Print edition : December 05, 2003

Sabse khatarnaak hota hai hamaare sapnon ka mar jaana.

(There is nothing more dangerous than the death of our dreams.)

THESE lines by the Punjabi poet Paash are what Safdar Hashmi lived by. The brutal murder 15 years ago of the writer, actor and activist sent shock waves across the country. How do Safdar's dreams survive today in the changed context?

In 1973, 19-year-old Safdar co-founded the Jan Natya Manch (Janam), a people's theatre group affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A `militant political theatre of protest' is how the group described itself. Through its rousing, visionary street plays, the group sought to address issues of class and gender and religious sectarianism.

Against the bourgeois conception of art as an individualist aesthetic pursuit, he pitted his version of the `people's collectivist view of art'. However, as CPI (M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury points out, his cultural action was not merely propaganda, or a crude extension of his politics. "Safdar recognised culture as an arena where class struggle plays out, and he engaged with this fact in both the form and content of his work," says Yechury. In plays like Aurat, Machine, and Moteram ka Satyagrah, Janam would blend its biting political message with satire and song, and a whole new rapport with the audience. However, Safdar debunked the commonly cited contradiction between proscenium and people's theatre, saying that the `contradiction only lies between pro-people and anti-people theatre'.

It was when Janam was enacting a chillingly prescient play called Halla Bol, which touched on issues of workers' rights and the right to perform in the face of injustice, that the group was attacked. Even as Safdar attempted to help others escape, he was bludgeoned to death with iron rods. "The horrific murder caused immense revulsion across the country," says artist Ram Rehman. "I will never forget the funeral, the staggering number of people who marched in solidarity with us." The mourning cut across political affiliations, and linked artists, thinkers, journalists and concerned citizens in a visceral reaction to the outrage.

Two days after his death, his wife Moloyshree Hashmi went back to Sahibabad with the Janam troupe to finish the performance of Halla Bol, saying: "It is what Safdar would have wanted."

"The spontaneous protest after the murder led us to form the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), an umbrella organisation of painters, writers, theatre-persons, film-makers who try to reconfigure cultural symbols in an activist manner," says SAHMAT representative Rajendra Prasad. Safdar was an actor, playwright and poet. He wrote children's books, sketched and designed posters, and wrote a regular column for a newspaper. "Safdar's own creativity is what we tried to foreground," adds Prasad. SAHMAT addresses issues of communal harmony and creative freedom in diverse ways. For example, it relies heavily on the Sufi tradition (which has a certain inbuilt iconoclasm), and it is deeply committed to the cause of freedom of expression everywhere, rallying behind artists like M.F. Hussain and Taslima Nasreen.

Yet, SAHMAT has also been accused of losing its edge, of obscuring Safdar's political convictions in favour of a progressive agenda so broadly defined as to be almost meaningless. "After all, Safdar was attacked not as a theatre-person, but as a party worker who was campaigning there for a specific Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) cause," points out Moloyshree Hashmi. The Jan Natya Manch's agitprop theatre (a radical theatre of political action) "was, and still remains, committed to the fight against oppressions", she says. This process is bound to face official repression and violence, she says, citing the recent example of veteran actor Habib Tanvir, whose folk theatre group was attacked by fundamentalist forces - and it is inevitable that "voices raised against injustice will be attacked by those who cause the injustice"

Says Habib Tanvir, who had known Safdar since childhood: "He possessed a unique vision that could not be accommodated by the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) of his time. He wanted a sharper theatre to address his concerns. What we have lost is that vision, of culture embedded in politics."

However, Rajendra Prasad refutes the charge that SAHMAT subordinates politics to a wishy-washy emphasis on art, calling it "a rather superficial view of politics that sees it as simply shouting slogans outside a factory". He claims that SAHMAT is a broad-based platform for artists and was never intended as a mass front for the CPI(M). Explaining that cultural politics "works in concentric circles", he asserts that SAHMAT remains dedicated to the principles of communal harmony and creative freedom, which Safdar Hashmi defended to his death.

Meanwhile, the Jan Natya Manch continues to be involved in labour struggles, agitating against day-to-day forms of domination. It practically revived the progressive performance tradition and has inspired dozens of small troupes to undertake this dramatic crusade all over the Hindi-speaking areas, points out Yechury. "Safdar is a very living presence among us. His memory, and his legacy continue to inspire and inform all our work," says Janam member Sudhanva Deshpande.

People associated with Safdar stress his complete openness to debate, despite his unshakable political beliefs. Ram Rehman recalls how he was struck by Safdar's humour and liveliness and "utter absence of doctrinaire inclinations". While SAHMAT is a "different beast altogether", he asserts that it had "struck a good balance between agitprop art and a more nuanced, sophisticated art (not devoid of social content) and brought both into the public arena". Moloyshree describes how Janam itself had expanded its concerns, moving into proscenium theatre along with street performances. "Safdar and I had been involved in street theatre since 1970. As he grew as a person and his politics matured, he always insisted on taking his art to the people."

Safdar Hashmi's death pitched artists and thinkers into a crisis, and helped galvanise the community into radical action, says Sudhanva Deshpande. Culture has been central to progressive politics across the world. As Bertolt Brecht wrote, art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. Yet today, when the crucial significance of performance to politics is something that the Right seems to have caught on to in a far more immediate way, it is perhaps time to reclaim Safdar Hashmi's legacy of cultural intervention driven by a conviction in freedom and collective rights.

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