24th Safdar Hashmi Memorial

For Creative Freedom, Progressive Thought, A Just Society

A MEMBER of the CPI(M) and renowned street theatre performer Safdar Hashmi succumbed to injuries sustained during an attack on a play his troupe were performing in Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi on January 1, 1989. The memory of what Safdar contributed to the world of theatre, to the world of activism and to progressive, Marxist creative practice is refreshed every year in the minds of those who faithfully come back and share afresh with those who come for the first time. However, once they enter the “tent,” there is no telling the newcomer from the regular as it seems in no time to become home to everyone.

For 23 years, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) has been creating a large impact, with the tireless effort of its core members towards creating and preserving a space for creative forms of resistance, protest, rational discourse and a celebration of all of the arts.


Thus it was that on January 1, 2013 the Safdar Hashmi Memorial was organised in the lawns (now occupied by a semi-permanent tent-like installation) of the Constitution Club, Vithalbhai Patel House, New Delhi. Starting at 2 in the afternoon in the mild sun on a misty winter day with a play performance by the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti (HGVS), the string of performances presented the theme of Tributes. So while it was the beginning of the centenary year for Balraj Sahni, renowned actor, progressive thinker and member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), it was near the end of the centenary year for Sa’adat Hasan Manto, a short story writer par excellence. The passing away of sitar maestro Pt Ravishankar recently at the age of 92 was another tribute and reference, as were tributes to the unnamed young medical student who recently lost her life after facing a brutal assault and rape in a Delhi bus.

This young girl whose name we are unaware of and whose family we know only sketchily, has now come to symbolise the condition of women in India and the kind of abuse that is meted out to them as well as their strong resistance to it. Some of these issues were touched upon by the HGVS in their play that reflected on the condition of women in various segments of the present day society. Almost all the visitors to the day-long programme, led by Sitaram Yechury, signed the following pledge: “We are saddened by the tragic death of a young life and pledge that we will not tolerate violence against women in the home or in the streets in any form.”

Subsequently, American composer and singer Scott M Murray alluded to the struggle of this young woman and of women in general in his song “Sun Angel.” His other songs such as “Waiting for the War to End” and “Belgrade Station” talk of the militarisation of regions of the world --- with either direct or tacit involvement of the American industrial military complex and war machinery. Be it the Gulf war of 1991 in the former song and the

Bosnian war in the latter, the songs actually refer to the inevitability of war as long as it remains a constant requirement and a source of income for the American & European defence manufacturers.

Following this, lawyer Dr Saif Mahmood recited poems by Ahmad Faraz and Faiz Ahmad Faiz to echo the dominant sentiment of resistance in Scott’s music and with a tone referencing the exemplary courage that the unknown young woman displayed in the face of such a heinous assault.


The tributes to late Balraj Sahni, the legendary theatre, film actor and a member of the IPTA, took on a few forms starting with a small film, a montage of some of his cinematic work by theatre director M K Raina. It then came to literature in the form of the release of a book edited by Rajinder Sharma, titled IPTA ki Yaadein. This and another book, Mantonama, two SAHMAT publications, were released by noted Hindi writer and scholar Ashok Vajpayee. This tribute was carried forward in the reading of excerpts of Balraj Ji’s autobiography by his niece Kalpana Sahni (daughter of noted writer and playwright late Bhisham Sahni) and the reading of a story by the elder of the two famous Sahni brothers, Scooter ki Chori by Sohail Hashmi. The two narratives portrayed beautifully the sensitivity of Balraj Sahni --- his determination and commitment, his courage of conviction and most of all his ability to observe, to empathise with and learn from the struggles of common people and the sense of humanity, humour and joy that they seem to retain in spite of them. The Sahni tribute culminated with a rendition of the famous song “Ae Mere Pyaare Watan”from his film Kaabuliwala by young Punjabi singer Harpreet Singh who gave to it an air of melancholy and thus the character of a haunting yet heart-rending lament.

The tribute to Sa’adat Hasan Manto, which began with a two-day seminar and exhibition in September 2012 at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, seemed to culminate in the performance pieces by theatre person Neeta Mohindra and contemporary dancer Astad Deboo. A theatre actor and director


from Amritsar, Mohindra reflected on Manto’s famous story “Khol Do” and the persecution that he faced for it. Located within a witness box on stage, the performance reflected on the legal and social censure that Manto had to face, stemming largely from a lack of understanding of the true import of his stories and their characters.

Noted dancer and long time SAHMAT contributor, Astad Deboo chose for his piece the Manto story “Toba Tek Singh” and wove an abstracted yet all the more evocative telling of this story about the partition of an asylum. Using all his repertoire and skills from Kathakali to the Manipuri Pungcholam drummers’ acrobatic style to modern dance, Deboo re-created the seminal scenes from the story, changing the character and mood effortlessly from a sombre one at the start, to the celebration of choice but within a madhouse, further to the fear and confusion of the strife on both sides of the new border culminating in the last portion characterised by the protagonists inability and lack of desire to choose between the two newly formed nation states which in the absence of his daughter and family appear to him to be little more than abstract and meaningless ideas.

A calendar based on Manto’s famous partition stories was also issued on this occasion.

The tribute to Pt Ravishankar was also twofold. Pritam Ghoshal, a sarod player and disciple of maestros Pt Radhika Mohan Moitra and now Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, played as his tribute compositions by Pt Ravishankar. The other offering to his memory was a video installation piece by photographer Ram Rahman built around a video recording of Pandit Ji talking at the “Artists Against Communalism” concert in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1992.


There were also memorable performances by Zakir Dholpuri, son of harmonium exponent late Mahmood Dholpuri, with his nephew Fazal on tabla; by a band of students from Ramjas College comprising Surdhani, Misha, Sam Bilaval and Piyush: and by Tanvir Ahmad Khan and Imran Ahmad Khan in Hindustani classical style, noted Hindustani classical singer Vidya Shah, formerly a student of Shanti Hiranand, Shubha Mudgal, renowned Dhrupad exponent Wasifuddin Dagar, Sufi singer and scholar Madan Gopal Singh as well popular Punjabi singer Jasbir Jassi.

Lasting, the more than eight and a half hours from start to finish, the 24th playing of the annual concert once again was a reaffirmation of a continuing struggle towards creative freedom, progressive thought and a more egalitarian and just society. This is what Safdar strove for in his life and death, and this is what is his legacy to us and also to the generations that would come after us.

Kanishka Prasad