People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 01

January 07, 2007

Artists Remember Martyr Safdar


Astad Deboou giving his dance performance at Safdar Festival


Sohail Hashmi


THE sprawling lawns of the Constitution Club in New Delhi were the venue for the eighteenth Safdar Hashmi Memorial Festival organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) on January 1, 2007. 


The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) was formed in 1989 in the wake of the nationwide protests against the brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi --- actor, writer, dramatist, film maker and an activist of the CPI(M). Safdar was brutally murdered in Sahibabad, performing a play in support of the workers’ struggle for minimum wages. 


Over the years the SAHMAT has emerged as a leading cultural organisation and has, through its constant interventions in the cultural sphere, foregrounded the necessity of defending creative freedom. The SAHMAT and the creative community associated with it have in the last 18 years of its existence generated an immense body of published and performative resources that highlight the traditions of tolerance rooted in the live experience of the people of India. These traditions draw their strength from the Sufi and Bhakti poets and from the people’s common struggles against the feudal and colonial oppression. The SAHMAT’s endeavour has been to highlight the fact that these very traditions have informed the creation of the composite culture and practices that are the bedrock of our secular democracy. 


The events organised this year were a continuation of the series of such events that the SAHMAT has organised over the last several years --- the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth in 1869, the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh in 1931, the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Jaliawalan Bagh in 1919, the 50th year of India’s freedom in 1947 and the 125th anniversary of Premchand’s birth in 1880, to name only a few. 


Play "Sadgati" in progress


The theme for this year’s event was the popular revolt of 1857 against the British rule. The year 2007 marks the 150th anniversary of the uprising that saw more than a lakh people being killed before the rebellion could be subdued. A large number of performances presented on the occasion dealt with various aspects of the revolt. Two of the three street-plays presented at the start of the programme --- Lal Dharti by Act One and the dramatisation by Bahroop of a Rahi Masoom Raza poem on 1857 --- set the tone for the colourful and diverse fare of cultural expression that marked the 18th anniversary of the attack on Safdar. The Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti’s theatre group performed a street play based on short story Sadgati by Premchand. 


The large, black shamiana erected for the performances was decorated with banners that carried prose pieces and poetry written by Mriza Ghalib, Dagh Dehlavi, Haali and others; these described the conditions of Delhi in those tumultuous times. The stage and the floor of the shamiana were red, signifying one of the popular songs of the period that talks of the land turning red with the blood of martyrs. 


Astad Deboou, an eminent modern dancer, presented a performance inspired by the events of 1857. Astad had specially created the performance for the memorial meeting. The dance performance wove together the idea of oppression, resistance and struggle against oppression and its brutal suppression that had the viewers enthralled. The SAHMAT unveiled an exhibition that brought together contemporary accounts and visuals of the death and destruction of the events of 1857. The exhibition brought into sharp focus the fact of Hindus and Muslims together rising up in revolt against the colonial power. A planner for the year 2007 was released with the lesson drown from revolt by historian Irfan Habib:


“In these days when globalisation and Hindutava and Muslim fundamentalism seem so much flourishing, it may look odd to some that the 1857 Rebels showed such consuming bitterness against foreign rule or that Hindus and Muslims so unquestioningly shed their blood together. For that very reason, we need to recall 1857 as frequently as we can.” 


During the research for the exhibition, a unique poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of 1857 was discovered. The poster was created by famous artist J Swaminathan and appeared as the front page of the Communist Party’s weekly New Age in 1957. The poster has been re-produced by the SAHMAT and it was released by eminent artist Paramjeet Singh. 


Continuing with its ongoing project of producing illustrated and well brought out books for children, the SAHMAT has brought out “Idgah,” the famous short story written by Premchand. It talks of a young boy who goes to the Id Mela with only 4 paise in his pocket as his Id gift from his grandmother and, after going through the entire mela (fair), returns with tongs for his grandmother because he knew her fingers always got burnt while making chapatis for him. “Idgah” has been lovingly illustrated by well-known Bombay artist Jehangir Jaani and was released by Sudeep Banerjee, eminent Hindi poet and chancellor of the NEUPA.


The year 2007 also marks the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of the great revolutionary icon Che Guevara. The SAHMAT has brought out an illustrated colourful calendar on this occasion, which beings out the poetic nuances of Che’s life by using poetry from Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmat and Bertolt Brecht. 


Hundreds of artists, writers, students and others, including students and theatre activists from Haryana, Punjab and Utter Pradesh, braved the bitter New Year cold to watch the performances that included a specially prepared dance creation by Navtej Johar, a violin recital by Anupriya and a reading of the letters of Ghalib about 1857 by theatre person Anees Azmi. The programme also showcased vocal recitals by Mita Pandit, Vidya Shah, Rekha Raj, Deepak Castelleno and Ruchika. Rabbi Shergil’s “Bulla Ki Jana Main Kaun” and other pieces that talked of the oppression and pain of the common man, along with the Punjabi Sufi poetry sung by Madan Gopal Singh, were the concluding highlights of the evening of protest music, remembrance and resolve.