Jana Natya Manch: 50 years of performing resistance

The street plays of Jana Natya Manch, the Delhi-based theatre group that turned 50 this year, remind us how a culture of open, free, and public performance is vital to deepening India’s democratic ethos—an ethos under serious threat, and therefore more urgent than ever to nurture, protect, and expand. 

Published : May 30, 2022 06:00 IST

Safdar Hashmi speaks before a performance, May Day 1988.

Safdar Hashmi speaks before a performance, May Day 1988. | Photo Credit: Eugene van Erven

Theatre groups in India, even the successful ones, typically do not have life spans of beyond a couple of decades. So it is something of a landmark when a theatre group enters its 50th year, as the Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch (Janam) did this March.

Over these years, Janam has produced some 120-odd plays, performed them some 8,000 times, in over 300 cities and villages of India. Many of these plays have become classics of political street theatre—Machine (1978), Aurat (1979), Halla Bol (1988), Gopi Gavaiyya Bagha Bajaiyya (1994), Voh Bol Uthi (2001), Yeh Dil Mange More Guruji (2002), Andher Nagari (2021). Well-known theatre artists such as Habib Tanvir, Anuradha Kapur, M.K. Raina, Govind Deshpande, Abhishek Majumdar and Anuja Ghosalkar have written and/or directed plays for the group. Members of Janam have lectured and offered workshops in institutions in India  and internationally. The group itself has performed in Palestine, South Africa, Britain, and the United States. It has also been invited to perform at several leading theatre festivals in India, including at Prithvi Theatre (Mumbai), Ranga Shankara (Bangalore), National School of Drama and Sahitya Kala Parishad (both in New Delhi), Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi (Kochi), Nandan (Kolkata), and Rangayana (Mysore).

To look at Janam’s plays of these five decades is to map the evolution of the Indian republic through its fault lines of class, caste, gender, and identity. Few theatre groups have been as alert and responsive to changes in the political and social landscape as Janam.

One could go on recounting such details. But I want to focus on two moments in this long history. Both are moments of deep crisis, and the response to these moments defines Janam. One is from before I joined the group; the other I was witness to.

The first of these moments is in 1978.

I picture it as a pleasant autumn evening. A group of about a dozen or so young actors, writers, singers are sitting on the terrace of a government building in central Delhi, discussing the future of Janam. They are wondering what to do—shows have dried up and they have no money to run the group. If this continues, the group may have to fold up.

Janam’s origins

The group itself was set up about five years previously, in 1973, when many of those present today had stepped out of the Delhi chapter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The IPTA old guard were wary of radical, left-wing, working class-oriented politics, which the younger actors were pushing for. When working together became tough, the younger lot parted ways and formed Janam.

For the first five years, Janam did big stage productions with large casts, music, lights, sets, and so on. Kavita Nagpal (1942-2021) directed for the group its biggest hit of this period, Bakri (Goat), a political satire in the Nautanki style written for the group by the well-known Marxist poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena. These plays were often done not inside auditoriums but in the open, on stages erected for the purpose, and watched by thousands of people. These shows were hosted (and paid for) by trade unions, the Kisan Sabha, and other Left organisations close to the communist movement.

When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, such big productions became impossible to do. Janam became more or less inactive. After the Emergency its members regrouped and produced a couple of plays. But it was difficult to perform them now. “We need your theatre now more than ever,” activists would tell Janam, “but we can’t afford it.” The cost of a single performance at the time came to around Rs.5,000, a substantial sum back in 1978. The left organisations that hosted them earlier no longer had the financial resources for this—they had been forced to work underground during the Emergency, and now had to incur legal expenses to defend their leaders and activists facing false charges. Janam’s new plays had no sponsors.

That was the conundrum the young artists were faced with on the autumn evening—where would they get the money to continue their work?

This is a common enough problem faced by artists. The production of art is rarely self-funded. Someone has to foot the bill—a patron, a funding institution, a corporation, the government, someone. As an artist, you find that someone and start producing work. Then that source of financial sustenance runs out. The patron’s taste changes; the funding mandates of institutions shift; the corporation hankers after someone with more market value; the government’s political orientation changes.

What do the artists do? They look for fresh funding opportunities, which come with new mandates, constraints, frameworks. If yesterday’s buzzword was diversity, today’s is climate change; if yesterday’s fashion was multimedia, today’s is site-specific work. This is hardly true only of the arts. Research agendas across various fields are also similarly driven by the mandates of funders. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Janam’s artists faced a similar dilemma that autumn evening in 1978. If trade unions and farmers’ organisations could no longer afford their plays, the reasonable solution was to look for new patrons. But a young man, just about 24 years old, had other ideas. ‘If we can’t take big plays to the people, let’s take small plays,’ he said. In other words, not to look for fresh patrons who can afford to pay for the plays that Janam is producing, but to give trade unions and other left organisations plays that they can, in fact, afford. In other words, put politics ahead of economics.

The young man’s name was Safdar Hashmi (1954-1989), and his deceptively simple statement gave birth to what we today know as street theatre.

