From street plays held in the dead of the night to open rebellion, the story of the cultural resistance to the Emergency is one of many underground movements of artists and individuals.
Anant Patwardhan’s film Prisoners of Conscience on political prisoners of the Emergency
The dawn of the Seventies. The promise of Independence, and the hope of a socialist, welfare state, stood discredited. A young nation was confronting its inheritance of inequality in many ways. Bombay, like the rest of the country, was simmering with a million mutinies. The Dalit Panthers was formed in 1972, and its firebrand leaders, Namdeo Dhasal and JV Pawar, had called for a revolution to overthrow the caste system. In Maharashtra, Mrinal Gore was steering the women’s movement, with a focus on the daily grind of civic issues. Hardly a day went by without a rally or a protest, without slogans mingling with the sounds of everyday life.
On June 26, 1975, the city woke up to realise it has lost its right to dissent. A sense of unease took over.
A month passed by, in which little was heard from political activists and intellectuals, except an uncomfortable, watchful silence.
Maharashtra was preparing to host the annual Marathi Sahitya Sammelan. A firebrand feminist, socialist and a writer on religion, Durga Bhagwat had been appointed president. At a felicitation for the writer arranged to take place at Dadar’s Mumbai Marathi Granth Sanghralaya, there was a strange air of expectation. A thousand people had squeezed into a hall meant for 300. It was Bhagwat’s address they were waiting for. When she spoke, she did not disappoint. She slammed the Emergency and the punishing restrictions on freedom of expression that had been put in place.
Amarendra Dhaneshwar remembers the resounding applause at that first protest rally in Bombay after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. He was a young 23-year-old then. “Several political activists had been forced to go underground. While most intellectuals were against Emergency, they wouldn’t openly protest, fearing detention. But Durga Bhagwat decided to speak out,” says the Hindustani classical musician. Although the venue was teeming with plainclothes policemen, Bhagwat was surprisingly spared immediate arrest.
Bhagwat’s fearless act encouraged the city’s literati and artistes and triggered a movement against Emergency. The Sahitya Sammelan in August, held in prominent Congress leader YB Chavan’s hometown Karad, eventually became the venue for anti-Emergency protests. Author Indumati Kelkar, a follower of Ram Manohar Lohia and his biographer, were among those who courted arrest.
There were other fires of resistance being lit in the city and elsewhere. Writers and poets were getting together to discreetly bring out pamphlets and newsletters against Gandhi and Emergency. Printed on cyclostyle machines, these would be distributed across Mumbai by student volunteers.
“Dissent is integral to art,” says Delhi artist Vivan Sundaram, who was among a handful of artists like Gulammohammed Sheikh, Gieve Patel and Rameshwar Broota to challenge the Emergency in their work.
Sundaram’s Famous Mrs G (175cmx153cm, oil on mixed media) is a portrait of Gandhi, the canvas dominated by the large head, and her face bearing an expression of grim authority. “I completed Famous Mrs G in 1974. Many of us had seen such a clampdown coming,” says Sundaram. Indeed, the government had been hurtling from crisis to crisis, from the nationwide railway strike to the anti-corruption movement in Gujarat and the gathering storm of Jayprakash Narayan’s bhoodan movement.
For cinema and culture, the Seventies was a febrile, landmark decade. If artists can sense the undercurrents of history long before they sweep us away, films like Zanjeer (1973) and, later, Sholay (1975) had channelled popular discontent to create the Angry Young Man, a vigilante come to deliver justice because all else had failed. This idea of the lone wolf had replaced the idealism of the early movements of cinema, which were driven by nationalism and empathy for the poor man. While members of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), such as Kaifi Azmi and Sahir Ludhianvi, were writing some of their best works for cinema, they had lost their political bite. “The PWA and Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) were aligned to the Communist Party of India (CPI). When the party split in 1964 into CPI and the more extreme CPI (M), it weakened these institutions as the cadre’s loyalties were also divided,” says filmmaker MS Sathyu, now 81 years old, who was then closely associated with the IPTA.
The Seventies ignited new scripts, and not just in popular cinema. In parallel cinema, filmmakers sharpened a political language to tell stories of the time. Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975), about a village rising against feudal oppression, for instance, reflected the ongoing Telangana struggle.
