The Iconic Safdar Hashmi Whom We Must Not Forget

Kirtana Kumar reviews "Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi"

Kirtana Kumar

Photo credit: Eugene van Erven, courtesy Jana Natya Manch
It is 6th January 2020.

I am breathless.

I have to put down words as I read or else I'll be left with none at the end of my reading. As I tumble through the first chapter I feel I am in a film. Somewhere I have read spoilers. I know how this will end. Even so I am on the edge of my seat praying for a miracle. Every hard detail: new shoes, a green sweater, a cycle rickshaw, the bamboo stick broken like twigs, a refrigerated room...are seared into my mind's eye. The cuts are too fast, the angles too crazy. A winter's day in Delhi, a group of street theatre actors... all seems well. Plausible. Even the car of sloganeers followed by a tempo covered with campaign material could fit well into the scene. Except, they are carrying lathis. Still, maybe it's nothing. Safdar speaks to them. They seem to concur and move away. But just then everything believable, logical, sane and good, crumbles. Later the POV shifts from Sudhanva to Mala. Their individual recollections of the day change but the disbelief remains.

It is surreal.

At some point I stop knowing when the display of hate in "Halla Bol" and the Whatsapp messages preceding the attack on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) teachers and students, the night before on the 5th, blur. The ugliness of the words.... Abhi nahi marenge saalo ko, toh kab marenge? The same senselessness, the same toxicity, the same rage against...against what, against whom, one wonders? A different worldview? The fear of losing power? Political gain? What?

The book release of "Halla Bol" could not be more prescient.

31 years have passed since the brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and of those caught in the crossfire at the time. Like the random killing of the Nepali migrant worker, Ram Bahadur, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Safdar Hashmi was attacked with iron rods.

On January 5th 2020 in the JNU attack, masked and armed people attacked the teachers and students with iron rods, among other weapons.

The author of the book, Sudhanva Deshpande, still an active member of the Jana Natya Manch (Janam), the street theatre group that bears Sadfar's legacy, was a critical and a firsthand witness to the events surrounding Safdar's murder. Moloyshree (Mala) Hashmi, Safdar's wife insisted that Sudhanva place the life of Safdar and the work of Janam within the larger context of the 1960s and 70s, and which was influential and inspirational for the young people growing up in India then. While tracing Safdar's background and trajectory from Delhi to Aligarh, and back to Delhi, Sudhanva thus introduces us to other characters and social movements that inform the ethos of the time. It is this deep focus and the author's decision to use a large depth of field and canvas, that makes "Halla Bol", a book illuminating post independence Indian history, much as it charts the life and death of one remarkable individual and theatre artist.

For me, nearly 54 year old, and familiar with those times, reading this book is not without pain. The characters who inhabit it are driven by socialist ideals and a consuming curiosity about the world. They are the vanguard of a modern and independent India, seeking to implement progressive ideas and programmes, breaking with the parochial and the regressive. Fighting corruption, breaking imperial chains, Delhi University serves as one of the prominent incubators. The first shows of Janam's play MACHINE takes place. The dramaturgy of MACHINE finds its way into the book. There are three simple instructions: keep it short, incisive and hilarious - thus ensuring the audience is involved and gets the point.

With some difficulty, MACHINE is performed at the All India Trade Union meeting at Talkatora stadium. The alchemy necessary to forge links with the trade unions happens here. From henceforth, Janam will be entrenched in the workers movement. The Emergency has made the work even more urgent. Generously, the author marks the Samudaya movement in Karnataka in tandem with Janam's own work, giving the younger reader a glimpse into the politics and motivations of the times. The marked anti-imperial and anti-capitalist sentiment behind this street theatre is pertinent when viewed from a post globalisation lens.

At one point, writing about the artistic crossroads Janam was at, just before it turned to street theatre as a form, the author writes "...one could say the choice was between amending its vision to continue its mission, or adapting the mission to stay true to its vision. Too many artists, too many NGOs, too many radical activists today do the former - they chase the funding and adapt their work to it. Janam did the opposite. It put politics in command."

Most interestingly, notes from Safdar's theory of street theatre are included. Few practitioners theorise their work, but as early as 1978, here was an artist viewing his practice through a critical lens, analysing its salient features and framing it with broad strokes that placed his work within the larger continuum of the 20th century. Here was a man that brought new meaning to street theatre, distinct from other open air traditional and folk genres and moored it firmly within the workers' and anticapitalist movements. This was modern, democratic theatre, firmly cutting the apron strings off old feudal hierarchies.

This brings to mind my own engagement with street theatre in the early 1980s. I was a young actor, training and working with Gnatak, a group of left leaning college students in Bangalore. Isaac Samuel, who was studying at the St. John's Medical College had responded to the Capitation fee scandal unleashed by the Gundu Rao government, by writing a script called LAKHS IN BLACK. I played Indira Gandhi and we performed scores of shows at local colleges and trade union offices. Reading "Halla Bol" now has made me more clearly contextualise what we were doing as young people then.

Photo credit: Surendra Rajan, courtesy Jana Natya Manch

There are many more depths to plumb.

Such as the difference between the work of Badal Sircar and Safdar Hashmi. Having lost my acting cherry to an early performance of Badal Sircar's BAAKI ITHIHAS, I leapt on this morsel like a starving animal. "Halla Bol" is also rich with names familiar to Indian artists. I am averse to idolatry and fortunately, so is the book. Therefore it views the galaxy of players then with equanimity and looks upon them as people held together by common hopes and dreams in keeping with the spirit of the times.

Then there is the honest recollection of the fallow years for Janam, when it was hard to be motivated or creative, when actors didn't want to perform for the working class and when participatory processes were undervalued. What happens next is a testament to persistence and should be read rather than described. The book ends where it began. The death. Its aftermath. The size and scale of the protests cannot be overstated. Sure, on an institutional level, this was an enormous blow to the CPI(M), to CITU, AIDWA and the Student's Federation of India, but there was something more poignant in that we were even able to feel such vast pain.

Sudhanva says it best when he writes "...it was that moment of liminality in the history of our republic, when we went from a certain naive innocence at the idea of an artist being killed on the streets, to a hardening of the arteries of our humanity, leaving us inured to rapes and lynchings of Dalits and Muslims."

By this time, "Halla Bol" has generated plenty of conversation in our home. There are personal recollections.

There are five solid reasons to order this seminal book:

1. It is a story of comradeship and love between artists and that is glorious to read.

2. It draws a vivid picture of the symbiotic nature of theatremaking in India shared by common ideals and aspirations.

3. It is available in Hindi and in English and both carry the script of the momentous play HALLA BOL after which the book is named.

4. If you are a theatre artist, it will push you to ask that all important question - why do I do theatre?

5. It is a critical reminder of an excessive State that can eat up its own artists.

To order your copy of "Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi"
visit https://mayday.leftword.com/halla-bol.html

*Kirtana Kumar is an actor, director, dramaturg and film-maker from Bangalore. She serves as chairperson of Visthar Institute of Development Studies and is the creative director of Little Jasmine theatre Project and Theatre Lab (Youth). She runs an artists' residency program at Infinite Souls Farm and Artists' Retreat.

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