The life and afterlife of Safdar Hashmi

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Moloyashree Hashmi (from left), Nandita Das, Annie Zaidi and Sudhanva Deshpande read out from the book “Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi”' at a programme organised by St Andrews Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts in Bandra, Mumbai, on March 4. Photo: Vijay Bate

Sudhanva Deshpande Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Beginning at the moment of his death, this book moves on to capture the iconic story of Hashmi’s life and the city that formed the milieu of his work.

Safdar Hashmi was not an unfamiliar name in my childhood. I think I first heard about him in the recollections of a play titled A Murder of an Artist, written and staged by my uncle as a response to Safdar Hashmi’s brutal killing in Delhi. However, apart from the fact that he was killed while performing, I did not know much about him.

A few years ago, I picked up a collection of essays on culture and politics by Safdar Hashmi to know more about his work and was enamoured of his writing. It was sharp, precise and simple. One of his lines, written in response to the Theatre of Roots movement, has stuck with me ever since. He wrote, “woh parampara parampara nahi, jise chiraag leke dhoondhana pade” (it is not a tradition if you have to seek it with a torchlight). The implication is that traditions are alive among people. He critiqued the tendency of theatre practitioners who thought “going back to the roots” to retrieve traditions would help them to evolve a native vocabulary of Indian theatre. I felt that this line was representative of Safdar Hashmi’s aesthetics and politics, if at all one could tell them apart.

Safdar Hashmi became an icon of cultural resistance after his death, a defining moment in the history of cultural resistance in India. However, very little was known about his life. Sudhanva Deshpande’s book Halla Bol (2020) is set to fill that void as it gives us a peek into Safdar Hashmi’s life from close proximity. One cannot adequately emphasise the importance of this book—it is not only an attempt to write a biography of Safdar Hashmi but also a successful attempt to situate his work in the socio-political milieu of India as it was headed for the 1990s.

Sudhanva begins with a vivid account of moments leading to Safdar Hashmi’s death, which sets the tone for the book. The prose is precise and evocative. The author does not conceal the vulnerability of his situation of having to witness a comrade’s death, besides bearing the weight of penning its absurd details. For instance, he briefly talks about the night spent at the Communist Party of India (Marxist) office after Safdar Hashmi was declared dead; one of their friends, Lalit, smoking incessantly, hurled some abuses and left. The inability to articulate the overbearing certitude of death is captured evocatively in this recollection. The book is peppered with many such moments that leave the reader choked up and teary-eyed.

Many of us “met” Safdar Hashmi only after his death. The book gets done with it right at the beginning, preparing the reader to be charmed by a life that was even more iconic than the moment of death. There are accounts of Hashmi’s early years of growing up in Delhi and his steady progression towards finding the form of street theatre that resonated with his politics. Since Safdar Hashmi’s theatre was fundamentally driven by the communist ideology, one can see clearly how he was not only responding to the exigencies of his time but also crafting an alternative cultural movement that in turn influenced his politics. Not only did he think through the form of street theatre in his immediate context, he also networked and shared resources with similar cultural collectives elsewhere in India.

Sudhanva introduces us to Safdar Hashmi the intellectual, a relatively lesser known facet of his personality. Safdar Hashmi’s insights as a cultural thinker, especially in his writings on the various aspects of street theatre, leaves the reader with the regret that death cut short a promising writing career. It also makes one wonder how Safdar Hashmi would have interpreted India’s current political crisis.

This book stands out in the way it captures Delhi and the broader cultural sphere that Safdar Hashmi inhabited. In a way, it maps a crucial phase in the political history of the city. It brings to fore a Delhi that is less romanticised and yet enlivened by the lives and struggles of ordinary people, the central point of Safdar Hashmi’s concern. It charts out the larger history of the Jana Natya Manch, which has outlived the tragic episode of Safdar’s death and has emerged as a committed force of collective solidarity and resistance in our times. It also reiterates, through accounts of JANAM’s performances, the importance of college and university campuses as spaces of political mobilisation and resistance in Delhi. As an aside, the book dispels the myth that it was, in fact, Delhi University, and not Jawaharlal Nehru University, that played a pioneering role as a site of leftist student mobilisation.

In a moving and a provocative epilogue, Sudhanva returns to the moment and place of Safdar Hashmi’s death and uses it as a trigger to ponder over an array of issues. He examines the steady industrialisation of Ghaziabad, the rise of trade unions, and the parallel rise of political goons to keep the trade unions in check. We know this narrative too well from other industrialised dystopias in India, from the mills of Mumbai to the present-day expansion of IT parks in cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad. The civilisational violence they have unleashed on working-class communities does not seem to end. He ponders over the nature of political murders, citing the more recent ones; for instance, the murder of Narendra Dabholkar, which makes us wonder how things have remained fundamentally the same though they have changed superficially.

Defeating the finality of death, Safdar Hashmi continues to live on as a memory even today. His story has inspired and mobilised generations of theatre-makers, artists, writers, students and thinkers. Sudhanva succinctly captures this “afterlife” of Safdar Hashmi and the influence that he has had on the progressive cultural sphere in India. The book will certainly inaugurate new debates around Safdar Hashmi’s life, in addition to those that have been triggered by his death. It re-emphasises the values of friendship, camaraderie, and love that Safdar Hashmi embodied and pushes us to imagine newer possibilities of art-making, collective solidarities, and most importantly, a revolutionary future where the world belongs to either everyone or none at all.

Kaustubh Naik is a playwright and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

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