Plays for the people

Print edition : January 28, 2005

The Jana Natya Manch's street play "Akhri Juloos" and proscenium production "Shambuk Vadh", performed to mark the 16th death anniversary of Safdar Hashmi, evokes a good response.

ON January 1, 1989, the Jana Natya Manch was performing the play "Halla Bol" at Shahibabad, an industrial township on the outskirts of Delhi, in a show of solidarity with the working class when goons supported by the Congress attacked the troupe. Safdar Hashmi, its driving force, was killed in the attack, being the last to run for safety, after ensuring the security of his comrades.

A scene from the play "Shambuk Vadh".-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On January 1 this year, a huge congregation of people from all walks of life gathered at the Ambedkar Park in Jhandapur, Shahibabad, to mark the 16th anniversary of Safdar Hashmi's death. The event highlighted the relationship between the trade union movement in Delhi and the Jana Natya Manch, between workers and artists.

Even if the makeshift element associated with street theatre was absent, the political perspective from which the show was organised - the perspective that made Safdar Hashmi dedicate his life to Art for the People - was much in evidence.

Like political open-space performances or the theatre of protest across the world, street theatre in India emerged out of contingencies and not through studied effort. In the period immediately after the Emergency, the Jana Natya Manch could not carry on with its earlier proscenium performances owing to the weakened state of the trade unions and a host of other organisations. In responding to the need of the situation, Safdar Hashmi suggested to his co-artists: "If we can't take big theatre to the people, we can take small theatre to them". The result was "Machine", a play that marked a turning point for the Jana Natya Manch and the street theatre movement in India in more ways than one.

The fare presented this year at Shahibabad included both small and large plays. The audience could enjoy the street play "Akhri Juloos" and the proscenium production "Shambuk Vadh". Before the programme commenced, members of the Manch sang a song in memory of their martyred comrade - "Lal jhanda leke, Comrade, aage badhte jayenge".

"Akhri Juloos" defends the right to strike. It makes a sharp attack on the recent cases of judicial intervention that have sought to curtail the right to strike, place restrictions on rallies and sit-ins. In the play a Judge is caught in a traffic jam caused by a rally. Throughout the play the contempt of the Judge for the rally is contrasted with the enthusiasm of his driver for the tableaux, which are part of the rally. As the rally goes on, the Judge's frustration increases and he passes an order declaring all forms of protest illegal.

Tableaux from the rally enact scenes from historic strike actions - the Railway Chakka Jam of May 1974 in Asansol, the workers' strike in Bombay (now Mumbai) in July 1908 against the arrest of Bal Gangadhar Tilak by the British police, and the historic May Day strike action in Chicago, in 1886. Through these enactments the play depicts strike and protest actions as essential weapons of the working class. In fact, the play makes it explicit that the gain from the May Day actions resulted in the sanctioning of the norm of an eight-hour work day, which benefited not only workers but people of all classes across the world. Through this it seeks to dispel the view put forward by the opponents of protest actions that strikes and sit-ins are undemocratic and unethical. Instead it reaffirms the faith of the spectator in protest as a weapon of struggle.

As the rally goes on, the Judge revels in the thought that this would be the last ever rally - "akhri juloos". Yet, inspired by the tableaux, his driver joins the rally. The Judge remains caught in the traffic jam.

THE principal attraction of the afternoon was, however, "Shambuk Vadh", written by Brijesh Sharma and directed by Sudhanva Deshpande, both members of the Jana Natya Manch. The music for the play is by Kajal Ghosh. Though a `large' play, the Jana Natya Manch has performed it in various localities in and around Delhi by using its mobile theatre unit `Safar'. "Shambuk Vadh" is a serious attempt to address artistically the questions facing the struggle against the caste system. In order to do so it engages in a skilful reworking of mythology associated with the Ramayana. The story of the play, in fact, has several sources.

Shambuk is a little-known Shudra character in the Ramayana. In the epic, after Rama has assumed the throne of Ayodhya following his return from exile, a Brahmin accuses him of causing the death of his son by his toleration of the Shudra Shambuk, who has violated the caste hierarchy by reciting the Vedas. In order to redress the situation, Rama searches out Shambuk and kills him. The Brahmin boy comes back to life.

