Safdar Hashmi: The Indian Brecht

It was the new year of 1989. The Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) was performing a play, Halla Bol, in support of Ramanand Jha, CPI[M] candidate for the post of councilor in Ghaziabad. The play began at around 11am near Ambedkar Park before an eager crowd. Minutes into the play, Mukesh Sharma, the Congress opponent ot Jha made an unscripted entry into the scene. He demanded that the play be stopped and he and his entourage be allowed to pass through. The director of the play, Safdar Hashmi informed Sharma to either wait or take an alternative route as the play was already in progress. Sharma and his goons then assaulted the drama troupe with iron rods and firearms. A worker who had come to watch the play, Ram Bahadur, was killed. Safdar Hashmi was injured and taken to the local CITU office. Sharma and his followers followed Hashmi to the office and assaulted him. The next day morning at around 10 am, Safdar Hashmi, one of the pioneers of the people's art movement in India, died. He was just 34.

It was Bertolt Brecht who summarised that the function of bourgeouis theatre was to reduce mankind into a cowed credulous hypnotised mass incapable of political action. This was to Brecht the fundamental contradiction between the bourgeouis art and the people's art that he espoused. Brecht had no illusions or confusions regarding the subject. Art was a hammer to forge reality, not a mirror to view the degraded state of a capitaist order. And thus art was political, very political. Safdar Hashmi embraced the idea of the political, people's theatre. Safdar,the people's artist, was born in Delhi, on the 12th of April 1954 to Haneef and Qamar Hashmi. He got introduced to Marxism in his schooldays itself and chose to study literature. While pursuing his Masters in English at Delhi University, Safdar closely worked with the cultural unit of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and got involved in the creation and execution of street plays. In 1973, Safdar along with his comrades founded the Jana Natya Manch (JANAM)-a platform for street plays. One of the first plays that Safdar wrote was a criticism of the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi's blatant violations of democratic norms. The street play Kursi Kursi Kursi (Chair,Chair,Chair) portrayed a king who when compelled to leave the throne in favour of an elected representative finds it impossible to do. The throne had by then virtually become an extension of his royal self. This sarcastic view of dynastical politics earned Safdar both notoriety and fame. By 1976, he was a member of the CPI[M]. During the turmoil unleashed by the Emergency, Safdar chose to work as a lecturer in various universities to make ends meet. By then he had developed a clarity on what the people's theatre need to represent and strive to achieve.

Contemporary Indian street theatre has been drawing in equal measure from our folk and classical drama as well as from Western drama . . . [It is] a twentieth century phenomenon, born of the specific needs of the working people living under capitalist and feudal exploitation. [Street theatre] is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations. -Safdar Hashmi-

The Emergency had broken the backbone of the trade union movement in India. Safdar realised that the trade unions needed groups like JANAM for reorganisation but were in no shape to fund the theatre movement or even individual plays. The need of the hour was to develop plays that were inexpensive, mobile and effective. The result of that need was the 6 actor, 13 minute short play- Machine. Even in its conception the play was democratic for it was developed not just by an individual but by the JANAM collective. The play was inspired by the brutal crackdown of protests at the Herig-India chemical factory. Unorganised workers who demanded a parking space for their cycles and a decent canteen were gunned down in cold blood by security guards. Six workers died. The play symbolically showed how the capitalist, the guard and the worker were all part of the capitalist structure. The play details how this illusion of progress is destroyed when unable to bear the exploitation of the capitalist masters, the workers revolt. The first performance, for 200,000 workers, drove the audience into frenzy. After the play workers carried the artists on their shoulders as heroes. The simple yet poetic language and the abstract theme had appealed directly to the Indian working class. In subsequent plays, Machine was tape recorded and then reproduced in local languages. The peoples theatre movement in India had come of age. JANAM did not stop there. They followed this success with plays on rural unemployment, labour problems and on political life. In 1979, in protest of the fare hike of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), JANAM wrote and rehearsed DTC ki Dhandali out on the streets within 5 hours!

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

-Bertolt Brecht-

Safdar Hashmi was more than a theatre persona or a political activist. Safdar wrote plays and songs for children, conceived serials for television, designed posters for progressive causes, organised film festivals, protested the brutality of rising Hindu fascism, wrote articles espousing his views, supported strikes by trade unions and championed democracy in its broadest sense. As his funeral procession passed through Delhi, bystanders joined in a show of support. It was one of the largest spontaneous funeral processions in post-independence India. Three days after Safdar was murdered, Moloyashree Hashmi, JANAM member and Safdar's partner, lead a team of JANAM members back to Ambedkar Park. The play was resumed and completed. A befitting tribute to Safdar Hashmi. As Safadar's mother Qamar Hashmi summed it up in her book The Fifth Flame: The Story of Safdar Hashmi, “Comrade Safdar, we do not mourn you, we remember you in celebration”. Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) was formed in February 1989 to provide a platform for politically and socially conscious artists. In 1989, Safdar's birthday (April 12) was observed as National Street Theatre Day and 30,000 performances of street plays were recorded all over the country. All 10 accused in the murder of Safdar Hashmi and Ram Bahadur were awarded life sentences, but only after a 14 year legal battle.

Let the powers that murderered Safdar be warned: One can resist an invasion of armies; one cannot resist an invasion of ideas. Lal Salaam Comrade!