Theatre, however, had been quicker to respond to the changing mood of the nation. For example, Utpal Dutt wrote several Bengali plays in the early 1970s. His Ebar Rajar Pala (Now is the King’s Turn to Play) told the story of a megalomaniac actor, but was an allegory of the absolutely powerful, and absolutely corrupt. Following Badal Sircar’s footsteps, his Dusswapner Nagari (City of Nightmares) was about a Calcutta in crisis, speaking to a city which still bore scars of the suppression of a Naxalite rebellion. Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s short story Bakri, a scathing satire, was adapted by several playwrights across India. Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar told the story of a Brahmin who turns into a tyrannical police chief in Ghasiram Kotwal (1972), another play that spoke truth to power and ruffled many feathers.
But the imposition of Emergency clanged a lid on the seething dissent. Gulzar’s Aandhi and Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka were the most stand-out targets of whimsical censorship. Even Kishore Kumar’s songs were banished from AIR because he refused to perform at a political gathering of the Congress.
Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who was filming the JP Movement, went underground.
“I knew that if the government discovered my footage of the growing support across India for Jayprakash Narayan, it would be destroyed,” says Patwardhan, who put together Waves of Revolution during Emergency and organised secret screenings of the film with help from director Mani Kaul. He later released the film and also made its sequel, Prisoners of Conscience, on the political prisoners languishing in jail.
She was 20 then, but Nandana Reddy has a vivid memory of June 25, 1975. It was the last day of the shoot of her father, renowned Kannada filmmaker Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s Chanda Marutha. Both she and her mother, Telugu actress Snehalatha Reddy, were a part of the cast. “The film mirrored the political situation of the time. Even though we had finished the shoot, we were still in the mindspace of its characters. So when we learnt of the Emergency the morning after, it felt surreal, as if the characters had extended into our lives,” says Reddy, a political activist in Karnataka.
Under the leadership of CGK Reddy, a Socialist Party member and friend of George Fernandes, Karnataka’s political and cultural activists, artistes and journalists, became a part of an organised movement against the Emergency. “There was a three-point plan. The first was to create awareness among the people about the Emergency. Apart from bringing out underground literature in the form of a newsletter News from the Underground, we also used street theatre. Performances of Yakshagana, a retelling of Hindu epics, would smuggle in comment about current events. Staged at night, these shows would begin after dinner and continue till 3am,” says Reddy, who was arrested along with her entire family in 1976. While others were released, her mother remained in jail until the Emergency was lifted. By then, her asthma had worsened and Snehalatha Reddy soon passed away.
Many members of the artiste and literary fraternity courted arrest during this period. Hindi writer Murli Manohar Prasad Singh, poet Girdhar Rathi and Vaidya Nath Mishra, famous as Nagarjun, were put behind bars on the night of Emergency. As she continued to express dissent, driving the underground movement in Maharashtra, Durga Bhagwat, too, was arrested in 1976.
There were those who spoke out, and those who bided their time. There were also those who fell in line.
MF Husain’s famous painting of Indira Gandhi, depicting her as Durga, infuriated many artists, recounts Shireen Gandhy of Chemould. Daughter of gallerist and collector Kekoo Gandhy, a socialist and an important figure in the success of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), she remembers how her parents sheltered activists who had been forced to go underground during the Emergency. “A founding member of the PAG and a liberal, Husain was already a prominent name. To endorse Emergency and contribute to Mrs Gandhi’s myth-building was looked upon as treachery by many of his contemporaries,” Gandhy says.
Writer Khushwant Singh, close to the Gandhi family, remained pro-Emergency till the end. According to thespian and activist Pushpa Bhave, the biggest casualty of the Emergency was that it managed to dilute the Dalit movement in Maharashtra. “The government gave Dalit writers like Daya Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal and Narayan Surve prominence in several publications.
Pro-CPI, they would argue that they had lived through Emergency all their lives,” says Bhave. A teacher at Ruia College, Bhave had helped organise rallies and given refuge to underground activists, among them Mrinal Gore.
Lured by government grants and other benefits, many theatre groups staged plays promoting Gandhi’s 20-point programme and her son Sanjay’s pet project of sterilisation, says Moloyashree Hashmi. Wife of late Safdar Hashmi, she says his Delhi-based Jan Natya Manch (Janam), formed in 1973, was stunned into silence at the time, something they deeply regret today. However, they regrouped soon after the Emergency was lifted and went on to stage several plays based on the “dark period”.
