The Royal Court, a prestigious theatre in London, has just put on Partap Sharma’s A Touch of Brightness, which it first staged in 1967.
That was after the authorities in India had banned it in 1965, apparently because they did not want foreigners to see a play set in a Bombay brothel.
The eminent playwright died in 2011, aged 71, but his wife Sue, who is English, had flown over from her home in Mumbai with her daughters, Namrita and Tara, and her grandchildren for the “historic” occasion.
Afterwards, she spoke to The Telegraph expressing her dismay at the continuing suppression of artistic freedom in India more than 50 years after her husband’s play was first banned.
She called the ban “the most negative, brutal experience” which “put him (Partap) off writing for ages. He never had any time for pettiness.”
“Look at what we are living with now,” said Sue, following this week’s play reading of A Touch of Brightness. “It’s the most pathetic scene – it’s terrifying.”
Commenting on the reality of life for India’s artistic fraternity, she went on: “Look at what happened to (MF) Husain. The absurdity of all the Right-wing stuff we have got going on. Anything could happen.
“We live with thugs and gangs and that awful Right-wing morality.”
The Royal Court, which takes pride in experimenting with new writing and has nurtured many household names over the decades, explained how and why A Touch of Brightness had been banned in India in its programme notes when the play was first performed in London on March 5, 1967.
The production, staged in solidarity with banned artists in India, had a cast that included Saeed Jaffrey, Zohra Segal, Gerson Da Cunha and Roshan Seth.
“This is the first public performance of this play,” began the programme note. “It was selected for presentation at the first Commonwealth Arts Festival in London in the autumn of 1965. It was rehearsed in India by a company sponsored by the National Theatre of India.
“On September 10th the company’s passports were impounded in Bombay, following an indignant campaign in the press. In February 1966, an attempt was made to present the play in India.
“It was banned, with the official explanation that ‘the play is set in one of the most infamous localities of Bombay city’ and ‘deals with matters which it is highly undesirable to show on the stage’.”
The Stage, to this day the main British theatrical publication, described this at the time as “a direct statement of faith in words which speak bravely out against a society which suffers from an almost incurable illness”.
So great was the psychological effect of the ban that Sharma developed paralysis on one side of his face, his wife said. She added that “he had won a contract to do the son et lumiere at the Red Fort and so (to help him speak) he put a clothes peg in his mouth – it (his voiceover) is still running 50 years later”.
The playwright, represented by Soli Sorabjee and Iqbal Chagla, took legal action in February 1966 and the ban was eventually lifted in 1972.
As a further act of solidarity with India’s artistic fraternity, a radio adaptation, also by Sharma, of A Touch of Brightness was transmitted on the BBC Third Programme on November 3, 1967, with a mainly English cast that included Judi Dench, then 32, as “Rukhmini”, the beggar girl who is the lead character in the Bombay brothel.
The music was specially composed for the radio play by Ravi Shankar.
A Touch of Brightness is now studied in schools and universities in India and in many other countries.
This week’s production was put on by Bhuchar Boulevard, a relatively new company set up by writer and actress Sudha Bhuchar, to mark the passage of half a century since A Touch of Brightness was first staged at the Royal Court. The venture has been called “Retracing Our Footsteps”.
The script of the play was published in 2006 by the Sahitya Akademi in which Sharma noted that A Touch of Brightness had been selected for the Commonwealth festival by a panel that included Kenneth Tynan, one of Britain’s most celebrated critics.
Sharma also records that the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka had revealed after winning the Nobel Prize in 1986 that he had begun to be interested in Indian philosophy after encountering A Touch of Brightness.
When Sharma wrote to thank him, Soyinka replied he had tried without success to put on the play and asked if the playwright had a spare copy – “at least I shall turn over its pages from time to time, and hope….” (Courtesy: TT)
Banned in India, staged in UK; Royal court returns to play after 50 years