Theatre for people

Published : Aug 24, 2012 00:00 IST

A fine collection of experiences, performances and ideas through the words of those who were the life and blood of the Jana Natya Manch.

A BOOK on a theatre group is rare, writes the poet, playwright and academic G.P. Deshpande in the foreword to A History of the Jana Natya Manch. Even rarer is an attempt to document the political history of a theatre group, its travails, tribulations and politics through the medium of theatre, and to compile all this and more into a book without losing the train of thought. Arjun Ghoshs effort, which began as a doctoral thesis, has culminated into a fine collection of experiences, performances and ideas through the eyes and words of those who were, and a few of whom still are, the life and blood of the Jana Natya Manch, also known as Janam.

Deshpande stresses that the book is a biography and not a hagiography. Ghoshs discussion, he writes, remains at the level of a biography, always informative, rarely devotional. Deshpande notes rather pithily that we have theatre for people, making an aside on the recent peoples movement around corruption. The issue, he writes, is not about plays for the people but about politics for and of the people. The foreword is a brilliant and concise review of the biography. Deshpande adds that the authors Weltanschauung, or world view, does not come out clearly and is not explicit, and it is difficult to disagree with Deshpande on this point. All our analysis of the politics of the other always reflects, indeed, should reflect, our own politics, he writes.

The advent and rise of the Hindu Right in the 1990s gave Ghosh an initial reason to study how a different and alternative kind of progressive politics, in opposition to the chauvinism that was growing in that period, could develop and mobilise people. Ghoshs explanation why he chose to do a biography of a theatre group that was so ostensibly Left in character, apart from the fact that it was his PhD thesis (there were other theatre groups too who claimed to have leftist leanings), is not very convincing. But this does not in any manner underrate the need for such a biography, and neither is it a comment on the competence of the book itself, which is eminently readable. He writes: I wanted to study the strategies through which a progressive politics could intervene in the process of identity formation and mobilise people in its favour. The cultural strategy of the Hindu Right was to strengthen reactionary values and relations that already existed within the society. The Left, if it wanted to consolidate, would have to identify and consolidate progressive values in society. It would, in many cases, have to recover progressive practices and texts and, in other cases, have to pose new values. But he later concedes that there was no direct correlation between the theatrical performances and the outpouring of support, or lack of it, for the organised Left.

There is little doubt that there was a need to document the work of the Jana Natya Manch, especially as it stands out not only in terms of its politics but also in terms of the various innovative forms and subjects that it uses to reach out to people. Its attempt may not always have been adequate to consolidate the Left but through the idiom of street theatre and proscenium plays, it always conveys what Left politics, particularly politics of the organised Left, stands for. And it is this consistency that is displayed through its plays. It is agitprop all the way, with the interests of the working class firmly at the centre.

The plays always reflect a conscious effort of form, of content. But to expect that these forms will by themselves convert a hugely unequal and inherently feudal society into supporters of the Left is naivete at its best. But the intention to reach out politically through a creative medium is a constant though it is never easy for a group to influence a society deeply divided by caste, class and religion, as Ghoshs book shows.

Safdar Hashmi

The book is also about Safdar Hashmi and his deep involvement with and commitment to Left politics. The introductory chapter begins with an emotive account of Safdars funeral and the events that led to his attack on January 1, 1989, at Jhandapur, an industrial area in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Safdar was killed because of his politics and not because he was a theatre person. The introduction to Janam begins in a similar fashion through Safdar, who was its founder member and the then convener.

On that fateful day, the group was performing a play called Halla Bol. It was part of the campaign for the candidate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), in the local municipal elections and had been crafted for the occasion. It was then that the supporters of the rival candidate, an independent supported by the Congress, attacked Safdar, hitting him as many as 20 times with iron rods on the head, the source of his creativity, writes Ghosh with much feeling. He died on January 2, 1989. He was 34.