The play uses the narrative gaps in the epic story to insert counterfactuals and shapes Shambuk as a figure who provides leadership to all Dalits and who formulates effective strategies to carry forward the struggle against the brahminical order.

The complexities involved in the choice of an appropriate path for Dalit assertion is brought forward in the play through the character of Satyakam, Shambuk's lieutenant. But the character of Satyakam does not appear in the Ramayana, but is interpolated by the playwright, from the Chhandogya Upanishad. Satyakam was the son of a Shudra woman Jabala and was educated by the rishi Gautama and given the sacred thread.

The blending in of the two unrelated plots is attained with such skill that the operation is undetected by the unaware eye. Satyakam engages in a debate with Shambuk over the path of struggle. Shambuk's vision is that of a broader unity of all Shudras, Atishudras and women. The play, in fact, brings together `ek Shudra' - Shambuk, `ek gotr-bihin' - Satyakam, and `ek nari' - Jabala. Together they form the core of the Dalit assertion in Ramrajya.

Shambuk advocates and initiates the study of Sanskrit in his school. He argues that the knowledge of Sanskrit would open up horizons that are imprisoned in the Vedas - knowledge that belongs to the entire humanity and of which Shudras have been deprived. Satyakam expresses his dissatisfaction with Shambuk's strategy of preparing the ground for the overthrow of the caste system through education. He argues for an armed revolt. Shambuk disagrees, suggesting that without preparation of the mind, the action of armed rebellion would be doomed to failure and as it would not be able to forge the broadest unity of all those who are exploited by Brahminism.

Trouble begins to brew with the teaching of Sanskrit in Shambuk's school. The conflict reaches a climax when Shambuk organises mass recitals of the Vedas. The upper castes, which find their privilege under threat, organise themselves and attack the Shudras.

Then Vashisht, Rama's guru and the high priest of Brahmanism, intervenes by attempting to lure Shambuk into withdrawing his movement, with the promise of the status of a maharishi to him. Susharma (an imaginary character created by the playwright), another of Vashisht's disciples, argues for the state to take tougher measures to quell what he sees as a revolt against the Varna system. Shambuk spurns Vashisht's bait, and this leads to the denouement.

Intertwined into this is a love story. Valaya is the daughter of the royal priest of Kalinga. She falls in love with a Shudra carpenter boy, Vridu. The two marry, and to escape the fury of the upper castes in Kalinga, land up in Ayodhya, where eventually they are given shelter in Shambuk's ashram. It is Valaya, well-versed in Sanskrit, who teaches the language to the Shudras.

The play uses the devise of language to differentiate between the characters belonging to different castes. The characters of "Shambuk Vadh" can be grouped in three categories - the upper-caste characters Susharma, Vashisht and Dhangupt; the educated Shudras and Atishudras - Shambuk, Satyakam, Jabala; and the lowest of the castes, the pucchus youth and the dhobans (washerwomen). The three groups speak in three different languages - a `shudh' (pure), Sanskritised Hindi for the upper castes, a middle Hindi for the second group of educated Shudras, and a minimally Sanskritised Hindi for the pucchus and the dhobans. Sanskritised Hindi is used for all the characters because of the necessity of periodisation. This usage of language allows the explication of the interplay between the politics of caste and the politics of language in contemporary India.

Shambuk Vadh draws upon the tradition of prahasan (satire) from ancient Sanskrit drama. The two characters most often ridiculed in ancient Sanskrit plays are the pujari and the kotwal, representatives of the religious and secular authorities respectively. One of the most endearing characters in Shambuk Vadh is a poor Brahmin given to gambling, who teaches the Vedas to his Shudra gambling mates in lieu of the money he routinely owes them. Then there are the two soldiers, both of whom cannot speak - one metaphorically and the other literally.

The play uses a lot of humour. Apart from the gambling Brahmin and the soldiers, there is also a small play enacted in Shambuk's ashram. This hilarious little piece, directed by Valaya, is based on a short story by the Dalit writer Ramnihor Vimal.

Arjun Ghosh is a Ph.D. scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, doing research on political theatre, with a special focus on street theatre.

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