Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Verdict lifting Kerala ban on 'Jesus Christ Superstar' recalls play's troubled history in India

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to quash a notification from 1990 preventing the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar from being staged in Kottayam brings down the curtain on the last hold-out to a show with a troubled history in India.  The court said that since Jesus Christ Superstar had already been produced all over the world and is available online, a ban, based on an order by the district collector, serves no purpose. The verdict revives memories of an earlier controversy that almost derailed India's first staging of the production four decades ago in Mumbai.

When advertising executive and theatre director Alyque Padamsee announced that he was doing a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 1974, he ran into a storm of protest. The musical had already angered religious groups in the US, who denounced some of the interpretations it contained as  blasphemous, chiefly the suggestion that Jesus Christ was not the son of God but was actually nothing more than the right man at the right time. Suggestions that Judas was much misunderstood and that Mary Magdalene may have had a relationship with Jesus did not go down to well either.

As news spread of the musical being performed in Mumbai, angry letters were dashed off to theExaminer, the Catholic community newspaper. Padamsee, realising this could get out of hand, approached the head of the Church in Mumbai, Valerian Cardinal Gracias, and convinced him that he would treat Christ in “a reverential manner”.

Compromise strategies

He did that in two ways. Padamsee’s colleague in Lintas, Noel Godin wrote a special song to open the show: Mary (played by Devika Bhojwani) was to sing a tune that reiterate Christ’s divinity. (It became so popular, it is still sung in city churches.)

Padamsee also decided to change the words of a song by Judas to make it sound less critical of Jesus. In the original, Judas sang, “Listen Jesus, do you care for your race?/Don’t you see we must keep our place?” This sounded like the disciple was questioning Jesus, something that devout Catholics would have found offensive. Instead, Padamsee had Judas declare, “Listen Jesus, you do care for your race.” The Church was satisfied, since this made Judas sounded like he was completely accepting of Christ's primacy.

As an added precaution, Padamsee showed the play to a group of senior clergy and got their blessings. He needn’t have worried. When the production opened, the Examiner wrote a glowing review, even praising the interpretations: “The liberties taken could provide an intelligent Catholic of pleasant discussion. Was Magdalene in love with Christ? Did she settle for a platonic friendship? Was Judas motivated by genuine concern for the friend he adored, possibly wanted physically, but who he believed had gone too far in an ideological crusade?” wrote critic Leslie Noronha.

The shows had two front rows reserved for priests and nuns. Many of them sat with their rosaries watching the musical intently. The complaints, if any, were about the high price of the tickets (Rs 60). With rock stars like Nandu Bhende and Madhukar Dhas on stage, the musical was a grand success.

In 2014, Padamsee revived Jesus Christ Superstar with a completely new cast – barring Bhojwani, who reprised her role. This time, there was not even a whiff of controversy. Indeed, in the intervening period, several other versions of the musical had been staged (one of them featuring rocker Vishal Dadlani) without much ado. To many old timers, however, none of them ever matched up to the high standards of the 1974 original.