Dramatist, writer, poet, filmmaker and CPI(M) activist, Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked while performing a play at Sahibabad on 1st January, 1989. Safdar died a day later. The attack and his subsequent death triggered a wave of protest among the creative community and among large sections of the people as well. The popular mobilisation against this attack on the freedom of expression and the politics of intolerance was soon to find expression in the formation of SAHMAT – the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust.
Over the last 19 years SAHMAT has marked this attack on freedom of expression through organising the annual Safdar Hashmi Memorial. This 1st January was no different. The Vithalbhai Patel House lawns wore a colourful look with scores of banners fluttering in the cold winter breeze of Delhi and hundreds of artists, writers, intellectuals, poets, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, workers from trade unions, white collar workers, friends and colleagues of Safdar thronging the grounds. They had gathered to remember Safdar and to re-assert their commitment to freedom of expression and to the causes that Safdar held dear.
Coming as it did, within days of the BJP winning in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the gathering was also an expression of solidarity against communal fascism. Safdar had ceaselessly campaigned against the rise of communalism and the activities of SAHMAT have over the last two decades have continued to foreground the syncretic traditions of our arts both plastic and performative.
The rich traditions of tolerance and brotherhood that have informed creative processes in India, both traditionally and in contemporary times, was once again highlighted through the wide range of performances and presentations that marked the start of the 20th year since the attack on Safdar.
The 19th Safdar Memorial began with the performance of a play woven around 1857 - the first war of Independence – the half an hour play based on actual events recalled many of the landmark events that shaped the revolt that had shaken the foundations of British colonialism. The play presented by Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti forcefully brought out the fact that common people belonging to all communities and all creeds had fought unitedly for freedom from foreign rule.
The play that focussed on the secular nature of the struggle also set the mood for the other events that were to follow. Sumangala Damodaran presented songs from the days of the freedom struggle and those that were sung in the immediate post-independence period. Sumangala has been collecting the songs of the 1940s, 1950s & 1960s that are now all but forgotten. Deepak Castelino accompanied Sumangala on the guitar while Sumangala sang Wo Subah Kabhi To Aayegi, Tu Zinda Hai, Jaane Waale Sipahi Se Poochho and other popular Hindi, Bangla, Malyalam and Telugu songs of the freedom struggle. Sumangala’s presentation was interspersed with audio-visual presentations. The presentations were based on the lives, work and times of three of Independent India’s most significant artists. The presentation on Chittoprasad that had been researched and scripted by Sanjay Mullick was presented by the well-known artist Vivan Sundaram. The presentation brought out the creative journey of Chittoprasad who captured the struggles and sufferings
of the people in his pen & ink drawing and etchings and also in the large number of cartoons and caricatures that he drew to poke fun at the ruling classes.
The second presentation on Sunil Janah – the most famous and influential photographer of his times was made by Ram Rahman. Ram’s presentation brought out the fact that it was Janah who established photography as an art form in India and also foregrounded the deep commitment that Janah had for the people struggling for a better tomorrow. The presentation also focussed on the important contribution of Janah in capturing not only the significant political and social movements of India of his times but also the seminal contribution of Janah in documenting our rich heritage of sculpture, architecture and the lives of the common people especially the large number of indigenous tribal population.
The last of the three presentations was on M.F. Husain, the world renowned artist who is compelled to live outside India as an exile due to the lunatic fringe that attacks him everyday without any understanding either of contemporary art or of our own creative traditions. K. Bikram Singh’s presentation brought out the continuity of the Indo-Islamic influences that have informed the creative output of Husain from the early period of his work. The images of Horses, Hanuman, Durga, Ram and the use of Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and Persian calligraphy that recurs in Husain’s works is testimony to the rootedness of Husain in a tradition that is universal despite or because of being uniquely Indian.
The songs of IPTA and the three presentations prepared the ground for a feast of music. Vidya Shah, a regular at SAHMAT events presented well known songs of hope and struggle in a new format, set to new tunes and sung with modern accompaniments, the songs were presented by Vidya Shah and a talented team of young children from Manzil - school drop outs, street children and those drawn from among the families of those who barely manage two square meals a day – presented these songs in a spirited chorus. Hum Sab a CD of these songs brought out to coincide with Safdar’s anniversary was released by the famous dancer and guru Aditi Mangaldas.
