Safdar, a life extraordinary

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Safdar Hashmi in “Aya Chunao”, 1979. Photo: Surendra Rajan. Courtesy Jana Natya Manch.

May 1, 1988: Safdar Hashmi in a performance of “Machine” with Moloyashree Hashmi and Lalit Ratan Girdhar. Photo: Eugene Van Erven. Courtesy Jana Natya Manch.

Extracts from Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande.

On January 1, 1989, the Delhi-based street theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was performing in an industrial area on the outskirts of Delhi, when the play was attacked by anti-social goons. The attackers shot dead Ram Bahadur, a worker, and fatally wounded Safdar Hashmi, the leader of the theatre group. Hashmi died the following day in hospital. Sudhanva Deshpande, a younger member of Jana Natya Manch, has written a book about Hashmi, and it will be released on January 1, 2020, at the site of the attack.

“I was very fond of Safdar, but who wasn’t? We liked him for his charming personality, his easy laughter, sophisticated manners, effortless articulation, clear-cut views and tender human values.” 

– Habib Tanvir

This is not a story of death. It is a story of life. The luminous life of Safdar Hashmi, extraordinary in all its ordinariness. Safdar Hashmi was only 34 when he died from injuries sustained during a senseless attack. On New Year’s Day in 1989, Jana Natya Manch—Janam—the theatre group he was a part of, and which he led, was attacked while performing a street play on the outskirts of Delhi. Beginning with a record of the attack that killed him, this vivid memoir illuminates the life of Safdar Hashm—artist, comrade, poet, writer, actor, activist, and a man everyone loved. 

But this is not a book about one man or one tragic incident. Halla Bol shows us, close-up, how one man’s death and life are intertwined with the stories of many people. It shows the intersections between cultural practice and working-class politics, the profound link between ideology and real-life struggle.

For a generation that grew up without knowing Safdar Hashmi, Halla Bol renders his passion, humour and humanism into an intimate portrait. It also gives an understanding of resistance, and the strength to put it into practice. The ideas that Safdar and his colleagues grappled with during a period of tumult and change in India are harbingers of the society we are today. 

Studded with details about the making of Janam’s iconic street plays, such as “Machine” and “Halla Bol” (the play Janam was performing at the time of the attack), and the staging of them at street corners, the book’s nimble prose reads like a well-crafted play.

JANUARY 1, 1989. Aiming for the Chair

“I’m glad you’ve come,” Safdar said as we boarded the bus. “Let me tell you about the press conference tomorrow.”

A couple of months earlier, in October or November, Safdar had learnt that he was going to be conferred an award by an organisation that worked for communal harmony. It was a fairly non-political organisation and everything seemed kosher. But Safdar told them he wouldn’t accept the award individually, since all his work for communal harmony was as part of Janam. So he’d rather that the organisation got the award, not the individual. They agreed.

Then we learnt that the award was going to be handed over by Minister of Information and Broadcasting H.K.L. Bhagat, the Congress party’s Member of Parliament from east Delhi. Now, Bhagat was notorious for his role in the anti-Sikh violence of 1984.

There was a discussion in the Janam Executive Committee (E.C.) on this. Some felt we should boycott the function, but accept the award, because, after all, the organisation itself seemed clean and they were honouring us. That the award carried a cash component of Rs.10,000—quite a sum in those days—was also a factor. Safdar was not in favour of this line. “No halfway measures. We either accept the award fully, from Bhagat, or we reject it.” We decided to reject the award.

Safdar had planned a press conference on the evening of January 2, Monday, to explain the Janam stand. As we rode in the bus to Jhandapur, he told me about the preparations and showed me a copy of the press release.

We got off at the wrong stop, so we had to walk a bit to get to Jhandapur. I saw election posters on the walls.

“Yes,” said Safdar. “They are having corporation elections in U.P. after some 18 years or so. The people are fed up. All the parties are scared to face the electorate, so their candidates are contesting as independents. Only we [he meant the Communist Party of India (Marxist)] are contesting on our party symbol. In fact, our performance today is in support of our candidate, Ramanath Jha. He’s a militant trade unionist. He was there when we came here in December. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” I half lied. I remembered the performance, but not the man. “It’s so much fun to see election symbols, don’t you think?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, look at this! This guy is absolutely clear what he’s fighting for. His symbol is the chair!” Safdar laughed.

Kissa Kursee Ka,” I laughed, quoting the name of the movie that had been banned during the Emergency because it mocked Indira Gandhi.

“This is so funny. Just this morning I read a fantastic short story—really short—in Hans. Here’s how it goes. ‘What do you see?’ asks Drona. ‘I see the capital, Delhi, my guru,’ says Sahdev. ‘You’re useless,’ says Drona and calls Nakul. ‘What do you see?’ he asks. ‘I see the Parliament House in Delhi, my guru,’ says Nakul. ‘You’re useless,’ says Drona and calls Bhim. ‘What do you see?’ he asks. ‘I see the council of ministers, my guru,’ says Bhim. ‘You’re useless,’ says Drona and calls Yudhishtir. ‘What do you see?’ he asks. ‘I see the prime minister’s chamber, my guru,’ says Yudhishtir. ‘You’re useless,’ says Drona and calls his favourite pupil, Arjun. ‘What do you see?’ he asks. ‘I see the chair, my guru,’ says Arjun. ‘Good,’ says Drona. ‘Shoot.’”

“Looks like this candidate also reads Hans.”

Safdar chuckled. “That’ll be the day. When our politicians start reading literary magazines.” Vishwajeet was also walking with us. He was from Allahabad, and had come to Delhi to audition for a part in a TV series, a part he finally got. But with the shoot delayed, he had found his way into Janam.

