Theatre personalities, actors, artists, writers, trade union workers, journalists, students, cultural activists and others gathered together at Safdar Hashmi Marg, Mandi House in New Delhi to celebrate the 20th National Street Theatre Day on 12th April. This is the day Safdar Hashmi - actor, singer, writer, film maker and a whole time worker of the CPI (M) - was born in 1954. Safdar would have been 54 on this 12th April had he not been fatally attacked on first January 1989, resulting in his death the next day.
Safdar was attacked by ruling party goondas at Jhandapur near Sahibabad, barely 23 km from Delhi, while his street theatre group Jan Natya Manch (JANAM) was performing the play Halla Bol, at the invitation of CITU, in support of workers’ right to unionise and to demand a fair wage.
The spontaneous upsurge of anger, revulsion and popular protest that engulfed the entire nation in the days and weeks following his assassination led to the formation of Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), with in two days of his death Jan Natya Manch went back to the site of the attack to complete the unfinished play, foregrounding the resolve of the creative community not to be cowed down by terror tactics and to stand as one in defence of their right to perform and to express their thoughts, in forms chosen by them. 12th April 1989 saw the holding of the 10 day long Safdar Samaroh and the declaration of 12th April as National Street Theatre Day.
12th April 2008 was the celebration of the 20th National Street Theatre Day. For the last two decades street theatre activists in towns, cities and villages spread across the length and breadth of the country have been paying their tribute to a people’s artist by performing plays on issues that concern the people and their daily struggles. Each group receives National Street Theatre Day posters designed and printed by Sahmat, the groups fill in performance details and use the posters for local publicity. They also inform Sahmat about the performance and send press clippings.
The National Street Theatre Day at Delhi was observed jointly by Sahmat and Janam. M.K Raina, founder trustee of Sahmat and an old friend of Safdar recalled the role of Safdar in establishing street theatre as an independent genre of meaningful theatre and pointed to the fact that 20 years after his death the working class was again fighting for a decent living wage and attacks on creative expression had only increased in the interregnum. The Jana Natya Manch play ‘Ye Hum Kyon Sahen? (Why should we tolerate this state of affairs?) Performed on the occasion has been prepared for a CITU campaign for upward revision of minimum wages of Industrial workers that were last revised 19 years ago. The Janam performance was preceded by the performance of a short play in Malyalam - around the theme of the central role of labour in
all human creation - by Jan Sanskriti.
This was a unique march in many ways the marchers walked behind the same banner that was carried 20 years ago on 12th April 1989. The banner carried the Hindi translation of a famous verse by German Dramatist and Anti Fascist Campaigner Bertolt Brecht
The marchers were not carrying a memorandum of demands to be submitted to someone, they were not shouting slogans, they walked together as an expression of solidarity with the ideals that Safdar held dear and carried in their hands large photographs on themes that had engaged Safdar in his creative and political work, the themes were as diverse as Safdar’s own body of work and included works on the condition of the working class and their struggles, the poor, working women, slum dwellers, child labour, hunger, demolitions of slum clusters, closure of factories, destruction of heritage and environment, the maddening construction boom, the rise of consumerist culture, the unbridled rise of communal fascism, the ever increasing attacks on creative freedom & the right to dissent at the hands of Vigilante bands and the so called moral police.
Some of those whose works were carried in the march, by the artists themselves or by others included Abhimanue V.G. Ayodh Kamath, Chandni Arora, Gigi Scaria, Gopal Krishna Nair, Inder Saleem, , Jenson Anto, Kanishka Prasad, Mathew Kurien, Parthiv Shah, Priyanka Sachar, Rajinder Arora, Ram
Rahman, Safdar Hashmi, Sanjay Sharma, Sanjay Shrivastava, Sarita, Shruti Singhi, Sudhanva Deshpande, Vatsal Kant, Veer Munshi, Vibha Galhotra and Vivan Sundaram, the department of History Delhi University,members of Janam and Act One and many amateurs also contributed to the Street Gallery of Photographs.
The march culminated on the lawns of Vithal Bhai Patel House where an exhibition of all the photographs carried in the march was put up in the open along with a Sahmat exhibition on the life and work of Safdar.
The reading from Halla Bol was followed by the release of the reprint of Mote Ram Ka Satyagrah. The play based on a short story written by Munshi Prem Chand was jointly adapted by Habib Tanveer and Safdar and both had acted in the first performance of the play. The play was staged again in Sept 1991 and some of the members of the cast who took part in the two performances were at hand to read out excerpts from the play. The cover for the reprint has been designed by the eminent artist Shamshad.
The programme to celebrate the 20th national street theatre day and to observe Safdar’s anniversary concluded with the screening of Sashi Kumar’s film Safdar. The Film made on the occasion of Safdar Samaroh 1989 uses actual footage of the performance that was held three days after the attack on Safdar and the large number of protest meetings. The screening brought back the memories of pain and loss and of the determination to carry on the fight that has sustained Sahmat, Janam and a large number of those who have taken inspiration from the brilliance of a committed artist and a loveable human being.
As the famous IPTA song “Hum Sub Is Jahan Mein Zindagi ke Geet Gayen” (together we sing the songs of life) brought the film to a close the strain was picked up by Kajal Ghosh and the Parcham Choir- Parcham and Janam have been together for decades, they were together in Mote Ram, on 12th April 1989 and on 12th April 2008. All those who knew the song joined in, eyes brimming with tears and throats choked but determined to carry on.