Voice of the streets

Print edition : May 09, 2008

Moloyashree Hashmi at a performance of "Halla Bol" on January 4, 1989, three days after the attack on Safdar at the same spot on the outskirts of Delhi.-COURTESY: JAMAM

Safdar Hashmi was a multifaceted artist and was constantly soaking up new influences and trying out new technologies.

Contemporary Indian street theatre has been drawing in equal measure from our folk and classical drama as well as from Western drama . . . [It is] a twentieth century phenomenon, born of the specific needs of the working people living under capitalist and feudal exploitation. [Street theatre] is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations.

Safdar Hashmi

ON April 13, 2008, a day after celebrating Safdar Hashmis birthday as the 20th National Street Theatre Day, the theatre group he had helped found, Jana Natya Manch, was performing at Vijay Nagar, Ghaziabad, about 20 km from the centre of Delhi. It was late afternoon, and the group was performing its play in support of the upcoming strike of workers in organised and unorganised sectors in Delhi on April 24 and 25.

As the play ended and the actors moved into the audience to ask for donations that drive the work of this group of volunteer-actors, a man in his mid-30s sought out Moloyashree Hashmi. The man took out Rs.50 from his pocket and stood with folded hands. After a few moments of silence, he said: I dont know what to say. I never imagined that I would actually see you in person. I am from Jharkhand. I was in college there when Hashmi saheb was . . . Murdered, he probably wanted to say, but he was obviously awkward saying this to Safdars wife. Our college was shut for four days in his memory, he continued. I work in a nearby factory as an accountant. I am really fortunate to have seen your play, and to have met you in person.

When Safdar Hashmi was killed, he was 34 and had been a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) since the early 1970s. Twenty years later, we continue to wonder what would have been, had his promising life not been cut short, for what he achieved in the short time he had was enormous enough.

A bunch of student activists had revived the Delhi unit of the IPTA (Indian Peoples Theatre Association), dormant since the late 1950s, in 1970-71, and began doing large, proscenium plays in the open for mass audiences of thousands. The break with the IPTA occurred in late 1972, partly for ideological reasons (on the question of the attitude to be adopted vis-a-vis the Congress-I) and partly for extraneous reasons (vested interests inside the IPTA had converted the office, located on prime land, into a commercial enterprise and naturally resented the young men and women who wished to do theatre there). Thrown out of the IPTA, these young women and men formed Janam in March 1973 and continued to do large productions for huge audiences on stages erected in the open in and around Delhi.

In the aftermath of the Emergency (1975-77), it became impossible to do large plays. As Safdar told the theatre scholar Eugene van Erven in the summer of 1988, We discovered that the trade unions were no longer in a position to bear the expenses of even 500 or 700 rupees for a performance. during the Emergency they had been totally destroyed. They needed our theatre in their reorganisation efforts but they had no funds.

A new kind of theatre was now needed, but no one knew what kind. All we knew was that we wanted a play that was (a) inexpensive (b) mobile and portable [and] (c) effective. They read dozens of plays but none satisfied them. Janam decided to write its own plays. The first of these was Machine, a short, 13-minute play with a cast of six, acted in a circle with the audience on all sides, first performed on October 15, 1978. Safdar records how the idea of Machine emerged:

There is a chemical factory called Herig-India. The workers there did not have a union. They had two very ordinary demands They wanted a place where they could park their bicycles and a canteen where they could get a cup of tea The management was not willing even to grant these demands The workers went on strike and the guards opened fire, killing six workers. So this old Communist leader told me about this incident and he said, Why dont you write a play about it?

The initial draft of Machine was written by Safdar (then 24) and another actor, and was finalised on the floor, where everyone present contributed. Machine is an abstract play, in a way. The machine, created very simply by human figures, is the symbolic representation of capitalism. The worker, the capitalist and the security officer are all parts of the machine; they are complementary parts of a system founded upon the exploitation of one by the other; their co-existence, then, is unequal. As the Narrator puts it:

They stay together, they work together. Owner and worker, goon and victim. And more: mill and grain, thakur and dalit. Always together, forever together!

But of course the permanence of togetherness is illusory; an exploitative system breeds within it the seeds of its own destruction. The machine breaks down and comes to a grinding halt the workers have revolted.

After we sang the final song, the trade union delegates lifted us on their shoulders. We became heroes The next day we performed at the Boat Club for about 1,60,000 workers. So you see, our street theatre began very gloriously A lot of people tape-recorded the play A month after the rally we started getting reports from all around the country that people were performing Machine They had reconstructed it in their own languages.

Safdar Hashmi at a performance in the early 1980s.-SURENDRA RAJAN/COURTESY: JANAM

Ten years and a thousand shows later, Safdar still could not explain the success of Machine: The workers absolutely love this play. I still do not understand [why], for its so simple It is schematic, except that the dialogues are interesting. Everywhere they loved it, though Perhaps it is something abstract that appeals to them. But Safdar has explained, here, the success of Machine: first, because of its not just interesting but stylised, lyrical, near-poetic prose; second, because it captures in its abstraction a very real, living truth and trusts its audiences to make the connection between the abstraction and the reality; third, because abstraction and brevity lend it a certain simplicity, without rendering it simplistic.

