Artists from the Jana Natya Mancha dropped in at the SFI State Office on the 9th of December to strike up an engaging adda with the students and let them experience Janam’s latest experiment in a new theatrical form. Lively and intellectually stimulating conversation brewed in the hall of Dinesh Majumdar Bhavan as interested students huddled around the pioneers of the people’s theatre movement in India bombarding them with questions about everything from the evolution of Street theatre in India to their views on Communalism and the new Modi government. The crew from Janam won over hearts and respect with their bold commitment for the common people’s cause, their passion towards their art and its aesthetics and the dynamism with which they let their creativity be unleashed by giving it purpose and direction.
The initial discussion was on the evolution of the people’s theatre and mainly street theatre in India. Malayshri Hashmi, Safdar’s daughter, one of the leading minds behind the Janam, described how they took up different messages and tried out different and innovative forms. She emphasized the importance they ascribed to aesthetics and creativity and how they were recognized among the intellectual community for the quality and honesty of their performances. Quizzed about the state’s attitude towards street plays she firmly stated that the state mostly took an indifferent stand, neither nourishing nor oppressing them. The hurdles they had to face were mainly due to the political opposition from the very backward forces that they fought through their art. The Janam team spoke of the situation in Bengal as an extremely extrapolated form of the political repression, much different from the repression they faced in Delhi which had a much more exposed class character. They expressed solidarity with the people who were living by and dying for the red flag under a relentless fascist offensive in the state.
The members of the Janam team spoke about their warm relationship with the working class, the trade union movement and the vitality of their experiences in venturing into working class areas with their theatre. The younger members related how their eyes opened to the realities of India as they performed in different places, interacting with different people and getting to know the conditions in which people actually live. With great vehemence did they vanquish the theory that working people do not perceive aesthetics or abstraction in theatre. Rather, talking about the popular reception of their famous play “Machine” they said that poor uneducated working people could grasp the different layers of the plot as well as any conscious intellectual, because it exposed the ironies of their own existence. Prompted by a question about Ram Bahadur, the worker who was killed at the scene of Safdar Hashmi’s murder, Malayashri and the others emphasized that both Safdar and Ram Bahadur’s deaths were equally tragic and equally heinous. They pointed out that it was the mainstream media that had neglected mention of the second. At the same time, Safdar was murdered for the ideology he consciously chose to hold up, and Ram Bahadur was killed just because he was there, to spread panic and ensure that no one stood up in court as witness to Safdar Hashmi’s murder. The fascist powers that killed Safdar and Ram Bahadur were trying to subdue the disturbing voice of the people rising up.
Janam’s team members expressed deep concern over the divisive forces of communalism and identity politics at play, and the gradual instillation of identity politics, once a primarily middle class feature, into the working classes. At the same time they asserted that a cultural war against such divisive forces through media like the street theatre was one important weapon in combating the communal and neoliberal agendas. Malayshri suggested that larger consolidations among the people can be built by forming common platforms on issues that struck a chord across large cross sections of society. As an example she cited the issue of violence against women. She described how creative personalities otherwise professing to be disinterested in politics had come forward and spoken about collaborative ventures with the Janam on issues of gender equality and fighting sexual violence.
The team next performed their new form of interactive theatre. For the students present it was an awe-inspiring adventure into creative innovation. The artists collected stories from the audience and without any prior rehearsing or consultation staged the characters and stories. The theme was violence on women. Colour discrimination, sex-selection, negligence, forced relationships, denial of medical care were among the issues that came up from the audience. While at first students were reluctant to share their stories, when they saw what was happening on stage they opened up and contributed to the storyline.
At the end, the afternoon left many convinced of the need for exploring newer forms of expression to reach out to more and more people. It evidently left everybody convinced of the sheer power of street plays in conveying a message. It may even have convinced a few to take up the baton themselves.