Kaizad Kotwal and supporters of his production of Agnes of God meet Eknath Khadse at his residence.

A staging of the contested play Agnes of God continued as scheduled at Mumbai's National Centre for Performing Arts on Monday evening, after Maharashtra’s minister for minority affairs Eknath Khadse declined to interfere with its staging as it had already been cleared by a certification department.

“You should point out exactly what problems you have with this play,” Khadse said at a meeting on Monday with representatives of groups that opposed the play as well as those who supported it. “The censor board has seen this and had no objection. I do not want to hurt anyone’s sentiment, but the show has the right to go on and you have the right to protest.”

Khadse offered to have a government official view the play on Monday evening to determine if it was indeed objectionable.

The controversy began on September 27, when the Times of India group, which is promoting the play, ran advertisements for it in its supplements. The play by John Pielmeier is about a novice nun who gives birth to a child that she claims was conceived despite her being a virgin.

Certain groups of Mumbai Catholics, including the Catholic Secular Forum and CROSS, attempted to file FIRs against director Kaizad Kotwal on the basis of the advertisements. Kotwal in turn has sought police protection.

“It is unfortunate have reached a climate where a work of art can be threatened with imprisonment and the vilest of threats,” Kotwal said. “The minister has done the right thing by offering other remedies. Let them meet us in court, we will fight back.”

Ranged against it

The first clear rumblings against the play came when the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, operated by a Catholic organisation, cancelled all Kotwal’s bookings for the play until April. Catholic groups are now attempting to have it banned by the government.

Joseph Sodder, the advocate who filed a case against the All India Bakchod comedy group for their Bollywood Roast in December, is one of those objecting to it. “After the play is staged, I will have them arrested,” he said. “We filed an FIR against big people like Karan Johar, AIB and the National Sports Centre of India. We will do the same here.”

“We don’t want to see the play,” said Joe Dias of the Catholic Secular Forum. “There will be a government representative at the staging who will record the play so we can examine it.”

Added Judith Monteiro of CROSS, “Nuns are so affected that even they are making statements. We are not hitting anybody or threatening anybody’s lives. We just don’t want the play to be staged.”

While these groups claim to speak for the community, the clergy itself is divided.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, issued a press note saying that though he disagreed strongly with the play, he did not wish to “clamour for bans of literary and artistic works”.

“What I tell people is that this might be based on a true story, but it has no spiritual value at all,” said Nigel Barrett, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bombay, who has seen the play abroad. “It is made only for entertainment. We have enough of our government banning too many things. We have said here is what we are offended by, take our opinion for what it’s worth...”

However, the president of Catholic Bishops Conference of India, Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis, has written to the Home Minister and Minister of Information and Broadcasting asking for the play to be banned. The Archdiocese of Bombay is a part of this conference.

Wider effects

An unrelated staging of Agnes of God directed by Vinay Varma in Hyderabad has become collateral damage. On Monday, the BM Birla Science Centre, which runs the Bhaskara Auditorium in Hyderabad, cancelled Varma’s productions scheduled for October 9 and 10 after receiving multiple emails from the Catholic Secular Forum in Mumbai led by Joe Dias.

“We cancelled the booking based on instructions from head office in Kolkata,” said Shyam Kothari, secretary of the BM Birla Science Centre. “They came to know about the controversy and wanted to be out of it which is why they gave these orders.”

Varma has rescheduled these plays for the same dates and time at Lamakaan, another popular venue in the city.

“We never had controversy in mind when we decided to stage the play,” Varma said. “What was more important to us while staging the play was to see what happens to a life when a person is abused as an infant. Religion is incidental to this. Instincts are human and occur in all religions.”