How IPTA captured the world of theatre and cinema — and turned it into Leftist backyard

how ipta captured the world of theatre and cinema — and turned it into leftist backyard

How IPTA captured the world of theatre and cinema — and turned it into Leftist backyard

Gene and Windmiller open their classic academic work on Indian communism with this pithy assessment: “A communist is commonly a zealot, moved by the intensity of his faith or of his personal commitment to the Party to assume the mantle of the prophet.”

The “intensity of faith” and “personal commitment to the Party” operate on the plane of subliminal human impulses, a primal truth which the communist parties of yore grasped like none else in the history of the industrialised world. A brutal showcase of this grasp is available in the ex-communist Arthur Koestler’s disturbing classic, Darkness at Noon. The scenes of elaborate physical and psychological torture of a renegade communist in a Soviet jail still chills our bones when we read it.

Like all messianic ideologies, the core of the communist ideology is self-deception, which in turn emanates from self-loathing, which in turn translates into anger against the world. There’s a reason the Bhagavad Gita continues to command such reverence. Eons ago, its Rishi, Veda Vyasa anticipated what we today call as messianic ideologies by investigating into the very core of our impulses. In one of its grandest expositions, this is what the Divine Song says:

Krodhat bhavati sammohah sammohaat smriti vibhramaha |

Smriti bhramashat Buddhi nashah, buddhi nashat pranashyati ||

Anger leads to the clouding of judgement, which results in bewilderment of the mind. When the mind is bewildered, the intellect is destroyed; and when the intellect is destroyed, everything is ruined.

Thus, it is a telling commentary on the evolution of the Western intellectual tradition that communism is actually recognised as a valid system of “philosophy”!

It also follows logically that to sustain self-deception on the scale of a global ideology, communists developed something called Agitprop, a reverse portmanteau, a cardinal device to spread the Communist ideology: via propaganda and agitation. Gene and Windmiller define it as follows: “In communist usage the term “propaganda” has a specialized meaning and is differentiated from “agitation.” The distinction is…between the general and the specific. Propaganda is the dissemination of complex ideas to select audiences; agitation is the dissemination of simple ideas, often in the form of mere slogans, to a mass audience… every Party member is a full-time agitator and propagandist.  [Emphasis added]

It is not a coincidence that since its birth, communism regarded every single facet of public life and society as a potential keyhole for spreading its soul-crushing propaganda.

India was no exception. Our communists, brainwashed by the USSR, found that Bharatavarsha’s millennia-old, extraordinary corpus, variety and wealth of art and literature was a prime area for injecting propaganda into. It is no surprise that literature, writing and drama became one of their first chosen targets.

A significant outcome of this selected targeting was the formation in 1936 of a Leftist literary cult named Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA or IPWA). Its original antecedents can be traced back to something called the Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind, which in turn was a byproduct of Syed Ahmed Khan, the progenitor of the Two-Nation theory. Some of the ideological notables that populated it include writers and poets such as Hameed Akhtar, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Mulk Raj Anand, Hasrat Mohani, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Sahir Ludhianvi, and Amrita Pritam.

A similar cult followed in 1943. This was the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which prides itself as being the oldest association of theatre artists in India. The goal of IPTA was to spread Communist propaganda in the larger Indian society by infiltrating theatre and folk and the performing arts given the appeal that entertainment and art have in capturing popular imagination.

In hindsight, the Leftist incursions in the realm of the arts was deeply incestuous. The IPTA was cohabited by some of the same members of the PWA. In no particular order, here are some names: Bimal Roy, AK Hangal, Anna Bhau Sathe, K Subramaniam, KA Abbas, Abdul Malik, Niranjan Sen, Nirmal Ghosh; Sachin Sen Gupta, Prithviraj Kapoor, Bijon Bhattacharya, Salil Chowdhury, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak, Dev Anand, Chetan Anand, Jyotirindra Moitra, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Prem Dhawan, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi, Niranjan Singh Maan, S Tera Singh Chan, Jagdish Faryadi, Khalili Faryadi, Rajendra Raghuvanshi, Safdar Mir, Hasan Premani, Amiya Bose, Sudhin Dasgupta and Utpal Dutt. Of these Utpal Dutt was regarded as a “genuinely good and highly capable worker” of the Communist cause.