Sathyu says that the presence of police everywhere in the Capital also forced many opponents of the Emergency to back off. “One morning, a group of activists arrived to see that the building that was their informal meeting point, opposite Regal cinema in Connaught Place, had been razed by Sanjay’s men,” says Sathyu, who was asked by Sanjay Gandhi to make a documentary on the prime minister during the Emergency. He refused. Undeterred, Films Division went on to produce several such films at the time.
The silence from the art fraternity was striking: Vijay Tendulkar, filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Raj Kapoor, Marathi writer VS Khandekar and radical actor Utpal Dutt, were among those who did not speak out. “Citing the example of Rabindranath Tagore, who had surrendered his knighthood in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Durga Bhagwat had asked all artistes to return their state and national awards to the government. She also asked them to boycott government media. But the response was extremely poor. Only a handful, such as Phanishwar Nath “Renu” came forward,” Dhaneshwar says.
The story of the cultural resistance to the Emergency can, perhaps, best be told through a novel written six years later. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children yokes history and myth to tell the story of India’s descent from freedom at midnight to the “continuous midnight” of 1975. The author’s comparison between Saleem Sinai, child of 1947, with Aadam Sinai, who was born during the Emergency, suggests the fundamental shift in the ways of dissent. “We, the children of Independence, rushed wildly and too fast into our future,” writes Saleem. “He, Emergency-born, will be is already more cautious, biding his time.”
In January 1977, once Gandhi had announced elections and the end of Emergency was imminent, several artistes found their voice. For instance, Marathi writer and humourist PL Deshpande, a supporter of JP and translator of his works in Marathi, had refused to heed Bhagwat’s call and part with his Padma Shri. But that January, he openly spoke against Emergency and also campaigned for JP in the elections.
Satyajit Ray, who had remained mute on the subject, made Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Diamond King’s Land) in 1980. A sequel to his Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne, it was a children’s film with a political subtext. It cast Utpal Dutt in the role of the tyrant Hirak, who forces magoj dholai on his opponents to brainwash them into yes-men. “Ray had been under attack by the Left for his silence, which also embarrassed his fans. But few speak of his one act of defiance during the Emergency,” says Mainak Biswas, a professor of film studies at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. “When Mrs Gandhi was visiting Calcutta in 1976, she asked the then-governor Siddhartha Shankar Ray — a key architect of the Emergency and the chief minister who oversaw the Naxal killings of Bengal in the early 1970s — that she’d like to meet the city’s intellectuals. Everyone showed up but Ray. In his typical style, he told them there was a Mozart concert at the American Centre that he could not miss.”
Once the Emergency was lifted, it was, as if, artists and filmmakers, having scarred by their own silence, needed to set the balance right. “Everyone realised that the Emergency had cost them their pride and the right to speak out against the system. They were unwilling to let the country lose its civil rights once again,” says Shyam Benegal, explaining the re-emergence of parallel cinema through films by Saeed Mirza, Gulzar, Mani Kaul and Govind Nihalani, among others.
The 1970s also witnessed the revival of street theatre, used as a tool of dissent in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal during the clampdown. Safdar Hashmi’s Janam, which had made its debut in the proscenium form, made the switch in 1977, inspired by jatra in Bengal, which had continued during Emergency in both West Bengal and Delhi. Perhaps overlooked by the authorities due to the language, Bangla theatre in Delhi had flourished, through anti-establishment plays such as Eknayak and Mukhobondo.
“Our audience was the common man, the working class. Safdar realised that we couldn’t take our plays to big arenas anymore if we wanted to reach them. So Janam taught itself this new form,” says Hashmi. While Machine, Aaya Chunao and the Hindi adaptation of Dutt’s Ebar Rajar Pala were the group’s plays that referenced Emergency, their first street play was Kursi Kursi Kursi, which ironically was first staged on June 24, 1975. From the late 1970s till now, Janam is known for its work on civil rights.
Forty years later, those singed by that brief spell of dictatorship look on with disappointment at the new wave of censorship that artists are subject to — in the name of “offending sentiments”, in the power of communities and religious bodies to police the expression of creativity. “The Emergency suspended our rights for two years. But what it also did is create a culture of censorship. Over the years, it’s become more institutionalised, with the law or rules used to bind our hands in the name of maintaining harmony and peace,” says Hashmi. The artist and the invisible “Emergency” is a story for another time.