India: Fear of offending religious sentiments lead to cancellation of opera

14 August 2012

“Religious censorship crushes creativity. So is it ever right to ban art?,” asked author Jeet Thayil in a commentary in The Guardian newspaper on 10 August 2012 where he descibed why a six-city Indian tour for the opera ‘Babur in London’ was cancelled.

The piece combines the contemporary poetry of Jeet Thayil with original music by composer Edward Rushton. Jeet Thayil wrote in his commentary:

“For the past several years I have been working on the libretto for an opera, ‘Babur’ in London, with the composer Edward Rushton. Babur in London opened in Switzerland and went to various cities in the UK, including Oxford, London and Hull, after two years of rehearsals and workshops in India, Switzerland (where Rushton is based) and the UK.

The project was to culminate in a six-city Indian tour in November and December, for which the halls had been booked, singers and musicians rehearsed, publicity material readied, and a thousand tiny tweaks carried out; for many of us, the Indian leg was the emotional climax of the entire enterprise. Last week, the organisers announced that the Indian tour was cancelled, because the sponsors felt they would be unable to deal with a possible future threat to the performers of Babur in London in India or, in other words, because they were wary of offending Muslim religious sentiments.

The opera played Switzerland and the UK without problems, and it may have done so in India, though at this point none of us will know if that might have been the case. In the opera, Babur, India’s first Mughal emperor, returns as a ghost to confront his jihadi descendants. The heart of the libretto is its middle scene, an ideological argument that pits Babur’s profound understanding of the holy book against his interlocutors’ profound ignorance of it. The opera is never anything less than respectful, but you don’t need to take my word for it. You can download the libretto in its entirety here.

Of the various types of censorship, I’ve always thought that the most insidious was self-censorship, because it usually happens without the knowledge of the censor in question. It is the reason why there is no underground art movement worthy of the name in India. The edge does not exist; it never has. There are no radical writers or film-makers or playwrights or painters, because Indian artists are so concerned with what their Mummyjis, Daddyjis, Auntiejis and Unclejis think that they will choke themselves before they make the impertinent noise. It has led to a fetishisation of the twee and the precious, and it is why there is little profit in waiting for the appearance of the Indian Pasolini or Burroughs or Basquiat.”


Offending word in film
Jeet Thayil also mentioned that a group calling itself the Catholic-Christian Secular Forum threatened to take to court the makers of the Hindi movie, Ekk Deewana Tha [working translation: There Was This Crazy Dude]. He reported:

“The group objected to a single word used in the movie: hosanna. According to the Forum’s general secretary, the use of the word had hurt the religious sentiments of Christians and Jews around the world. Never mind that it had occurred in a song that was a hit in India and nowhere else. Credited to the composer AR Rahman, it was part of a song and dance sequence that was innocuous and forgettable – but clearly romantic. That was enough for the Catholic-Christians. According to the Forum’s general secretary, if you would not use Islamic or Hindu prayer words in popular music, why use the word hosanna “in a carnal love song”? In other words, if the Muslims and Hindus will object to perceived offences against their religious sentiments, as they frequently do, why couldn’t the Christians?

Nothing came of the threat to take the film-makers to court, but it was a ripe moment in the continuing story of censorship in the name of religion in India.”


The Guardian – 10 August 2012:
Religious censorship crushes creativity. So is it ever right to ban art?
India’s tendency for self-censorship is saddening. But even the most liberal minds sometimes see the need for holding back
Information about ‘Babur in London’
The Opera Group Production, Co-Produced with Anvil Arts, Basingstoke and Opera North.


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