Janam, short for Jana Natya Manch or people’s theatre forum, was born at an interesting juncture in the new republic. In the early 1970s, citizens were getting disenchanted with the unmet promises of the Congress made at the time of Independence. Poverty, inflation and unemployment were high. The Indian communists were calling for reforms but were themselves at loggerheads with each other.
In 1973, hungry for change, a group of young and enthusiastic members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) in Delhi formed the cultural front Janam from the vestiges of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) of the 1940s. Safdar Hashmi was a founder member. With avowed sympathy for the workers’ cause, the group began to perform plays for trade union events, especially CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Union). In its initial five years, Janam produced large-scale performances that were attended by thousands of people. Its biggest hit during that time was a political satire called Bakri (Goat), directed by Kavita Nagpal.
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The clampdown during the Emergency of 1975 made it difficult for the group to continue as usual. Struggling under financial and political constraints, the group began to explore the possibilities of street theatre, and thereafter produced performances only within the bounds of what its audience members — workers and farmers — could afford. The first play under this format, Machine, directed by a 24-year-old Safdar Hashmi, inaugurated a vibrant era for the group.
However, things turned ugly when on January 1, 1989, while the group was performing Halla Bol in the Jhandapur industrial area of Sahibabad, in Ghaziabad, Delhi, the group was attacked by political goons allegedly patronised by the Congress, the then ruling party. A young Nepali migrant worker, Ram Bahadur, was shot dead, several others injured, and Safdar Hashmi violently assaulted, his skull smashed with bamboo sticks and iron rods. He died in hospital the next day.
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The incident shook the nation and over 15,000 people joined the funeral procession the following morning. Hashmi’s killing drew nationwide attention to Janam and its protest theatre. And when, just 36 hours after his death, Moloyashree Hashmi, his wife, returned to Sahibabad and completed the interrupted play, it galvanised not only the artistic community but also the common person on the street.