On Feb 2, 2024, students of Pune University’s Lalit Kala Kendra were subjected to attacks and harassment by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Bharatiya Jan Yuva Morcha (BJYM) when they were making an examination presentation of a play of a Ram Leela rehearsal.

Right wing activists blacken board of the Lalit Kala Kendra in Pune

Acting on a complaint by ABVP member, Harshvardhan Harpude, Pune police arrested Pravin Bhole, head of the Lalit Kala Kendra department along with students Bhavesh Patil, Jay Pednekar, Prathamesh Sawant, Rishikesh Dalvi and Yash Chikhle. They were charged under section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious sentiments. They were released on bail the same day.

The play was about the situation backstage in the rehearsal and a scene of an artist depicting Sita, smoking a cigarette and using offensive language, drew the ire of the right-wing activists. The Lalit Kala students tried to point out that this was a play and got into a verbal altercation with the ABVP activists.

Here is a statement from Lalit Kala Kendra(Gurukul) alumni, art educators, visiting faculty and theatre/cine artistes on the issue:

We would like to begin by saying that despite our diverse ideological, cultural, social, religious and geographical backgrounds and identities, we write this note together as informed and sensitive artists, and citizens of India. We would like to strongly emphasise that we have great respect for all religions, castes, creeds, sects etc. We are proud of and value our rich Indian culture and traditions.

Lalit Kala Kendra (Gurukul), also known as Centre for Performing Arts, is a department of the Savitribai Phule Pune University, offering graduate and postgraduate education in three broad streams – Dance, Music and Dramatics in the traditional Indian Gurukul system. All the courses conducted by Lalit Kala Kendra (Gurukul) are UGC approved. A number of distinguished artists in the performing arts such as Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Padmashri Satish Alekar (who also served as the HOD until 2009), Pandita Rohini Bhate have been associated with this department. Many stalwarts also continue taking part in the department’s curriculum board. Some even provide necessary guidance to students from time to time.

Over the years, Lalit Kala Kendra (Gurukul) has produced many distinguished alumni who continue to make very significant contributions to the field of theatre, music, dance, academics, television and cinema even today. We thus passionately believe that this department serves as an invaluable avenue in the world of the arts. Its HOD Dr. Praveen Bhole has been very proactive as a theatre educator, scholar and practitioner for close to three decades. He has overseen the department for several years now and his insight in theatre is of the highest pedigree.

Performing Arts are called Prayog Kala in Marathi. The word Prayog literally translates as ‘experiment’. Students of performing arts are expected to experiment with their art and craft- their body, voice, thoughts, opinions, understanding of art, aesthetics, etc. Drama students at Lalit Kala Kendra(Gurukul) engage in a variety of modules in their years at the department- scripted plays to improvisations, faculty/guest productions to student exercises, physical theatre to argumentative plays, folk forms to classics. It is a mixed bag rich with diversity of form and content, modernity and tradition, and has been in practice remarkably now for decades. Students are encouraged to try their hand at a variety of vocations and techniques in the process of discovering the artist within. That has been the beauty of Lalit Kala Kendra over the years. And it’s a rare beauty that needs to be preserved and supported!

Lalit Kala Kendra (Gurukul) conducts written as well as practical examinations in accordance with the University rules. Every year, as a part of their curriculum, drama students stage plays on a wide variety of topics and genres as their practical examination presentations. We could say that during such examinations, the theatre stage itself serves as a question paper as well as an answer sheet. Internal and/or external examiners/experts are present for these presentations to evaluate the students’ performances. These performances are followed by viva voces which are also a part of the evaluation process. These presentations have never intended to insult any religion, caste, creed, sect etc or hurt anybody’s religious sentiment. Sanhita te Prayog (Script to Performance) is a crucial module in the drama curriculum, wherein students attempt to write and present their own 15 minute play. This module has been conducted since the late 1990s and hundreds of such student plays have been presented till date.

We are united in strongly condemning the disruption, violence, damage and trauma that the department students, faculty, examiners and members of the audience faced from certain factions or groups that attended the Sanhita te Prayog exam on the evening of 2nd Feb, 2024 at Lalit Kala Kendra(Gurukul), SPPU.

The university’s examination presentations were disrupted and the education system was put under siege. Students of all genders were beaten up, teachers were threatened and abused. This behaviour is highly condemnable and reprehensible, and should be taken up by the authorities and appropriately dealt with. In a country that boasts of a rich tradition of debate, of argument, of allowing for a conducive forum of ideas to be counter with ideas, it is shameful that these factions and groups resorted to threats, abuse and violence. This act is a grotesque violation of our peaceful performative traditions and one which promotes bullying and coercion. 

If there was anything objectionable to be found by any members in the audience in one of the several play presentations that were made that evening, those members should have waited for the examination performances to conclude before formally registering their objections with the university authorities by due formal process. It is unacceptable that these groups disregarded and flouted university examination rules.

It is deeply hurtful that police complaints were registered against university students and HOD. It is also unfathomable that no cognisance of their pain and trauma was taken into consideration at the time, and no complaints from their side were entertained thereafter. The department, its students and HOD, who are in fact the real victims of this incident, are now being unfairly targeted, deliberately defamed and maligned with disinformation in circulated videos, publications and on social media, leading to severe misunderstandings about the institution and its students. It is disheartening to witness Dr. Bhole’s career being reduced to cheap slander and abuse by people who do not know him or his work.

We appeal to everyone to kindly stop this inappropriate slander and defamation. We also request that the university administration and the police provide adequate protection to all our faculty and students who are under severe distress and fear for their own safety and well being.

The matter is now in the Honourable Courts of Justice and we appeal to all groups, organisations, students and artists to respect the Constitution of India and its system of law and order.

We stand in solidarity with the students, HOD and faculty of Lalit Kala Kendra (Gurukul).

Jai Hind!

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