“See my new shoes?” Safdar beamed as he pointed to them. They were black leather shoes, fresh and gleaming. “Guess how much they’re for.”

Having known Safdar for a while, I knew this game, and wasn’t going to fall for it. Vishwajeet didn’t, so he did. “Nice, Safdar bhai. I would say 200, 225. In that range.”

“Ha! I got them for 75.”

“No way! They look really expensive.”

By now we were nearly at the office of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), from where we were to go to the performance spot.

“Listen,” Safdar said.

“I may not remember later to remind you, but do come for the press conference tomorrow. You are a member of the E.C. It’ll be good for the press to see that Janam has young leaders too.”

“Sure, I’ll be there.”

As it happened, I was. Safdar wasn’t.

JANUARY 1, 1989. The Attack

They came upon us with lathis and iron rods. The spectators scattered in no time. We had nothing to defend ourselves with, except the half a dozen bamboo sticks on which we mounted our flags. These were light and thin, easy to carry, but hardly enough to withstand the solid, oil-fed lathis and iron rods they had. Our sticks broke somewhat comically into two in no time.

We picked up whatever stones we could find and threw them in an effort to keep the attackers at bay. But it was pandemonium, our aims were pathetic, and the attackers were hardened goons. We pushed them back a little bit, but it was clear we could not beat them back.

Safdar was in the middle of all this, shouting instructions to us. His hair dishevelled, he still looked striking, arm raised, his voice rising above everyone else’s. He was the leader, and he had taken charge.

One of the CITU comrades, Jadumani Behra, was hit on the head and was bleeding. Some of us got hit by lathis on our backs or arms. I was throwing stones at the attackers when I heard Safdar’s voice. “Come to the CITU office. We are going there.” I looked back to see Safdar, Lalit, Mala, Prachee, Shikha, and some others take refuge in a dhobi’s shop at the corner. From there, they started moving towards the CITU office.

I wanted to join them but couldn’t. A couple of attackers blocked my way.

I looked the other way and saw Brijesh and Vishwajeet at the corner of the small street on the south side.

“Sudhu, come!” Brijesh yelled.

I scampered free of my attackers and joined them. We ran as fast as we could into the winding gali, hoping we’d soon be out of sight. All three of us were relative strangers to each other. Vishwajeet had come to Delhi a couple of months ago, and Brijesh was one of Safdar’s young doctor friends. He knew Mala and Safdar well, but I had met him only recently.

Vishwajeet was a tall guy, about six foot three. He was easy to spot, and his policeman’s costume made him even more conspicuous. Brijesh asked him to remove his khaki shirt.

“But I’m not wearing anything underneath.”

“Take my shirt,” I said. I removed my jacket and sweater, and gave him my shirt. I put back my sweater on my bare body and started wearing my jacket.

“Don’t wear that,” said Brijesh. “It looks too much like the police shirt he’s removed.”

It was true. My jacket was khaki coloured. I held it in my arm. “What do I do with this?” Vishwajeet asked, holding up the baton he carried as part of his police costume.

“Let’s leave it with that paan wallah,” I said.

We gave the baton to the paan wallah, thinking we’ll come back and pick it up later.

That never came to pass.

JANUARY 1, 1989. Finding Our Way

We had no idea of the layout of the basti. We needed to reach the CITU office, where Safdar had asked us to congregate.

We made our way to the main road, from which we knew the main street entered Jhandapur, culminating in the three-way junction we were performing at. As we started walking down the main street, a man ran past us.

“Don’t go down this way. They are there, looking for you.”

Clearly, our attempts to be inconspicuous had been unsuccessful.

We came back to the main road and looked for another entry point. We found one a little further down the road, on our right.

We entered, and found ourselves in a maze of alleys. We knew the general direction of the CITU office, but not the exact way.

“Let me find out,” Brijesh said. “You guys wait here.”

He returned a few minutes later. “This is the right way. But they’re saying the CITU office has been attacked.”

“Well, let’s go there and see,” I said.

We reached the CITU office and saw the signs of the attack. Riyaz’s scooter lay prone outside. The gate hung open, things were strewn about, there were a few stones here and there, which the attackers had thrown at those inside. I saw a mark on the brick-paved floor that could’ve been blood, but then it could’ve been some other stain as well. There was not a soul in sight.

As we stepped out of the office compound, a woman emerged from the house opposite. “One of your men is dying on that street,” she said, pointing to the main street of the village, which led to the performance area. “Five people have been killed in the area. There are corpses all over.”

Brijesh and I looked at each other. Despite having experienced violence just some time ago, despite having seen the ravaged state of the CITU office compound, it was hard to believe that people had been killed. And five corpses? That seemed hyperbole. We decided to look.

Brijesh led the way. I was behind him. Vishwajeet brought up the rear. Brijesh went to the head of the alley and peeped into the main street, to his left, where the performance spot was. And he was off like an arrow.

I ran to where he was, to figure out what he had seen and what he was running towards. At the corner where he had turned, I saw a figure lying on the ground, up ahead, and Brijesh running towards that figure. For a microsecond, it looked like Vinod, one of the actors.

Then I saw the green sweater. Safdar.

Sudhanva Deshpande is a theatre director and actor. He joined Jana Natya Manch in 1987, and has acted in over 4,000 performances of over 80 plays. His articles and essays have appeared in The Drama Review, The Hindu, Frontline, Seminar, Economic & Political Weekly, Udbhavna, Samaj Prabodhan Patrika, among others. He has co-directed two films on the theatre legend Habib Tanvir and his company Naya Theatre. He is the editor of Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience (Janam 2007), and co-editor of Our Stage: Pleasures and Perils of Theatre Practice in India (Tulika 2008). He has held teaching positions at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Since 1998, he has been Managing Editor, LeftWord Books. He cycles around town.

 

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