Secular stage

Print edition : February 13, 2009
in New Delhi

From a performance by Dadi Pudumjees puppet theatre in New Delhi on January 1.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) began its 20th anniversary celebrations on January 1 questioning the increasing communalisation of Indian culture. Like the Bhakti and Sufi traditions of the medieval period, which invoked the divine through music and dance to become forceful socio-cultural movements, the group has since its inception in 1989 addressed the problems relating to sectarian differences and the assault on human dignity through its street plays and protest movements.

This collective of artists, writers, theatre persons and film-makers has worked consistently to keep alive the secular, pro-people artistic traditions of the country. SAHMATs anniversary celebrations in the past have upheld its defence of secular art forms and folk and classical traditions. The reiteration of traditional art forms in its 20th year gained significance in the light of the Mumbai terror attack, which has thrown up new opportunities for sectarian politics and those who try to divide the country on communal lines.

This years celebrations, held for 20 days, once again explored the secular musical traditions of Kabir and Rahim. The performances of Kabir Bani by Prahlad Singh Tipaniya from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, and the Manganiar repertoire of Rajasthani folk and Sufi music by Anwar Khan and Ghazi Khan Barana were evidently the biggest proof of the richness and variety of the long-neglected folk and traditional music of India. Eminent classical singers such as Sunanda Sharma, Meeta Pandit, Vidya Shah and Madangopal Singh, contemporary musicians such as Rabbi Shergill and Jasbir Jassi, and modern dancer Astaad Deboo kept alive the spirit of secularism, which Safdar Hashmi espoused. An art exhibition showcasing Indias secular heritage and lectures by eminent academics such as Akeel Bilgrami, on exploring a more democratic and radical alternative to standard orthodoxies about democracy, and Arindam Dutta, on SAHMATs activities since the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, drew enthusiastic response.

Formed in January 1989, a few weeks after the murder of Safdar Hashmi, SAHMAT became a platform for artists, cultural activists and intellectuals to intervene in crucial political and cultural debates, through its activities aimed at defending cultural spaces, opposing divisiveness in all forms and strengthening the bonds of artistic unity. Upholding the values of a plural and secular culture, some of SAHMATs interventions, such as those after the demolition of the mosque, became important markers of resistance to the communal politics that seeks to overwhelm the country. Soon after the Babri Masjid demolition, artists of SAHMAT started a political campaign by organising a concert, Mukt Nad, in Ayodhya and an exhibition titled Hum Sab Ayodhya in several cities.

SAHMAT has staged performances, mounted art exhibitions, published books and posters in the thousands, organised seminars and conferences and held innumerable protest actions in the past two decades.

Safdar Hashmi founded the Jan Natya Manch, also known as Janam, in 1973. The group specialised in street plays which employ the technique of the theatre of protest to address issues of peoples concern through satire, song and dance. Safdar Hashmi was enacting a street play, Halla Bol, based on workers rights when he was fatally attacked in Sahibabad on the outskirts of Delhi.

SAHMAT believes that the phenomenon of growing communalisation of Indian society and economic globalisation happened almost simultaneously. Having felt the dissonance in art and other creative fields, the group has protested against the free market policy followed by the Indian government since 1991. Its Act One, a satiric street play, highlights the impact of the consumerist culture ushered in by globalisation.

The celebrations also highlighted social issues such as the system of honour killings and caste panchayats, which formed the theme of a play performed by students and unemployed youth under the banner of the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti. The Ishara Puppet Theatre, led by Dadi Pudumjee, did a mask play to raise awareness about the damage caused by the growing drug abuse among the youth. An exhibition titled Image, Music, and Text, involving 100 artists, traced the cultural journey of SAHMAT.

The 20th anniversary celebrations sent out a clear message, best summed up by the art historian Geeta Kapur in a pamphlet brought out on the occasion: This exhibition and auction [some of Hashmis memorabilia were auctioned] are not, for one, a charity event, nor are they meant to boost the art market. There are not simple ways for artists to survive, yet they must do more; they must intervene in the system that alienates them. Interrupting the routine of survival and success, there are causes that bring artists together. The workers rights, for instance, is a long way away perhaps, but the artists right of expression is taken for granted in a democratic society both because this is a publicised feature of a liberal civilisation and because artists are rendered innocuous anyway in that culture. Can the artist say anything that can upset money or state power?

