(This story was first published on 1 January 2018, and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Safdar Hashmi’s birth anniversary.)
It was a clear winter day, sunny and crisp, like they used to make before we turned Delhi into a gas chamber. I had joined Jana Natya Manch, India’s best-known street theatre group, about two years ago. That day, we had gone to Site IV Industrial Area, Sahibabad, to perform. It was Sunday, 1 January 1989, and we were to perform at different locations all day.
At the very first performance, in Jhandapur village in the Industrial Area, a few minutes into the show, a political procession appeared from one side and wanted to pass through. We spoke to them, requested them to take another route and come back here a bit later. The play, we told them, would be over in about 20 minutes. They said ok and withdrew.
Only, they didn’t. They came back. Armed with iron rods and lathis.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, we were under attack.
It turned out to be a lethal attack. They shot dead Ram Bahadur, a migrant worker from Nepal, to create terror. And they fatally wounded Safdar Hashmi, who died in hospital the following day. The leader of the attack was connected to the Congress party.
Safdar was 34. He was an immensely talented, dynamic, charismatic and warm man. Why was he killed?
The working class movement of Delhi was on the upswing. In 1986, the workers had gone on a one-day strike with a set of demands. The following year, it was intensified to a three-day strike. Both these were joint actions of all the trade unions. In 1988, the left-wing organisation, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), argued that the workers were ready to intensify the struggle further. CITU pitched for a week-long strike. The other unions were skeptical. In the end, CITU went ahead on its own.
Safdar was inspired and enthused by this bold decision. He spoke to many trade union comrades to understand the issues in depth. He proposed that we do a play around the issues of the strike.
Normally, street plays that are directly connected to campaigns tend to be didactic, boring, even pedantic, favouring the ‘message’ over art. Safdar hated such plays. He would argue that being a political artist meant not only taking good politics to the people, but also good art.
The play we produced, under his direction, was one of the best street plays I’ve ever seen or acted in. ‘Halla Bol’ was funny, sharp, bold, thoughtful, even unsettling. It expressed complex issues simply, but not simplistically. This is a crucial distinction. Too often, street plays are simplistic, flattening all nuance, obliterating all contradictions. That makes for bad theatre. But if presented simply, theatre has the ability to illuminate dark corners, to clarify connections, to offer intelligent critique, to initiate conversation, to shake and to stir — while at the same time entertaining and elevating the audience.
Safdar understood better than most the paradox that lies at the heart of all theatre for social change — that theatre actually changes nothing, on its own. It is not as if you do a play and the audience has a bingo moment, and the world changes. Far greater forces are at work in society, and a tussle between these forces changes the world. Whether these changes will be positive or negative depends on which social forces have the upper hand at what time. And of course, often it is hard to even determine that.
To paraphrase Paulo Freire, theatre doesn’t change the world. Theatre changes people. People change the world.
The attack of 1 January 1989, was targeted not so much towards a specific individual as against the very act of performing in support of workers’ struggles. Safdar wrote:
(Street theatre) is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations.
The attack was on this idea, that art and people’s struggles can go hand in hand, helping each other, and together bringing about change.
Nearly three decades later, Safdar’s name has acquired a certain iconicity. Part of it has to do with the tremendous wave of anger that swept the country after his killing.
Today, when killings of intellectuals seems dangerously normalised, it is hard to imagine that a young communist artist’s funeral can draw 15,000 people — in an age before the internet and cell phones! Thousands of people also joined Janam when we went back to perform at the site of the attack less than 48 hours after Safdar’s death. That tradition, by the way, continues. Every year, on 1 January, Janam goes back to Jhandapur and performs.
But Safdar today stands for more than that particular historical moment. He represents an idea of India that is under tremendous attack from the Hindu Right, currently. An idea of a secular democracy, not in thrall to any religious group, minority or majority. In fact, an India that conceptualises itself as a republic of citizens, not a conglomeration of ‘communities’.
There is something deeply humanising about the act of performing street theatre. It allows the creation of a dialogic space that is unique. Street theatre, by definition, takes over everyday spaces — spaces where people work, live, study, etc. — and turns them into artistic spaces for a short time. It enables people to stop and relate to something unexpected and spontaneous. It enables people to start conversations.
Sometimes we are asked: What did ‘Halla Bol’ say that angered the attackers so much as to take two lives? Well, nothing really. The attackers didn’t see the play. And those who did, didn’t attack. And this is true not only of this particular attack. It is true of street theatre in general.
Through the decades I’ve never heard of a street play being attacked physically by its spectators. They might argue with you, even fight with you, after watching a play, but they never attack physically. And those who attack never watch the play. (Or, I should add, read a book, or watch a movie, or see a painting.)
In other words, street theatre is, in a sense, a rehearsal of democracy. After all, democracy is not just about holding elections every five years. Democracy is something we all have to make and remake, forge and contest, argue about and fight over, every day, in all spaces — on the village chaupal, on the factory floor, on the street corner, in the kitchen, and even in the bedroom.
Street theatre helps create pockets of democracy. Spaces where people can come together, enjoy a social and artistic experience unmediated by technology, discuss and argue and even disagree. Without breaking each others’ heads. It is this idea, the very idea of democracy, that Safdar Hashmi stands for.
(Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director, who joined Jana Natya Manch in 1987. He works as editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi. The views expressed above are author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)