Judhith Martinez from Spain and Christophe Peres from France were the next to come on stage to present the world famous Flamenco music and dance from Spain. Judith and Peres had travelled from France to Delhi at the invitation of Deepak Castelino to be present on the 19th Memorial to Safdar. In her Introductory remarks Judith traced the origins of Flamenco and Gypsy music to Gujarat, Rajasthan and Arabia, She talked about the similarities and common roots of Kathak and Flamenco and added yet another dimension to the dance when she sang and danced the Farooqa, a song from Andulusia tracing the Arabic connection with Spain and talking about the brave men Farooqs and the brave women Farooqas who travelled across Spain from the poor South to the rich North to work in the fields to earn a living. Two young musicians, vocalists of the Dilli Gharana - the Gharana of Khyal singers that traces its origins to the medieval poet historian and musician Amir Khusro - took the stage after the Flamenco. Tanveer Ahmed Khan and Imran Ahmed Khan are the sons and disciples of the late Taan Samrat
Naseer Ahmed Khan. Tanveer and Imran Ahmed Khan sang Raag Anand Shree and followed it up with the famous Amir Khusro composition `Aaj Rang Hai’. The well appreciated talented young duo were accompanied on the harmonium by the Padamshree awardee Ustad Mahmood Dholpuri, on the tabla by Mithlesh Jha and on the taanpura by their nephew Fareed Hassan while another nephew Aamir Khan provided vocal support.
A harmonium solo by Ustad Mahmood Dholpuri followed the recital by the Khan brothers. Ustad Dholpuri was accompanied on the Sarangi and the harmonium by his sons Fakhr-ud-Din and Zakir Dholpuri respectively.
As the evening drew to a close, Ustad Wasifudduddin Dagar of the famous Dagar Vaani Dhrupad Gharana took the stage. The association of Ustad Wasifudduddin Dagar and his illustrious uncle Ustad Zaheer-ud-Din Dagar with SAHMAT goes back many years. In fact aside from Ustad Zaheer-ud-Din Dagar and Ustad Wasifudduddin Dagar many other stalwarts of the Dagar Gharana like Ustad Fahim-ud-Din Dagar have been associated with SAHMAT’s creative interventions from the time of the first artist against communalism concert in 1991. Ustad Wasifudduddin underlined this association by prefacing his scintillating performance by saying that he was sahmat with SAHMAT.
The curtain was brought down by Baba Gulam Mohammad Chand of Lahore. The octogenarian Baba Chand hails from the tradition of Mardana – the disciple of Guru Nanak who sang the Shabds composed by Guru Nanak. Baba Chand belongs to the vanishing tribe of Muslims Raagis who sang at all the major Gurudwaras for centuries and are now almost impossible to trace. Baba Chand once again underscored the syncretic tradition through the compositions of Baba Fareed of Pak Pattan, of Waris Shah and other Sufi saints as also the compositions of the illustrious Sikh Gurus.
The evening of dance, music, theatre and art that had begun with recalling the united struggle of the people of India against imperialism and that had underscored the initiation of the modern through the works of Chittoprasad, Janah and Husain drew to a close with tracing back the roots of this tradition in the creations of Sufi and Bhakti poets of medieval times.
Throughout the performance, the hundreds who had gathered had occasion to meet old friends, to browse and purchase books on a wide range of subjects from history, politics, culture and art. All these were on display at the SAHMAT bookstall in front of the huge tented auditorium that was decorated with blow ups of the works of Chittoprasad, Janah and Husain. The auditorium was flanked on one side by an Exhibition of Photographs of Husain at Nizam-ud-Din, Humayun’s Tomb and in his house taken by the well known photographer, filmmaker and designer Parthiv Shah. To the other side of the auditorium were stalls of traditional Delhi food that were set up for the artists and the audience who had come to spend an entire day celebrating the diversity of culture, music and life that has defined India for centuries. The diversity of Indian food was another element that underlined the inherent unity of this diverse sub-continent.