Ram Bahadur, a worker, was also killed that day. Safdar was a member of the CPI(M). Halla Bol, which was a reworked version of Chakka Jam, a play written on the historic seven-day strike in Delhi in November 1988 on the issue of minimum wages, was enacted again on January 4, three days after Safdars murder, at the same spot, as a mark of political defiance. It was not only in defence of theatre but in defence of a kind of politics that repeatedly underscored Janams performances. This interconnection in the following years may have been uncomfortable for a few, as the writer points out, giving a few examples, but did not create any huge disruptive effect in the group as such.

Interestingly, in 2008, Rajkumar Santoshi, known for making movies with a social message, made a Hindi film titled Halla Bol in which the main protagonist is a street theatre activist who loses his idealism for fame and then gets it back. For all its bluster about social reform through street theatre, the film seems more like a middle-class rant against all the ills in society, in contrast with the Halla Bol staged in an industrial working-class locality.

It is difficult to say that Ghoshs book is about Janam and not about Safdar. The two seem inseparable, and yet even after Safdars murder, which was a major setback both politically and personally for all those who knew and worked with him, there has been a fair deal of continuity and stability in Janams work. Each year, at Jhandapur, on January 1, Janam stages a performance to remember Safdar and Ram Bahadur.

The initial chapters of the book are devoted to contextualising the emergence of Janam, and there is a fair amount of detail on the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) and a cursory mention of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA). The IPTA was in a sense the precursor to Janam in terms of representing the organised Left cultural movement, a term used by Ghosh, in India. But with the bifurcation of the Communist Party, the cultural Left also got divided.

There were many famous and well-known actors of Indian cinema who worked within the IPTA and whose work and ideas were greatly influenced by a particular kind of thought which was not mainstream in any sense of the word. Several of them, unknown to many in the country who watched and admired their movies, were members of the erstwhile Communist Party. They survived and held on to their politics because there was no McCarthyism in Indian cinema. Art, literature and theatre were not only forms of expression for the IPTA and the PWA; they were creative and active conduits of a specific kind of progressive politics rooted in leftist ideology. As a theatre group that has survived the vicissitudes of the global setback to the Left in the 1990s and also the electoral reverses of the Left within the country from time to time, Janam is one of the few remaining bastions of a kind of theatre that has ploughed on for over four decades now, with many people joining or leaving it over the years.

The book could have thrown some light on how working with Janam influenced the actors themselves. There were quite a handful in progressive theatre who were influenced by the issues of egalitarianism and social change thrown up by Janam and who articulated some of these concerns on the big screen in their own way. While a few are part of mainstream cinema and enact popular roles, there is still something about them that stands out.

The book has 11 chapters and is divided into two parts. The first part covers Janam the organisation from 1973 to the present. The other half is more about the evolution of the actors, their environment and the actual enactment process, which involved improvisations, including with the constituent audience. A low-cost method of campaigning, street theatre has the necessary flexibility to articulate local issues and forge a more intimate relationship with the audiences, Ghosh writes. During elections, he says, street theatre is not restricted only to working-class parties but used by parties across the political spectrum. But clearly no group has as much reach as Janam has considering that it has the advantage of using trade union organisations such as the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) to help it organise its performances and mobilise audiences.

Ghosh raises issues of sustainability as well. Despite various pressures of livelihood, it is significant that Janam has been able to stay afloat with a core group of members in place and has the zeal to continue performing. And despite the abundance of talent, many of the groups members have consciously chosen not to opt for better opportunities.

Ghosh is somewhat unfair in his assessment of why the efforts of Janam have not been as effective in other States as it has been in Delhi. With such a bombardment of the entertainment industry, with the electronic and other media permeating the lives of people every minute, and with the pressures of urban life, it is a miracle that street theatre has survived. While it is true that a robust Left movement gives the background for a wider response to street theatre of the kind that Janam does and the two complement each other, the process of raising working-class consciousness has to be a constant one.

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