Free theatre

Within a few weeks, Janam had written and produced its first street play, Machine, based on the struggle and killing of workers in a Ghaziabad factory. It was first performed on October 15, 1978. This inaugurated a prodigiously fecund period for Janam.

For the next four years, Janam was performing about 400 times a year. This was possible because the plays were shorter, mobile, flexible, and could be performed virtually anywhere, any time, without any special requirements. This was free theatre—free both in terms of what it cost to mount, and because it was free of external pressures. This was exactly what the trade unions and other left organisations needed. Janam became a fixture at countless protests and struggles.

By not chasing after sources of funding, by not compromising its political commitments, Janam had stayed true to its founding ideals and to its working class audiences.

Janam performs ‘Halla Bol’ on January 4, 1989, at the site where Safdar Hashmi and Ram Bahadur were killed.

Janam performs ‘Halla Bol’ on January 4, 1989, at the site where Safdar Hashmi and Ram Bahadur were killed. | Photo Credit: The Jana Natya Manch Archives

The second moment is perhaps the best known in Janam’s history. On January 1, 1989, while performing the play “Halla Bol” in Jhandapur (an urban village in the Site IV Industrial Area of Sahibabad in Ghaziabad), Janam was attacked by political goons patronised by the then ruling party, the Congress. They shot dead a young Nepali migrant worker, Ram Bahadur—a senseless death, only to spread terror. They also injured a number of others; one of them, Safdar Hashmi, grievously. His skull was smashed with bamboo sticks and iron rods.

Safdar died in hospital on the night of January 2. It was a killing that shook the nation. All newspapers of the day carried the news on the front page. Over 15,000 people joined Safdar’s funeral procession the following morning. Never before had a theatre artist been given such a farewell in Delhi.

Safdar Hashmi’s funeral, January 3, 1989.

Safdar Hashmi’s funeral, January 3, 1989. | Photo Credit: The Jana Natya Manch Archives

Many of those who marched that day knew Safdar, or had seen Janam’s plays. But there were also many who had not. They marched out of a sense of outrage and anger. If a man could be killed on the streets merely for performing a play, there had to be something seriously wrong with our democracy.

The next day, January 4, Janam, led by Moloyashree Hashmi, Safdar’s wife and long-time actor and organiser, returned to the site of the attack and completed the interrupted play, just about 36 hours after his death. It was a rousing moment, inspirational and stirring.

In my reckoning, the January 4, 1989, performance of “Halla Bol” by Janam with Moloyashree in the cast at the site where Safdar was killed remains the single most important street theatre performance in Indian history. What underpinned it was certainly the courage of the actors, most of all Moloyashree, but more than that, it was a demonstration of Janam’s commitment to its audiences.

Moloyashree Hashmi and other Janam actors perform ‘Halla Bol’ at the site of Safdar’s killing, January 4, 1989.

Moloyashree Hashmi and other Janam actors perform ‘Halla Bol’ at the site of Safdar’s killing, January 4, 1989. | Photo Credit: The Jana Natya Manch Archives

The attack was not just on Janam, but also on the audience. It was an attack on the artists’ right to perform as much as on the audiences’ right to watch. Just as lack of economic resources had not shaken Janam’s commitment to its audiences, violence and intimidation—not to mention two deaths—had not shaken it either.

The half century of Janam’s work in theatre is a demonstration of just this spirit —of relentless, dogged commitment to its mainly urban, and sometimes rural, working class audiences. Over and above its artistic contributions, this is perhaps Janam’s greatest strength and achievement.

Janam’s golden anniversary could not have come at a more sobering time. Every day, the foundational principles of our secular and democratic republic are under unprecedented assault, some overt, some covert. The struggle to protect and safeguard democracy has never been more urgent. But democracy has no meaning if it is reduced to an intermittent, five-yearly ritual. For democracy to have any real meaning, for it to have body and substance, it needs to encompass every aspect of our social life, it needs to expand to spaces beyond the formally political. Democracy needs to expand beyond the legislature, into public spaces. For democracy to have any real meaning, it needs to animate public spaces—the street corner, the parks and gardens, bastis and neighbourhoods, educational institutions, and so on—as much as non-public spaces—our drawings rooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms.

There are hundreds of groups like Janam in the country, which take theatre to the people, which give voice to the marginalised, the silenced, and the oppressed. They do this by the simple act of performing in public. These performances are open to all; there are no barriers of class, caste, gender, etiquette, or money to bar entry. A culture of open, free, and public performance is vital to deepening our democratic culture, to give it real substance.

Janam’s fifty-year journey reminds us of the simultaneous fragility and vitality of India’s democratic ethos and traditions—an ethos under serious threat, and therefore more urgent than ever to nurture, protect, and expand. Marking the half-century of one theatre group, important as it is, is meaningless unless the freedoms that make theatre possible are also fought for.

Sudhanva Deshpande has been an actor, director, and organiser with Jana Natya Manch since 1987. An editor with LeftWord Books, he is the author of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi (2020).

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