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. (Gene & Windmiller)
Truer words were never spoken. But to examine this on the plane of fundamental human urges and impulses, a Communist is first a deeply dissatisfied, constantly agitated and therefore, a self-loathing person. When this self-loathing acquires absolute political power, it culminates in cyclical genocide. The repeated wholesale slaughter of innocent people by Stalin and Mao demonstrate precisely this truth. But to acquire this level of imperious political power, one needs to inject the same level of constant disgruntlement in a substantial mass of people using mostly concealed but when convenient, unconcealed deception of epic proportions. This is where something called ideology comes handy.
There’s a cardinal reason why the reverse portmanteau, Agitprop was coined by the Communists: it was one of the central devices to spread the Communist ideology: via propaganda and agitation. Here is a good academic explanation[i] of the term:
In Communist usage the term “propaganda” has a specialized meaning and is differentiated from ’’agitation.” The distinction is, in the broadest terms, 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.
Thus, it is not a coincidence that from its very inception, Communism when implemented in practical politics regarded every single facet of public life and society as a potential keyhole for spreading its soul-crushing propaganda. So it was in India, via the original Communist Party of India, which birthed itself as a slave of the U.S.S.R. The craggy mountain of just written (i.e. published) propaganda it has produced—and continues to produce—till date is almost infinite and includes journals, magazines, booklets, (specialist) newspapers, monographs, pamphlets…
Sure enough, the Communists found that Bharatavarsha with its millennia-long, extraordinary corpus, variety, and wealth of cultural and artistic expression was a fine area to pour their poison into. And so, they began this venal project with a single-minded, messianic zeal, which does evoke our admiration.
Given their finely-honed craft of mangling language, it was no surprise that one of their initial targets was literature and writing. The outcome was the formation in 1936 of a Leftist cult named Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA or IPWA), whose real antecedents derived from something called the Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind, which in turn was a byproduct of the bigoted brain of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Some of the ideological stars that dotted its ugly galaxy included 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 soon enough in 1943. This was the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), which boasts of itself as the oldest association of theatre-artists in India. Needless, the goal of IPTA was to spread the Communist venom in the wider Indian society by capturing theatre and to an extent, folk and performing arts. In the true tradition of Leftist incest, IPTA was populated by some of the same members of the PWA. Here are some names in no particular order: Bimal Roy, A.K. Hangal, Anna Bhau Sathe, K. Subramaniam, K. A. 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 near-perfect: in Bombay in May, 1943, when the CPI was holding the First Congress. And it met with spectacular[ii] success. Here is a glimpse:
Traveling dance and drama troupes were organized 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.
Of course, the IPTA called itself an autonomous and independent cultural body not affiliated to any political party but in reality, it was entirely controlled by the CPI. This control didn’t extend to IPTA as an organization, but to the personal lives of its members as well. Here is a revealing exchange between writer-director K.A. Abbas and Soli Batliwala who had been elected to the CPI Central Committee at the First Congress in 1943. Within two years, Batliwala was so disgusted with the vile manner in which the CPI pried into his private life that in 1945, he completely cut off ties with it noting[iii] in writing that
None of your [i.e. K.A. Abbas’s] 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 Cora. N. K. Krishnan. This applies to persons who act in your plays, who work full time for the organization in varied and different capacities.
Even Utpal Dutt, the fine actor and one of the most “loyal worker[s]” of the CPI was not spared. Read his own words[iv] 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.
Like most Communist activities, IPTA was a subterfuge for naked propaganda, hidden skillfully in plain sight. Perhaps Arthur Koestler’s acclaimed classic, Darkness at Noon is one of the most brutal and evocative exposes of how this vile technique was employed with aplomb.
But at a deeper societal and cultural level, the ascendance of destructive outfits like IPTA was also a direct consequence of Macaulayite education and went exactly parallel to the decline and downfall in the study of pure aesthetics in the pristine Sanatana tradition – unqualified joy was replaced by unquenchable agitation. In consonance with the Communist perversion of completely uprooting everything that the past contained, this in turn was reflected in the IPTA which had to necessarily invent new standards of aesthetics. This in itself merits an independent PhD thesis. Hindsight shows that this “new standards of aesthetics” was simply a reflection of petty personal rivalries of the Comrades inclined towards artistic pursuits. The late 1960s and most of the ‘70s in Kannada literature is a case in point: the manner in which P. Lankesh and other former disciples of U.R. Ananthamurthy broke away and began to mount vicious attacks against him.
At any rate, in 1953, the IPTA had attained even greater 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. It also helped that by then, the Communists had their own man, Nawab Nehru at the helm of India. Their persistent wooing of Nawab Nehru met with great success: in 1957 the IPTA got official recognition by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. In other words, capture of institutions from where they could certify what was “good art” and what wasn’t: those who didn’t toe the line were either sidelined or destroyed.
From here, the transition to cinema was mostly seamless. Check out the names of the writers, actors, music directors listed earlier in this essay. For the next thirty-odd years, the Leftist dominance was nearly total. Another measure of this dominance is reflected in the fact that the Government of India released a postage stamp in honour of the IPTA.
The dominance still prevails.
[i] Gene Overstreet and Marshal Windmiller: Communism in India: pp 446-7. Emphasis added.
[ii] Ibid pp 436
[iii] Soli Batliwala: Facts fersus Forgery pp 30-31
[iv] Theatre with an Ideology: p 343