The launch timing of IPTA was rather brilliant. In Bombay. In May 1943. When the Communist Party of India was holding its First Congress. And it met with tremendous success. Gene and Windmiller give us a peek into the proceedings: “Traveling dance and drama troupes were organised and sent to many parts of India to perform ballets and plays dealing with Marxian…themes. The [Communist] Party claimed that one troupe that toured the country in 1943-44 collected Rs. 200,000 for Bengal famine relief. In 1947 the IPTA reported that during the previous year its 44 branch organizations had presented 52 stage productions and 800 new songs, and had entertained audiences numbering more than five million.”

In the typical communist fashion of faux neutrality, the IPTA called itself an autonomous and independent cultural body not affiliated to any political party. In reality, it was directly controlled and micromanaged by the CPI. And this control extended to the personal lives of its members. From one perspective, the whole edifice of Orwell’s 1984 stands precisely on the state’s absolute control over the personal.

The following is a revealing encounter between writer-director KA Abbas and Soli Batliwala who had been elected to the CPI Central Committee at the First Congress in 1943. In just two years, Batliwala was so disgusted with the vile manner in which the CPI had pried into his private life that in 1945, he completely cut off ties with it noting in writing that “none of your [i.e. KA Abbas’] colleagues in the IPTA has chosen the IPTA work as a free person, but is under the strictest discipline of the member in charge of IPTA work in the Central Committee. I do not know if you have Com. Krishnan in your executive. But not a single one of your communist colleagues can endorse a single amendment in any discussion however secret that your executive may undertake before having received the sanction of Com. NK Krishnan. This applies to persons who act in your plays, who work full time for the organisation in varied and different capacities.”

Even the fine actor Utpal Dutt, described by the CPI as “one of the most loyal workers,” was not spared. Read his own words castigating the then “chief” of the IPTA: “I have since come to know that the ‘Chief’ who… descended like a wolf on the fold & scattered the central squad to the four corners of the city had been conveniently missing in the troubled times of 1948-49…He cannot tolerate any organisation where he is not the central deity. But since he can neither write, nor act, nor sing, nor dance, he cannot lead any cultural organisation and therefore he must vandalise. He still sits down to write the history of the IPTA and manages to write his autobiography…In a recent book the ‘chief’ still persistently vilifies Niranjan Sen and Hemango Biswas. But also, in a moment of sadistic ecstasy goes on to slander the first General Secretary of the IPTA as a whore, as well as the top leadership of the communist party implying that they had a rollicking time with her.” [Emphasis added]

Like most such communist organisations, the IPTA was a subterfuge for naked propaganda, skilfully concealed in plain sight. But on the canvas of society and culture, the growth of destructive outfits like the IPTA was also a direct consequence of Macaulayite education. The spread of alien European ideas also meant the spread of Communism in India. In our context, this spread was almost exactly parallel to the decline and downfall of the tradition of pure aesthetics, one of the greatest gifts of the Sanatana civilisation to the world. Thus, in the artistic and literary realm, unqualified joy was replaced by unquenchable agitation.

It was also consonant with the communist theory and practice of completely uprooting everything that the past contained. Thus, the IPTA had to necessarily invent new standards of aesthetics, which meant boxing the Arts into the confines of the communist ideology. But in practice, these “new standards of aesthetics” were simply a reflection of petty personal rivalries of the comrades inclined towards artistic pursuits.

At any rate, in 1953, the IPTA had notched up remarkable success and attracted the attention and patronage of influential sections of the society including advocates, judges, joint secretaries, and serving politicians. Two notable regional offshoots of IPTA of those days include the Praja Natya Mandali in (undivided) Andhra and Samudaya in Karnataka. Both organisations were financed by wealthy zamindars and powerful political ideologues, among others.

But the IPTA’s undoubted crowning glory came in 1957. The persistent communist wooing of Jawaharlal Nehru culminated in the IPTA getting official recognition by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. In other words, capture of these government-funded cultural institutions meant that communist ideologues could certify what was “good art” and what wasn’t: Those who didn’t toe the line were either sidelined or had their careers destroyed.

From thereon, the spread of their tentacles into cinema was mostly seamless. Reread the names of the writers, actors, music directors, etc, listed earlier in this essay. For the next thirty-odd years, this Leftist dominance was unimpeded and nearly absolute.

The dominance still prevails, though in a different form, and is far deadlier.

The author is founder and chief editor, ‘The Dharma Dispatch’. Views expressed are personal.

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