March of memories

Published : May 09, 2008 00:00 IST

A STREET PLAY by Sahmat to mark National Street Theatre Day, in New Delhi on April 12.-COURTESY: SAHMAT

A STREET PLAY by Sahmat to mark National Street Theatre Day, in New Delhi on April 12.-COURTESY: SAHMAT

On the occasion of Safdar Hashmis 20th birth anniversary, which is celebrated as National Street Theatre Day.

THEATRE personalities, actors, artists, writers, trade union workers, journalists, students, cultural activists and others gathered together at Safdar Hashmi Marg, Mandi House in New Delhi to celebrate the 20th National Street Theatre Day on April 12. This was the day Safdar Hashmi, actor, singer, writer, film-maker and a whole-time worker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was born in 1954. Safdar would have been 54 on this April 12 had he not been fatally attacked on January 1, 1989. He died the next day.

Safdar was attacked by ruling party henchmen at Jhandapur near Sahibabad, barely 23 km from Delhi, while his street theatre group, Jana Natya Manch (Janam), was performing the play Halla Bol, at the invitation of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), in support of workers right to form unions and demand fair wages.

The spontaneous upsurge of anger, revulsion and popular protest that engulfed the entire nation in the days and weeks following his assassination led to the formation of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat). Within days of his death, Jana Natya Manch went back to the site of the attack to complete the unfinished play, foregrounding the resolve of the creative community not to be cowed down by terror tactics and to stand united in defence of its right to perform and to express its thoughts, in forms chosen by it. On April 12, 1989, was launched the 10-day-long Safdar Samaroh. It was decided to observe April 12 as National Street Theatre Day.

The 20th National Street Theatre Day was celebrated on April 12, 2008. For the past two decades, street theatre groups in towns, cities and villages spread across the country have been paying tribute to Safdar by performing plays on peoples issues and their daily struggles. Sahmat sends them National Street Theatre Day posters which they use for filling in performance details for local publicity. They inform Sahmat about the performances and send press clippings.

This National Street Theatre Day in Delhi was observed jointly by Sahmat and Janam. M.K Raina, founder-trustee of Sahmat and friend of Safdar, recalled Safdars role in establishing street theatre as an independent genre of meaningful theatre and pointed to the fact that 20 years after his death, the working class was again fighting for decent living wages and that attacks on creative expression had only increased.

The Jana Natya Manch performed Ye Hum Kyon Sahen? (Why should we tolerate this state of affairs?), which was prepared for a CITU campaign for upward revision of minimum wages of industrial workers, last revised 19 years ago.

The play was preceded by the performance of a short play in Malyalam on the theme of the central role of labour in all human creation by Jan Sanskriti.

Sitaram Yechury, member of the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M), who had studied in St. Stephens College with Safdar, talked about him as a friend and as an activist of the SFI (Students Federation of India), and of his work in diverse fields, including his role in mobilising theatre persons, artists, writers, film-makers and others in anti-communal campaigns and in support of workers rights. After the performance, all those who had gathered at Safdar Hashmi Marg marched to Rafi Marg, the venue of the second part of the programme.

Among the participants were friends and colleagues of Safdar; there were those who have grown up hearing and reading about him and there were many who continue to be involved in areas that engaged Safdar.

There were eminent artists Vivan Sundaram, Shamshad, Veer Munshi, Parthiv Shah, Arpana Caur, V.G. Abhimanyue and Sanjay Sharma; academics Prabhat Patnaik, Javed Alam, C.P. Chandrasekhar, Shakti Kak, Jayati Ghosh, Utsa Patnaik, Malini Bhattacharya, Zoya Hasan and Madangopal Singh; Brinda Karat, member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau; writers Manglesh Dabral, Asad Zaidi, M.M.P. Singh and Sudeep Banerjee; and theatre directors M.K. Raina and N.K. Sharma, both close friends of Safdar.

This was a unique march in many ways. The marchers walked behind the same banner that was carried 20 years ago on April 12, 1989. The banner carried the Hindi translation of a famous verse by German playwright and anti-fascist campaigner Bertolt Brecht

And will there be singing in the dark times?Yes there will be singing of the dark times!!

The march was an expression of solidarity with the ideals that Safdar held dear and the participants carried large photographs on themes that had engaged Safdar in his creative and political work. The themes, as diverse as Safdars own body of work, included the conditions of the working class and their struggles, the poor, working women, slum-dwellers, child labour, hunger, demolitions of slum clusters, closure of factories, destruction of heritage and environment, the maddening construction boom, the rise of consumerist culture, the unbridled rise of communal fascism, the ever increasing attacks on creative freedom and the right to dissent by vigilante bands and the so-called moral police.

The marchers carried the works of, among others, Abhimanyue, Ayodh Kamath, Chandni Arora, Gigi Scaria, Gopal Krishna Nair, Inder Sleem, Jenson Anto, Kanishka Prasad, Mathew Kurien, Parthiv Shah, Priyanka Sachar, Rajinder Arora, Ram Rahman, Safdar Hashmi, Sanjay Sharma, Sanjay Shrivastava, Sarita, Shruti Singhi, Sudhanva Deshpande, Vatsal Kant, Veer Munshi, Vibha Galhotra and Vivan Sundaram. The Department of History, Delhi University, members of Janam and Act One, and many amateurs also contributed to the street gallery of photographs.

The march culminated on the lawns of Vithalbhai Patel House where an exhibition of all the photographs carried in the march was put up in the open along with a Sahmat exhibition on the life and work of Safdar.

The programme at V.P. House began with the release of a compilation of contemporary Hindi poetry Phootegi Phir Bhor (The Dawn Shall Break Again) on issues concerning the conditions of the working class and the impact of globalisation. The compilation, containing the works of 29 poets, was by Dr. Brajesh of Janam and Dr. Bali Singh of Janvadi Lekhak Sangh.

Dinesh Kumar Shukl and Hareram Sameep, two of the contributing poets, recited a few of their poems. This was followed by readings from the play Halla Bol. Those who read out from the script included many of those Jana Natya Manch actors who were performing the play when it was attacked and had gone back three days later to the same site to perform the play.

The reading was followed by the release of a reprint of Mote Ram Ka Satyagrah. The play, based on a short story written by Munshi Prem Chand, was jointly adapted by Habib Tanveer and Safdar; both had acted in the first performance of the play. The play was staged again in September 1991 and some members of the cast who took part in the two performances were at hand to read out excerpts. The cover for the reprint was designed by the eminent artist Shamshad.

The programme concluded with the screening of Sashi Kumars film Safdar. The film, made on the occasion of Safdar Samaroh 1989, uses actual footage of the performance that was held three days after the attack on Safdar and of a large number of protest meetings.

The screening brought back memories of pain and loss, but also of the determination to carry on the fight that has sustained Sahmat, Janam and a large number of those who have taken inspiration from the brilliance of a committed artist and a loveable human being.

As the famous IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association) song Hum Sub Is Jahan Mein Zindagi ke Geet Gayen (Together we sing the songs of life) brought the film to a close, the strain was picked up by Kajal Ghosh and the Parcham Choir Parcham and Janam have been together for decades; they were together in Mote Ram, on April 12, 1989, and on April 12, 2008.

All those who knew the song joined in, eyes brimming with tears and throats choked, but determined to carry on.

Sohail Hashmi, a writer, is a founder-member of Sahmat and elder brother of Safdar Hashmi.

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