director of The Red Room, a company that develops new plays (and has worked with Bhatti), e-mailed that "There is a principle here about freedom of speech/imagination, which needs constantly to be fought for through speaking out and pushing boundaries. . .Causing offence is a by-product of what we do. Interesting theatre will always destabilize an audience rather than reassure it."

Similarly, the British Asian playwright Nirjay Mahindru, artistic director of the company Conspirators' Kitchen, commented during a telephone interview, "Are these people saying that nothing happens in their holy places? They're not living in the real world. Why can't an artist explore that? The healthy body politic of any community is to show the full range of that community. All communities have their negative qualities. It is completely unrealistic to say, 'We are a minority, therefore our whole image to the outside world must always be positive.' ""

" It's integral to the play that, on a symbolic level, corruption like this can happen at the heart of the religious establishment," said British Asian playwright Rahila Gupta. "But it's interesting that the furor is about whether such an event could happen in a gurdwara or not. What should have caused offense is that a woman was raped by a priest. Nobody seemed to challenge the truth of that."

Recent communications with members of Birmingham's Sikh population reveal their own disappointment at the turn of events, and perhaps a larger gulf between the dominant British culture and the Sikh minority than either group originally took into account.

In the view of the Sikhs, most of whom neither read nor saw Behzti, but only heard about its contents, both Bhatti and the Rep displayed alarming insensitivity. As the Sikh journalist Gopinder Kaur e-mailed to this reporter, "a space - the gurdwara, the Guru's abode - that was dear to Sikhs, and little explored or understood by the 'mainstream,' was appropriated or exploited for the sake of a morbid fantasy," which, in her view, "satisfied old colonial assumptions of the 'other.' "

Writing about art in general, Kaur added that "we are still a long way from showing empathy and understanding towards many unfamiliar minorities. Because of this lag, brash acts of criticism, however well-meaning, become more destructive than constructive."

Harminder Bhogal, a forty-one-year-old Community Education Coordinator in Birmingham, took part in the protest on December 18, although she says she did not enter the theater. "As a woman, I would sympathize with the woman in the play. Sikh religion would say there's an injustice. Our religion doesn't say, 'Okay, it goes on, but keep quiet.' It's not about the rape, but about the setting of it. The whole thing could have been shown, if the Sikhs had been listened to."

Both women deplored the mainstream media's reporting of the demonstration. "It was perceived," said Bhogal, "that the Rep was attacked, and they had to surrender, as though there were kind of a war going on."

Kaur wrote, "I was very disturbed by media portrayals where the actions of a handful were translated as the rampage of hundreds." And referring to the death threats that Bhatti apparently received, "Direct comparisons with the Salman Rushdie affair were tenuous - no single Sikh authority in the UK or anywhere proclaimed a 'fatwa' on Bhatti, indeed it would be considered 'un-Sikh' to do so."

As for bridging the gulf which the production of Behzti seems to have widened, that seems a long way off. Rogers of Birmingham Rep conceded "sadly" that it might have been better to produce the play first and engage the community afterward. "It became obvious that the very concept of theatre was alien to them," he said, adding that "we have undoubtedly learned to be more selective and discerning about consulting with members of the community."

Kaur wrote: "I hope that "Behzti," written by Bhatti, highlighted by protesters and busily commented on by hungry-for-news journalists, does have a redeeming quality. The possibility of…empathetic cultural exchange…will be its saving grace."

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