Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Sound of Music

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The apex court delivered a landmark verdict by lifting the 25-year-old ban on the famous musical drama, Jesus Christ Superstar, imposed only in Kottayam

By Jacob George

The lifting of the ban on Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical drama, by the Supreme Court is a landmark verdict. The ban was imposed in 1990 by Alphons Kannamthanam, the then district collector of Kottayam in Kerala.

On October 15, 1990, students of the liberal and modern Corpus Christy School, now called Pallikkoodam, in Kottayam, were set to enact the drama after school hours. That’s when a special messenger from the office of Kannamthanam handed over a magisterial order to Mary Roy, the founder and then principal of the school. She stood speechless even as anxious students dressed as Jesus, Judas, Peter and Mary Magdalene swarmed around her. They soon realized that they could not enact Jesus Christ Superstar for which they had been rehearsing for more than a month. Mary Roy planned to stage the drama on the annual day of the school before a special audience of parents and guests.

And the ban has been in force for the last 25 years, until the Supreme Court on April 7 allowed the plea of Father Abraham Vella-thadathil, a priest of the Church of South India to lift it. Students who lost the golden opportunity to enact this famous dance drama are in their 40s now, while Mary Roy, who, incidentally, is the mother of famous writer Arundhati Roy, is a frail old lady who lives in a house on the school campus.


The Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, quashed the 1990 notification banning the drama after it was informed that it had been staged several times all over the world and even in the Vatican, that it was available online and that it had been banned only in Kottayam. Though the musical drama was banned in 1990, Vellathadathil app-roached the High Court only in 2002. The court dismissed the petition and the priest appealed to Supreme Court.

But why was the famous dance drama banned? There were protests from some Christian groups, but they were not that powerful to force authorities to impose a ban. Neither had churches in Kerala taken a stringent stand against the drama. Sadly, the then LDF government, led by CPM leader EK Nayanar, didn’t attempt to reverse the ban.

Mary Roy had then said that Kan-namthanam had a personal score to settle with her. She still believes this. “My civil case with my brother was going on then. Many people were against me. There might have been some external influence behind the ban,” says Mary Roy. But Kannamthanam, now a member of the BJP national executive committee, says: “It is not fair to attribute motives to a magisterial order.”


“Freedom of speech and expression has undergone much change. I wrote the said order in detail in the particular context prevailing at that time.” CHANGE OF HEART

But the years have changed Kannamthanam and he now has a different perspective on this issue. Though he doesn’t admit that any extraneous force had influenced him, he says that the last 25 years have changed him. “Freedom of speech and expression has undergone much change. I wrote the said order in detail in the particular context prevailing at that time, says Kannamthanam.
He is unhappy that he was not heard before the apex court pronounced its verdict. Neither was he served with a notice, nor did he know that the case was going on in the court. His response to the Supreme Court verdict? “I can very well see it in the light of new perceptions of freedom of speech and expression,” says Kannamthanam.

But Mary Roy has valid reasons to believe that some external forces were active against her at that time. Her name is well-known in legal circles as she had won a landmark judgment from the Supreme Court in 1986 which entitled Syrian Christian women an equal share in their father’s property. As per the Travancore Succession Act 1916 and Cochin Succession Act 1921, daughters in Syrian Christian families were entitled to only one-quarter of the son’s share or `5,000, whichever was less.

Mary Roy  /EXPRESS

Mary Roy, principal of Corpus Christy school, also fought for Syrian Christian women’s rights




Though Mary won the case, it caused her many hardships. The Church feared the court order would divide family properties, which in turn, would weaken the Syrian Christian community and destroy its financial might. Mary Roy believes that powerful entities couldn’t digest her legal win and were behind the ban order of Jesus Christ Superstar. “The drama was slated to begin at 5.30 pm that day, but the ban order came at 5.05 pm. The children started crying,” recollects Mary Roy.

Incidentally, Jesus Christ Superstar is a timeless work by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and was first staged in October 1971 in New York. It is about the extraordinary life of Jesus and the dramatic events that happened during his last days. But what might have irked some in the top hierarchy of a prominent church in Kottayam might be that the story was narrated from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the man who later betrayed Jesus. Though the central story is of Christianity, it also narrates the politics of the time and the psychology of the characters.


Corpus Christy School, whose students were to stage Jesus Christ Superstar on October 15, 1990

Traditionally, Christians look at Judas as a representative of evil, but here, his character attracts sympathy. He has great respect for Jesus, but he fears that he is going beyond his mission, which will attract the wrath of Ro-man soldiers. The drama also narrates the relationships between Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. Judas has concerns that Jesus, a religious man, spends too much time with Mary Magdalene who has a notorious past. Jesus advises Judas that unless he himself is without sins, he must not criticize others. During the Last Supper, Jesus predicts that Peter would deny him and that another would betray him. The drama doesn’t promote the Christian faith nor does it deny it.

The Supreme Court verdict has shown that bureaucracy cannot “crucify” the voice of dissent arbitrarily.

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