What Machine did, then, was to encapsulate the basic framework of Janams street theatre: it is a theatre allied with the people, the revolutionary classes in particular; it signalled the involvement of its audiences in the creative process (the idea for Machine came from a trade unionist); it placed poetry in the foreground; it laid stress on theatrical innovation; and it inspired several others to take up street theatre.

That first year saw an incredible burst of creativity, unsurpassed since by any group. Within a fortnight after Machine opened, Janam had written and rehearsed Gaon se Shahr Tak, an interesting, but moderately successful play on a dispossessed peasant becoming an industrial worker. The end of the year saw Hatyare, a sensitive, probing play on the recent riots in Aligarh. In February 1979, a real quickie on the fare hike by the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), written, rehearsed, and out on the streets in five hours flat: this was DTC ki Dhandhali, and logged 48 shows in four days.

The following month, Janam prepared Aurat, which became one of the most successful and popular street plays in the country. Soon after came Teen Crore, on unemployment. This did not really work but became the basis for Raja ka Baja, which was done the following year and became a roaring success. In the meanwhile, in December 1979, Janams first election play, Aya Chunao, was performed extensively in Haryana.

Seven plays, then, in 14 months, totalling about 500 shows. As Safdar put it, We just kept going because the people gave us so much energy. Yet, what is striking, in retrospect, is not so much the mind-boggling figures of that first year for Janam has now done some 8,000 performances of nearly 80 street plays over the last 30 years but the sheer diversity of output. Each of these seven plays of the first year is distinct in style and, even when not successful, well-crafted: not a moment is wasted, the action is tight, the language has flow, the dialogues are easy on the tongue and ear, the humour sharp but never unnecessary, the characters delineated with minimum effort (a turn of phrase here, a piece of costume there), the songs lyrical yet forceful.

The second major spurt in street theatre activity was not a spurt; it was an explosion. This occurred in response to the attack on Janam on January 1, 1989, and the death of Safdar Hashmi as a result of this attack the following day. Janam was performing Halla Bol, a play on a recent seven-day industrial strike led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

After the attack and Safdars murder, Halla Bol became a rallying cry; it was performed by hundreds of old and new groups in several languages. Doing the play became, by itself, a means of expressing anger, an emblem of protest, a gesture of resistance; the fact that Halla Bol is also quite a delightful, innovative play was nearly incidental. The attack on Janam and Safdars murder provoked nationwide (and international) protest. Street theatre, naturally, was at the very centre of these protests.

Thus, when artists decided to observe April 12, Safdars birthday, as the National Street Theatre Day, the response was staggering: 30,000 performances were done on that day in 1989. This was the figure compiled in Delhi after receiving specific information. There were many more performances, though no one knows how many.

Safdar did not see street theatre as a revolt against the proscenium theatre. As he put it in one of his articles: Theatre cannot be dependent on the frills and the trappings which surround it. Drama is born with force and beauty in any empty space whether square, rectangular or circular. The play comes alive whether the spectators are on one or all sides, in darkness or in light Theatre did not begin with proscenium, nor has its evolution reached the final stage with it.

But Safdar was also clear that street theatre artists had much to learn from the proscenium. Accordingly, in the summer of 1988, he collaborated with Habib Tanvir in writing Moteram ka Satyagraha, a satire based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. Tanvir directed this production for Janam. Earlier, in the mid-1980s, Safdar adapted Gorkys Enemies as Dushman. This remained unperformed in his lifetime, but Tanvir directed a magnificent production of it for the National School of Drama Repertory Company in the summer of 1989.

Safdar was a multifaceted artist and was constantly soaking up new influences and trying out new technologies. He wrote a 24-part television serial on adult literacy and womens empowerment for the United Nations Childrens Fund; he wrote a number of songs and plays for children (these were written at the bidding of Moloyashree, a school teacher); he designed posters for a number of mass organisations; he took photographs; and he conducted theatre workshops. He worked for a while at the West Bengal Information Centre in Delhi, and was instrumental in organising the first Ritwik Ghatak retrospective in the capital.

He also organised screenings of Cuban films, in particular those of Tomas Alea. He was a major force in rallying artists and intellectuals around larger issues of concern: at the time of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and subsequently in defence of secularism; in reviving the legacy of Premchand; in rallying artists and intellectuals in support of the seven-day strike in 1988.

As Habib Tanvir remembers: Safdar was an extremely broad-minded man, in a political sense. He wanted to open a broad cultural front. He could write poetry and plays, paint, act and sing. His idea of a cultural front was not confined to theatre. He visualised painters, musicians, singers, dancers, writers and critics all to be drawn into a movement out of common interest. [He was] a creative genius, endowed with the zeal, energy and determination of a far-sighted organiser and theatre visionary.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch.