(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 30, 2011
SARKASH: Janam’s Fundraising Festival in Mumbai
ABOUT six months before he was killed, in the summer of 1988, Safdar Hashmi gave a long interview to the Dutch theatre scholar Eugene van Erven. In this interview, Safdar talked about Jana Natya Manch (Janam), how it came into being, its history, he reflected on the plays done thus far. Towards the end of the interview, Safdar outlined the rough outlines of a big future project – to create a small cultural institute and training centre:
“The idea is that . . . we could buy a plot of land in a working-class district of Delhi and erect a simple building there without a fixed stage or anything but where we could have proscenium or theatre in the round or whatever we wanted to . . . There we could have a repertory of 10 or 12 professional actors who would do nothing but theatre, training ourselves. You see, we have become rusty. We have been performing so much that we have not been able to learn. Some of us were talented 10 years ago. To some extent we have been able to develop that. But since then theatre has advanced a great deal. We are feeling the need to learn so many things . . . We would like to [regularly] perform for a nominal charge . . . so that [the audiences] will have an attitude of responsibility towards it. During the day we could train ourselves and do other things beside the agitational-propaganda theatre we’re doing now. Our workers are culturally today starved and marginalised . . . Theatre doesn’t reach them at all . . . I would like to perform Shakespeare for them as well. I want to perform Gorki, Tolstoy, Chekhov . . . For all those activities an institute is necessary. Looking further into the future, if we want to sow the seeds for a truly people-oriented leftist theatre, we need this kind of a construction. At the same time we have a dream of making this institute a training centre for groups like ours who could come to us from different parts of the country . . . Right now it seems a farfetched dream. To start it we would need [a lot of money]. I don’t know where we are going to get hold of this money but we are going to try.” [This interview was published in the collection of his writings, The Right to Perform, and has been republished in Theatre of the Streets (available on www.leftword.com).]
Safdar’s motivations were manifold – every time Janam went to working class areas and slums to perform, he was excited at the talent he saw in the youth, and appalled that this talent would most often go waste; he was concerned that Janam might stagnate as artists if we only kept doing a certain kind of street theatre; he saw that many members of Janam were entering middle age and the pressures of family and work were beginning to tell on them; but most of all, he wanted to take the best of world culture to the workers.
The cultural centre that he envisaged, then, was to be a training ground for working class youth, a space where Janam members could replenish their creative resources, a centre that might allow some Janam members to become full-time cultural workers, and an institute that imparted training.
Over the years we realised that one of the key areas of concern for theatre groups was the lack of rehearsal infrastructure. A rehearsal space for an amateur theatre group typically means any place they are not heckled out of. It may be in the open, leaving the actors at the mercy of the elements; it may be filthy, damp and squalid; it may not even have running water or electricity. Theatre groups are forced, then, to rent rehearsal space at commercial rates, drilling a hole in their pockets.
Janam is currently working towards acquiring a space that will address two needs simultaneously. First, a space that will provide the facilities for Janam and other theatre groups and activist organisations to conduct workshops and training. In particular, a space that would encourage community engagement. Second, a space that can become a theatre studio, where performers do the final stage of their rehearsal before they go public. Since Janam is not looking to maximise profit, we would charge relatively small rental – just about enough to cover our expenses. We want to realise Safdar’s dream, updated to our time.
Naturally, this will require a lot of money – Janam wants to raise Rs One crore. To kickstart this effort, Janam recently organised a fundraising festival in Mumbai, SARKASH. Held over eight days, from December 4-8, the festival brought together some of India’s best-known performers at the Prithvi Theatre. The festival was kicked off with an open event that had Om Puri, Sanjna Kapoor, Rajat Kapoor, Yashpal Sharma, Luvleen Misra and others doing readings from Safdar’s writings and Janam’s plays. The play Satyashodhak by Govind Deshpande, on the life and work of Jotirao Phule, which was first produced by Janam, was released by Shyam Benegal. A collection of Janam’s 15 street plays, Sarkash Afsaney, and the special issue of Janam’s magazine Nukkad Janam Samvaad was also released. An exhibition-cum-sale of vintage theatre photographs from the archives of Janam, entitled ‘Street: Theatre’, curated by Joyoti Roy, was inaugurated by Shabana Azmi, who has been a long-time supporter of Janam’s work. This was followed by the play Tumhari Amrita, featuring Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh.
The second day of the festival featured a very special performance: Naseeruddin Shah made his debut as a street theatre actor! The play was Janam’s Yeh Dil Mange More, Guruji, on the Gujarat pogrom. This was followed by Ismat Apa ke Naam, featuring Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah.
Janam opened its new proscenium play at this festival. Titled Char Rang, it is a play about Rabindranath Tagore’s short novel Chaturanga. This is not an adaptation – it is set in today’s times, and in fact much of the play takes place on the Delhi Metro – but refers to, and interprets, Tagore’s novel. The play is stylistically innovative, using puppets for some scenes as well as live painting, and focuses on two issues: the emotional independence of women and the debate between irrationality and scientific thinking.
The festival also featured Hamlet the Clown Prince, directed by Rajat Kapoor, in which a bunch of clowns try to put up Shakespeare’s classic with results which are hilarious as well as moving; Ramu Ramanathan’s Cotton 56, Polyester 84, directed by Sunil Shanbag, a play on the mill workers of Mumbai; and Aao Sathi Sapna Dekhein, directed by Swanand Kirkire, a musical love story set in Delhi’s Jama Masjid area. Janam performed Ujle Safed Kabootar, a reading of poetry for Palestine, accompanied by a visual essay by the filmmaker-designer Sherna Dastur. The final evening of the festival featured a concert by Shubha Mudgal, Sarkash Taraney, where she sang in her inimitable way a repertoire of socially-relevant songs by Kabir, Sahir Ludhianvi, Ibne Insha, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and others. She also spoke movingly about her association with several instances of artists’ solidarity after Safdar’s murder.
SARKASH was a hugely successful festival, which saw the participation of large numbers of Mumbai’s theatre lovers. Those interested can see a special feature on the festival prepared by NDTV on http://www.pragoti.org/node/4241, while photographs and more details are available on www.sarkash.in. A large number of well-known cultural personalities issued statements in support of Janam’s efforts (available on the SARKASH website).
The natural question that will follow, however, is whether Janam succeeded in raising the requisite funds for the proposed centre. The answer to that is yes and no. Considering that the festival did not have any large corporate sponsorships, the fact that gate money, sale of merchandise, and small sponsorships managed to raise Rs 15 lakh must be considered a success – even though it is barely 15 per cent of the target! However, what the festival did was to get the word out there that Janam is working hard to give concrete shape to Safdar’s dream, and that this dream is backed by leading figures from the world of art and culture. An important plank of Janam’s fundraising efforts is centred on getting donations from friends, sympathisers, comrades, and the large number of fighting organisations that our theatre has allied itself to in the last 38 years (details of how to help are available at the ‘donate’ button on www.sarkash.in). As Naseeruddin Shah said, SARKASH is not the end, it is a beginning.