Art and resistance: The impact of India’s street theatre personality Safdar Hashmi

Art and resistance: The impact of India’s street theatre personality Safdar Hashmi
Moloyashree Hashmi (right) at a performance of "Halla Bol" on January 4, 1989 three days after the attack that killed her husband Safdar Hashmi at the same spot on the outskirts of Delhi. File photo.
By Anil Datta

By Anil Datta

The Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences, Karachi, on Saturday hosted a highly enlightening lecture on the life and work of noted Indian street theatre artiste Safdar Hashmi.

Dr Riaz A. Shaikh, Dean, Social Sciences, at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) talked about how Hashmi used the medium of street theatre to bring awakening to the working classes and raise awareness of their rights and the exploitation they were subjected by the capitalists.

Dr. Shaikh said that the sub-continent had a long history of protest and reconciliation movements. He quoted Lenin who said, “Art is the manifestation of reality in an artistic manner. Art helps people understand politics and culture”.

Safdar Hashmi worked for the revival of protest theatre in the 1970s and in 1973 formed his street theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam). It influenced many known figures of the theatrical world, including Indian movie star Nandita Das. He showed video clips of Nandita Das paying handsome tributes to Hashmi and crediting him with a genuine desire to usher in a new era of social justice, equality, and human rights.

He traced the history of the All-India Street Theatre in Bombay in 1941 and the emergence of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936. The birth of the PWA was a direct outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR, he said, noting that Indian movie actor Balraj Sahni and poet Kaifi Azmi (actor Shabana Azmi’s father) and the late Pakistani journalist Safdar Mir, were products of this innovative organization.

May Day 1988: Safdar Hashmi speaking before a performance at dawn. File photo.

May Day 1988: Safdar Hashmi speaking before a performance at dawn. File photo.

The Moscow-Peking ideological rift of the 1960s served as a temporary damper on the street theatre movement. However, Hashmi revived the movement in 1971, with the Group of 12. Their first street theatre performance was, “Kursi, Kursi, Kursi” a portrayal of Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emergency in 1977.

Hashmi went into academia but returned to street theatre with two plays, Machine, and Gaon Se Shehr Tak. The latter play, said Shaikh, highlighted the connect between the three exploited classes, the peasant in the countryside, the labourer in the city, and a person from the middle classes frantically in search of a job.

Dr. Shaikh noted that the egalitarian movements in Pakistan had not been able to highlight this connect. The peasant who left the countryside and came to the city in search of greener pastures and the exploited labourer in the city continued to wallow in their misery at the hands of the capitalist system.

Hashmi worked to mitigate communal riots, for example in Allahabad in 1980. An investigation into the riots found that capitalist groups had engineered the riots and given them a communal colour on the surface. The riots were found to have sprung from a lock making factory, said Dr. Shaikh.

SafdarHashmi Irtiqa talkAnother street play, DTC Ki Dhandli, which uncovered the totally needless fare increase by the Delhi Transport Corporation. The government had to withdraw the fare rise after the play made the citizens restive over the issue.

Safdar’s tragic end came on January 1, 1989, when he staged a street play, Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice). This was during the general election and the play was being staged in the workers’ stronghold of Eastern Delhi. Shaikh recalled that workers of the Congress Party attacked the street theatre group with iron bars. Hashmi, 34, and Ram Bahadur, a local worker, were killed.

Dr. Shaikh traced the emergence of Pakistani theatre groups like Dastak, Ajoka, and Saanjh, and the work of playwrights like Imran Aslam and Yasmeen Ismail to Hashmi’s visits to Pakistan in 1987 and ’88.

He credited Hashmi with having organized a street play against communalism in Ayodhya, later the scene of the 1992 Babri Masjid tragedy, whereby Hashmi quoted the case of the 18th century Hindu mystic of the city, Sant Paltu Das who spoke vociferously against communalism and preached inter-religion love and fellowship.

Anil Datta is a senior Karachi-based reporter with daily The News International.

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