People's Democracy

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


No. 02

January 08, 2012

The People's Artist




TWENTY-THREE years ago, on January 1, 1989, in the heart of the industrial township of Sahibabad (near Delhi), Safdar Hashmi, theatre activist and a founding member of Jana Natya Manch (Janam), was martyred. That morning the Janam was performing its street play Halla Bol, as a follow-up of a historic trade union strike in November 1988 and in support of the CPI(M) candidate for the municipal elections. The play was attacked by goons who were backed by the Congress supported rival candidate, Mukesh Sharma. Along with Safdar, Ram Bahadur, a worker, was also killed in an unprovoked assault. Safdar Hashmi was the convenor of Janam and a member of the CPI(M).


Safdar's funeral saw a huge turnout of people from all walks of life, but particularly of workers from Delhi and adjoining areas. This was their way to mourn the death of an artist who had used his art to articulate their life. Most of them had to take leave from duty to join the funeral. But that was not all. Even in mourning, the actors of Janam returned to the spot in Jhandapur, Sahibabad on January 4, 1989, to finish the incomplete play, Halla Bol, and to assert the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Thousands of people joined the event in support and to provide strength to Janam.


The actors of Janam and the people of Jhandapur have not let the performance of January 4, 1989 be an isolated incident. Every year they join hands to organise a joint programme of workers and artists to pay respect to Safdar, reaffirm their commitment to the values that Safdar stood for and to present an afternoon of vibrant and robust art where the creators and recipients of art stand in view of each other.


It is interesting that the Martyrdom Day of Safdar Hashmi is observed not on January 2 every year, when Safdar actually breathed his last, but on January 1 – the day on which Janam was attacked. What is observed is not only the memory of an extraordinary artist and activist, but the ideals for which he and his comrades strove, the ideas which enabled them to weave extraordinary tales from the pains and joys of ordinary people.


Over the last few years, Janam and the CITU have jointly organised programmes in the run-up to the January 1 programme at Jhandapur. This year too, a two-day creative workshop was held on  December 26 and 27 at the Safdar Hashmi Memorial at site-four Sahibabad. Janam members and volunteers arranged stalls, each for a different activity, for children. Scores of children from schools around the Jhandapur area thronged the stalls for two days. There they engaged in singing, story telling, clay modelling, wall painting, thread painting and block printing. They also made wall hangings and learnt how to rub colour impressions of corrugated surfaces onto plain paper. At the end, the children collected a number of freshly created art works, a promise of trying out these experiments back at home. The venue itself was converted into a colourful place.


The annual programme at Ambedkar Park in Sahibabad on the first day of the New Year held promise of something special. This year, children from local schools of the area held a significant space in the schedule of performances. They had been preparing for this event for over two weeks. Under the guidance of Komita Dhanda, a Janam actor, students of the Great Child Public School, Karkari, Sahibabad, prepared three separate cantastoria performances. Cantastoria is an illustrated narration in which stories are told with the help of visuals. This, however, is not a new method. It is similar to the pictorial storytelling of the Patkatha artists from Bengal or the Kawadi tradition of storytelling from Rajasthan which uses painted folding boxes. In the cantasoria form, a picture or a series of pictures illustrating various scenes from the story is presented before the audience.


The significance of the Jhandapur experiment was that though known forms of cantastoria, patkatha and kawad are meant for small audiences, Ambedkar Park at Jhandapur was filled to its brims with hundreds of workers and their families. So the illustration had to be large enough for the entire audience to be able to see. So, instead of presenting the different scenes of the story in turns, all the scenes were painted on a very large canvas which was then held up for the audience by two children. Along with the illustrations, groups of children sung out the stories. These were simple stories about land grabbing, the diversion of water through large dam projects and other forms of struggle over resources. Remarkable was the simplicity with which these stories transformed these complex issues, so that they could be comprehended by children. The vast audience watched with rapt attention, a reaction which showed that the children’s performance was a hit.


The other highlight of the afternoon was the puppet performance by the students of the Avinash Chand Chadha Rajkiya Bal Vidyalaya, Jhilmil Colony. Under the guidance of Komita Dhanda and with help from Anand, a puppeteer from Kattkatha (a puppet theatre ensemble based in Delhi), the students had created several giant puppets who represented the characters of the story. These puppets were then manipulated on stage by two to three children. The technique brought together the tradition of the Japanese Bunraku puppets with the use of giant puppets by the Bread and Puppet, a political theatre group based in Vermont, USA. Komita had been an intern with the Bread and Puppet theatre earlier in the summer.


The story itself was told through the conversation between a little girl and a tree. The tree is ready to leave the forest as he fears that the industrialist who has just bought the land would cut him down. Answering the little girl's queries the tree explains the exploitative mechanism through which a poor peasant family is forced to give up their rural livelihood and migrate to the city. There too they find no respite as the system continues to grind them. With a combination of puppetry, enactment and background singing the ground came alive.


Both the forms performed by the children were examples of the use of large dimensions to create art forms for the enjoyment of masses. Hopefully, this intervention would ignite the interest of the people of the area, particularly the children to engage in art.


But that was not all. The cultural fare for the afternoon had started with Janam singing revolutionary songs. The Jana Natya Manch of Kurkshetra also participated with their singing. Janam performed two of its street plays. Private Pani narrated the woes caused by increasing government policies of the privatisation of water distribution. The play connected very well with the experiences of the audience. There have been several incidents in the industrial township in which the dominant political parties have sought to convert the scarcity of water into a conflict within the community. Janam also performed Machine, a play which was first performed in 1978, based on a strike and subsequent repression at the Herig India factory in Ghaziabad. But though the play was created in 1978, its sharp analysis of the capitalist system has rendered it to the status of a classic which is as relevant today as it was 34 years ago.


The chief speaker at the public meeting was Dipankar Mukherjee, former MP and national secretary of the CITU. At the beginning of his address, he quipped that he would prefer not to be introduced as a leader as that is a much discredited term today. He stressed on the importance of more such performances as seen that afternoon which would help the people who are at the receiving end of the corrupt and anti-people policies to analyse their conditions. He urged them to join struggles with renewed vigour. Speaking on the occasion, P M S Grewal, secretary of the Delhi state unit of CPI(M), gave a clarion call to all assembled to join the general strike on February 28.


On January 2, an intimate meeting was held in which Janam members recounted the memory of Safdar Hashmi. On this occasion, Suneet Chopra of the All India Agricultural Workers Union reminisced his memories of Safdar. He knew Safdar and Janam since his student days in the early seventies. Suneet Chopra recounted for the audience Safdar's commitment to the politics of the Left and to his art. But the most important part of Safdar's personality was though he was a gifted artist, he never carried the impression of being a star with him. This allowed him to make friends galore and remain extremely approachable for all. The result could be seen in the huge number of people who thronged his funeral. On this occasion Vijay Kalia, a Janam member since the early 1980s and Bipasha Banerjee, a relatively new entrant, spoke on their impression of Safdar Hashmi and his work.


On the January 3 evening, Janam members participated in a poetry reading session in which selected poems on the theme of childhood were read.