SAHMAT firmly believes that artists have to fight beyond their own right of expression and cannot treat themselves as isolated specialists in a society fraught with regressive values. Geeta Kapur writes: It is not only the freedom of expression, though in all societies this still claims many sacrifices before it is won. The question is to make your identity and your practice sufficiently complex so that it is not easily appropriated or easily destroyed by antagonist forms.

A scene from a play staged by the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti.-

With projects such as Art on the move, conceptualised by the artist Vivan Sundaram, whereby art and art practices are taken into the public domain for discussion, it is pretty clear that SAHMAT is looking forward to demystify the practice of art and engage in various forms of creative activity to encourage public intervention.

SAHMAT paid tributes to the painter Manjit Bawa, who passed away on December 30, and the food columnist Sabina Sehgal Saikia, who died in the terror attack on the Taj hotel. Both were associated with SAHMAT since its inception. Manjit Bawa, particularly, was associated with the groups initiatives in a big way through his paintings. Known for his vibrant paintings and love for spirituality, the artist made a mark for himself with his larger-than-life paintings filled with mythology and Sufi spirituality. Three books attacking communalism and imperialism were released on January 1. Surat Badalni Chahiye is a compilation of popular anti-imperialist and revolutionary songs and Bahas Ananta is a chronicle of the debates and discussions that have been conducted around SAHMAT activities. The third book documents the activities of the group and includes more than 100 statements issued by SAHMAT.

Terror has no religion, and SAHMAT made this point clear throughout the celebrations. It feels the deterioration in the socio-political situation in the past two decades and the growing intolerance with artists have happened at the same time. Sohail Hashmi, Safdars brother and one of the founder trustees of SAHMAT, said: In the creative field, communal divisions have never existed. We want to create a tolerant tradition where the secular and the plural can intervene. So, in condemning terrorism you cant be selective though we have seen that the attacks on the artistic community in the recent past have been from the majoritarian fascist forces.

While the idea of secularism gained prominence in the wake of the attack on Mumbai, SAHMAT feels that the Mumbai incident should not be taken as a watershed case. We have to realise that communalism is a modern phenomenon and religion is used to serve political purposes. The Mumbai attack is being used for profiling a single community and we are against this. Why are the state-sponsored Gujarat riots or the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya or the Mumbai riots not seen as watersheds?

Expressing shock over the Mumbai attacks, SAHMAT released a resolution defending the need for peace between India and Pakistan and criticising the advocates of war on both sides. Jingoistic calls for retribution and sabre-rattling will only further vitiate an already bad situation and the common peoples of the entire subcontinent will pay a heavy price if the war-mongers on either side of the border succeed in the efforts.We call upon the creative community in India and in Pakistan to unitedly raise their voice in favour of peace, the resolution read.

Intellectual discourse in a country is shaped by the socio-political conditions of the times, and through this discourse the cultural scene of the place also takes form. With increasing consumerism and communalisation, SAHMAT provides an alternative for bringing peace and harmony. Nothing, at this stage, seems better than art and music to spread this message.

Noted academic and political thinker Mahmood Mamdani, who was present at one of the shows, said: We need to talk of what is happening around the world in a language other than terror. There is a need to think of power other than military power. The U.S. takes pride that a second 9/11 did not happen in the country because of the war on terror but we all know that the world at large, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, had to pay for this. We need to address these incidents not as criminal violence but political violence. This demands de-globalisation and regionalisation of an issue for a political solution.

Rarely in history has someones death become so important that it has lent a new impetus and new meanings to a movement. Safdars death brought to life a radical art movement, which is here to stay. The Malayalam poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnans verses describe SAHMATs dream best:

I am still in my village; Amidst the rocks and wet clays; I am not alone; My friends and foes are here; Here the ponds get wet and dry; Harvests reap and dry; Rocks shatter and temples rise; Wild elephants seldom come and destroy the harvests; the tiger never eats the folks.

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