People's Democracy

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


No. 02

January 10, 2010



Slain Artist’s Commitment to People’s Struggles Recalled

 Arjun Ghosh

THE 21st Martyrdom Day of Comrade Safdar Hashmi, a communist playwright, writer, poet, artist and activist, was observed by Jana Natya Manch (JANAM), the theatre group of which he was one of the founders, through a series of activities. Over the last several years, JANAM has taken up a series of programmes leading up to the performances and public meeting of workers and artists at the Ambedkar Park in Jhandapur village of Sahibabad on January 1.

Safdar Hashmi, then the convenor of the JANAM, and Ram Bahadur, a worker, were killed in an attack by a group of Congress supported goons in Jhandapur village on January 1, 1989. On that fateful day, the Jana Natya Manch was performing Halla Bol (Attack!), a play which sought to consolidate on a protracted struggle and strike action undertaken by the workers of the area in November-December 1988. The brutal attack on Safdar and the CITU signified the extreme anxiety and anger of the mill-owners and their allies on the trade unions and the artists who stood by the struggling workers.

On January 4, 1989, JANAM returned to Jhandapur to complete the play which had been interrupted by the attack. This return was made possible by the tremendous show of solidarity by huge numbers of workers, artists and people from all walks of life in Delhi and across the country. The return also displayed the resolve of the group to continue with its commitment to theatre and the people’s struggle --- a resolve which is recounted in the song “Lal Jhanda leke Comrade, aage badhte jayenge. Tum nahi rahe, iska gam hai par, phir bhi aage jayenge (Comrade, we shall march forward with the Red Flag. Though anguished by your absence, we shall march forward.) Since then, JANAM has returned to the site of the attack every year on the first of January to perform.

This time, a Nukkad Natak Utsav (Street Theatre Festival) was organised on December 20 in various areas in Ghaziabad --- Arthala, Nandgaon and Vijaynagar. Street theatre teams from four colleges of Delhi participated in this festival. The themes of these plays touched upon various pressing problems of the day.  Lady Shriram College focussed on the atrocities on dalits in Aakhir Main Bhi Ek Insaan Hoon (I too am a Human Being after all). Kamala Nehru College performed Udaan Ab Bhi Baaki Hai (The Flight is not Over), a play which spoke on gender inequalities and exploitation. Chowk Ka Deepak (Earthen Lamp at the Street Crossing) by Shivaji College paid attention to the plight of street children. The team from Kirori Mal College performed Tamasha (Mockery), a play which spoke against moral policing.

For these student groups, who otherwise perform their plays only in various street theatre competitions during college festivals, this provided an invaluable exposure and experience. According to some of the participants, unlike in college festivals where they find audiences who seek fun only, in their performances in Ghaziabad, they encountered audiences for whom the issues of their plays are real. Performing before such audiences proved to be a new and enriching theatrical experience for them.

On two days --- December 29 and 30 --- JANAM organised a workshop for children at the Safdar Hashmi Smarak Sthal in Jhandapur. Over 250 children from the area participated. Helping in organising the workshop were teachers from various schools of Delhi. Other than learning some singing, the children tried their hands on a variety of activities --- story-telling, leaf-painting, clay modelling, among others.

On January 1, like every year, the Jana Natya Manch organised a joint programme with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). The day was nice and sunny, and the huge turnout of workers and their families enjoyed an afternoon full of music and performance at the Dr Ambedkar Park in Jhandapur village. The afternoon commenced with the members of Jana Natya Manch singing revolutionary songs dedicated to the memory of Safdar Hashmi. Kajal Ghosh led the group to the singing of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Ai KhakNashino Uth Baitho (Arise, O Wretched of the Earth).

This was followed by the performance of Mehengayi ki Maar (The Brunt of Inflation) by JANAM. The very title of the play touched a chord in the hearts of the predominantly working class audience who are reeling under the ravages of a protracted phase of inflation. Particularly hilarious is the scene where even a sack of currency notes cannot buy a kilo of sugar from the black-marketeers. The play ridiculed the government's objective of pinpointing its welfare objectives for the poorest of the poor. The minister conducts a reality show competition to identify the recipient of a below poverty line (BPL) ration card. The play urged upon the audience to join the struggle for a universal public distribution system (PDS) and participate in dharnas at local ration shops.  Mehengayi ki Maar was followed by another performance of Aakhir Main Bhi Ek Insaan Hoon by the students of Lady Shriram College.

Then the gathering took the shape of a public meeting. The chief speaker of the afternoon was Md Salim, a member of the CPI(M) Central Committee. Opening the discussion, Brijesh, secretary of the local CITU unit, highlighted the ongoing struggles against retrenchment and unemployment. He underlined the problems arising from the ban on recruitment in public sector units.

In his address, Md Salim traced the linkages between the examples of progressive cultural intervention like that by the Jana Natya Manch and the struggles of the people. He identified street theatre to be a part of the struggle, for it highlighted the issues before the poor and the marginalised --- issues which the mainstream and electronic media disregard. It was the task of all who stood by the struggling people to expose the links between inflation and other hardships and the policies of neo-liberalism. He described neo-liberalism as a structure through which the richer nations could transfer their crisis and difficulties to the poorer countries. Though the WTO sponsored free trade regime stimulates uniform price movements across the globe, it does nothing to ameliorate the income inequities. The insensitivity of the government to the problems faced by the people is clear from the statements which blame inflation on the rising world prices. The laws of capitalism, which are projected by the many reality shows which crowd the Indian television today, create an illusion of the possibility of upward mobility. While these shows celebrate the success of a few, there are many who fail. These shows actually are celebrations of inequality. Md Salim urged the gathering to reaffirm their unity under the banner of the red flag.

After the public meeting progressive songs were presented by a choir from the Jana Natya Manch, Kurukshetra. This was followed by the performance of Jinhe Yeqin Nahin Tha (Those Who Did Not Have Faith) by JANAM. First produced in 1997, the play makes use of a play within a play to explore the inherent laws of exploitation and the choices before the exploited. Workers who break a strike in their factory to work for overtime, are caught inside when the striking workers cut off power supply. To pass their time, they enact the story of a cruel king and his creative slave. The workers then deliberate on the choice of becoming either the king or the slave. All but one worker chooses to be the slave and he walks out to join the striking workers. He realises that he is a slave and must follow the duty of all slaves --- to struggle against exploitation.

On January 2, at Jana Natya Manch's rehearsal space, Indrani Majumdar, senior research associate in the Centre for Women's Development Studies, Delhi, spoke to the members of the group in a programme entitled “Safdar ki Yaad Mein.” Other than recounting a few personal incidents of interaction with Safdar, she recounted Safdar's commitment to work for the working class movement both through his art and other forms of activism. On January 3, JANAM organised a Kavita Goshthi where the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majaz Lucknawi and Vamiq Jaunpuri was recited. This is the centenary year of all these poets.