Jan Natya Manch marks the 25th year of Safdar Hashmi’s martyrdom with a festival of worker-performers

Safdar Hashmi trusted in the power of art to change the world, and his legacy, despite his untimely and violent death, has lasted the test of time. Jan Natya Manch, or Janam, has continued the progressive work Hashmi started, and this month the theatre company, in collaboration with Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), has organised a unique festival of worker-performers. Titled “Halla Bol”, after the play during which Hashmi and his theatre company were attacked, the three-day festival marking the 25th anniversary of Safdar Hashmi’s death starts this Friday and brings together highly skilled and talented performers who have one thing other than their art in common — they are all working people. Hashmi’s wife, and JANAM’s General Secretary, Moloyashree Hashmi explains how this had been Safdar’s own dream. “This was one of the things Safdar had always planned, but couldn’t do in his lifetime. He wanted to bring together worker performers and give a platform to their talent. Of course, the idea had to grow. We at Janam have been trying to include and involve workers in our programmes. During the 1st January events, workers have the stage to showcase their talent, read their poetry, etc. But this being 25 years of Safdar’s martyrdom, we thought we’d do it on a bigger scale.”

The high point in a series of events to commemorate Hashmi’s martyrdom, “Halla Bol” aims to provide a platform for workers who harbour both talent and passion within themselves, but rarely find an audience.

The festival will be held in Jhandapur, the site of Hashmi’s killing. Janam and CITU have, for the last 25 years, been organising an annual performance on 1st January to mark Hashmi’s martyrdom on the same day in 1989. The site has also played host to a range of other programmes and events over the years, and the venue is named after American singer-activist Peter Seeger. This year, the site will see another first, and “Halla Bol” will include performances like Alha, Dhola, Ragini, Nautanki, Saphera-Pharva, Qawwali and Birha, among others. Sudhanva Deshpande, the festival’s coordinator, has had a few surprises already. “I had the idea of including a wedding band, playing non-filmy, revolutionary and progressive songs. I was a little doubtful, this being the marriage season, if we’d get anyone. But one of our youth organisation comrades got very excited about the idea and found a band.” The festival has made it a point to pay the performing artists, and Deshpande adds that while he was apprehensive about how they’d do, he decided to go ahead with the idea.

“When you look at them, they don’t inspire much confidence, but I thought, at the most, they’d make a mess of it.” He handed them a CD with a compilation that included songs by Bob Dylan, Paul Robson and Faiz. Already unsure about the fact that they were going to play these songs just by listening to them, he decided to sit in for the rehearsals. “I went for the rehearsal to this back-of-the-beyond place, further from Jhandapur, to some remote place near the railway line. I saw this bunch of ramshackle looking guys smoking bidis, with trumpets and saxophone. My heart sank, but then, they started playing. I was astonished. This is not the best you’ll ever hear, but the love with which they were playing these songs was brilliant. They have never heard these songs before. With the first song, my jaw just dropped. I forgot to even do a recording.”

It is this wedding band, complete with their shiny uniforms and endless talent, that’ll perform in the festival, along with street magic by a traditional madari from Kathputli Colony’s Ishamuddin and Party and a show by the French brass band, Imperial Kikiristan. Moloyashree adds that the performers are bringing to the festival their own acts, but have embraced the spirit and passion Safdar had. “Some of them did not know Safdar at all, but identify with his spirit. They were given short write-ups about Safdar, and many have included acts based on his life in their performance”, says Moloyashree.

Already unique, considering the line-up of performers, “Halla Bol” is also the first festival to be curated by trade unionists from CITU. “While the initial conception has been Janam’s, once we approached our CITU comrades, they were very enthusiastic and it makes me proud to say that I think this is perhaps the only festival to have been completely curated by the workers themselves. Some performers, a few groups from Delhi, Janam already had connections with and invited, but a lot of them have been invited by the CITU.” Janam’s role has been mainly to provide logistical and planning support.

Deshpande, who was initially supposed to curate the festival but is only too happy to pass the baton to his worker comrades, says that he hopes people will show up from Delhi for the festival. For a festival of and for the workers, the audience, one hopes, will be varied and all inclusive. He adds, “Whoever comes has to prepare to be uncomfortable, with a lot of kids milling around. They have to be prepared for a little bit of dust and sweat.”

A little bit of dust and sweat, and a whole of talent.

Dates February 21, 22, 23, 2014

Venue Pete Seeger Manch, Dr Ambedkar Park, Jhandapur, Metro station: Kaushambi (Blue line), Directions: From Kaushambi Metro station, take shared auto to Jhandapur (10 mins).

Today’s Programme

February 21, 3 p.m. onwards

· Ashok Band, Sahibabad

· Ragini by Suresh Pal and Party, Shamli

· Songs by Ratan Gambhir, Bulandshahr

· Alha by Gangaram and Party, Hardoi

· Dhola by Girvar and Party, Hardoi