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- Published 31.12.04
For whom does the serious artist produce? To some extent, for himself, in the urge to give shape and expression to a particular understanding of experience. But in his mind there is always the shadowy audience ? as Mr Salman Rushdie said, someone vaguely like himself ? who is willing to be provoked into thought by the unexpected and the controversial, and is able to see the general in the particular, the possibility of truth in what is patently fiction. What material the artist is drawn to in order to construct his vision of the world depends entirely on him. Ms Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose play, Behzti, was taken off the boards in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre because members of the Sikh community demonstrated against it, said she was drawn to that which lies beneath the ?triumph? of the Sikhs, ?all that is anonymous and quiet, raging, despairing, human, inhumane, absurd and comical?. Her play is set in a gurdwara, in spite of earlier requests from her own community to change the setting, and it portrays corruption, murder and rape. This has affronted religious sentiments, and death threats have compelled Ms Kaur to go into hiding.
Ms Bhatti has not found her audience. Or rather, she might have done, had not members of her community used violence to stop the play. It seems immaterial that the entire artist community in Britain is behind her, alarmed at this brutal victory of violence over the artist?s freedom of speech. The proposed insertion of ?and religious? after ?racial? into the Serious Organized Crime and Police Bill had already made them nervy: to make incitement to religious hatred a crime would privilege religious sentiments and allow extreme elements to use violence against exactly the kind of freedom that art stands for. The complicated issue of freedom of speech versus religious sentiment is further compounded by the over-sensitive, defensive mentality of Asian communities settled in the West. The notion of ?honour? ? the title of Ms Bhatti?s play is translated ?dishonour? ? has become peculiarly corrupted, as the hideous train of honour killings indicate. The West is equally responsible in promoting and nurturing the politics of religion: Mr Tony Blair?s Britain does not have politicians to stand behind Ms Bhatti. The question, therefore, is whether the special circumstances of each situation should be a part of the artist?s consideration.