It’s been more than 24 years since Safdar Hashmi — well known political street theatre activist — was fatally attacked while performing Halla Bol in Sahibabad. A lot of water has flowed down the Yamuna since. Liberalisation has taken place. Industrial workers have replaced the word “factory” in their lingo with “company”. Changes in industrial regulations have made it even harder to unionise, even in the few industries where collective bargaining is still viable.
Yet, the Jana Natya Manch or Janam, the group Safdar started, continues to perform, adapt and engage workers, particularly in the National Capital Region. “The conditions of work have completely changed from when we started. The eight-hour workday is a thing of the past. Workers are also more aware. Many of them are educated. They ask questions,” says Sudhanva Deshpande, Janam’s leading comrade.
To connect to the worker, Janam builds upon the existing culture. Advertisements, Bollywood song and dance, and even jagrans. Nothing is taboo and everything is subverted. Ads work for the affluent and the working class in opposite ways, explains Sudhanva. For example, a cola ad with the slogan “I want it now” leads to frustration among the working class as opposed to consumption by the middle and upper classes. “It remains a utopian aspiration for them,” he says.
One of Janam’s popular recent productions is Yeh Dil Maange More Guruji. Based on the Gujarat violence of 2002, the play has been staged through the last decade. “We use an ad slogan not only to connect, but also to subvert, to say something that says something else. Immediately identifiable elements like ads are used as building blocks, but not without critiquing them,” explains Sudhanva.
The new worker, says Sudhanva, wears jeans and fake aviators. He or she also sees films regularly on TV and at the cinema hall. She is most often brought up in the city or the suburbs, and is educated. But her economic condition is the same or worse than her parents. She works longer hours for comparatively lower real wages. Also, the bulk of the workforce is not industrial. Employment is transient and one cannot afford to go without work for even a day.
“The new worker doesn’t come with a history of organising. The idea takes time to understand. Our appeal during street plays, whether those organised by trade unions or for general audiences, is to organise. Alone you don’t stand a chance.”
Janam is housed in Studio Safdar, a theatre space that opened last April in Shadipur. It shares the premises with LeftWord Publications (which Sudhanva edits), The All India Democratic Women’s Association and May Day Bookstore and Café. The work of all these outfits dovetails each other’s.
Sudhanva was brought up on Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, where his father G.P. Deshpande, a China expert and dramatist, taught. He was encouraged to take up theatre by his mother, the late activist Kalindi Deshpande of the AIDWA. “I have stammered since I was a child, but my family never made me feel it was a problem. My mother is a strong influence. Theatre has not only taught me to breathe, a struggle that only a person who stammers can understand, but also given me a sense of fulfilment and confidence. Theatre made me realise that how you talk doesn’t matter, it’s what you say. In fact, I don’t stammer when I act,” he says.
He joined Janam in 1987, while studying history at Ramjas College. He was present at the fateful performance of Halla Bol on January 1, 1989, where Safdar was felled. Janam, led by Safdar’s wife Moloyashree, performed at the same spot on January 4 that year. The group performs at Jhandapur in Sahibabad every New Year’s Day.
Janam, in fact, rehearses on the terrace of the building May Day Café is located in. Studio Safdar is primarily used for discussions, lectures and as a rehearsal space for other groups. Though Sudhanva and his comrades who run the place are with the CPI(M), the activities in Studio Safdar are independent of the party line. However, the crowd that flocks here is visibly left-liberal.
Studio Safdar, says Sudhanva, is a space that is granted (not rented) out to troupes for pre-performance work. “If you’re working on a play, you do your homework and then come here to try it out with lights and everything. That’s when a play reveals its cracks. It is an intermediate space for advanced technical work which leads to a superior final production.”
Though only a few groups have used this space so far, it holds great potential given that such spaces are rare and you only have to pay for the lights, maintenance and contribute to the studio. In fact, the Café and the space was built entirely through small donations and voluntary contributions from well-wishers and party cadre.
A recent project that has won Janam fans outside its working class base is its ‘Akhri bus’ initiative. After the gang rape in December, Janam volunteers started boarding the last buses from terminals and performing in them to stake claim to public transport.
“This is a cultural integration that is free and replicable… We sing songs, recite poetry and fill the bus with laughter. Tired commuters are overjoyed and appreciate our demands for more public transport. The rape victim and her friend wouldn’t have taken the chartered bus had there been a DTC bus,” explains Sudhanva.
The success of Janam lies in not telling the audience what to do but artistically representing the conditions of life. Its play Yeh bhi hinsa hai ends with a rape. The play itself talks about stalking, voyeurism, patriarchy and non-physical forms of violence. “Making the connections between things not obviously related is what we do. Our plays have got to stand out as a work of art. Just as we take the best politics to the people, they deserve the best art as well.”
Studio Safdar, which completes a year on April 12, is the fulfilment of a cultural institute that Safdar had envisioned. He described this to Eugene Van Erven, a Dutch theatre scholar and photographer, in an interview in 1988. Safdar said, “…At first it will have to increase the pace of work we are doing now and enrich it with greater training, greater seriousness and more professionalism. It should become a source of proliferation for similar activities elsewhere by imparting training by setting an example and by touring.”
Studio Safdar isn’t doing this yet. It is primarily used by other groups for rehearsals. It has mainly become a venue for discussions, screenings and debates — a leftist refuge which attracts fellow travellers. Recently, it was temporarily converted into a museum of the local history of Shadipur. In association with the Centre for Community Knowledge of Ambedkar University, Delhi, locals were interviewed. They even lent artefacts from their homes.
While Kathputli Colony, home to traditional street performers, is in Shadipur, the area doesn’t have a theatre culture. Events like the museum involve them in the activities of Studio Safdar.
The cultural institute was a personal dream Safdar intended to be implemented after the people’s democratic revolution was achieved. The revolution hasn’t come yet, but the process has begun. As this writer left the place, local rickshaw-wallahs came to ask Moloyashree to teach them about the fundamental questions of the universe — how it was created, the climate and the revolution of the Earth and so on.
May Day is developing a model for delivering books by bicycle to customers who order them online from May Day. An avid cyclist himself, Sudhanva cycles about 150 km per week and posts interesting anecdotes of the road on Facebook. The bicycle gets him through traffic faster than any motorised vehicle and has won him many admirers around Shadipur (where his bike is called “chhoti gaadi”) and online.
“We need a sustainable eco-friendly model. More and more businesses are trying to cut the use of oil. We want to get cycle rickshaw pullers to deliver our books, within a 20 to 25 km radius of our shop, by bicycle.” he says, “Delhi is not safe for cyclists, or even pedestrians. And it won’t be until there are more cyclists on the road.” Rickshaw pullers have few customers in the afternoon and, this initiative is expected not only add to their income, but also their confidence as they will accept payments by cash and card.