Moloyashree Hashmi’s journey is intertwined with the journey of Jan Natya Manch. On the 25th anniversary of the murder of Safdar Hashmi, she tells how the two became one.
Across the country, 1st January is observed as a reaffirmation of the solidarity of working people and artists, and this year, Janam and CITU (Centre for Indian Trade Unions), in the 25th year of Safdar’s martyrdom will organise a variety of cultural programmes in various parts of Jhandapur, Sahibabad and Ghaziabad, leading up to a heritage walk through Jhandapur on January 1st, 2014.
In 1973, when Janam began, it was the coming together of a bunch of like-minded people who were clearly Left-wing. Hashmi feels Janam, born out of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), still carries that legacy. “IPTA’s legacy continues with us, as it does with many people across the country. That’s the philosophical impetus we have.” She adds that the conditions IPTA was born under were different, and their aim, to fight British Imperialism, was that one common thing that bound them. Today, things are different. “We are a sovereign state, with all its problems. This is a democracy that has been won not by one person but truly by countless Indians. About whom there is little written, but across the country countless people were part of the struggle.”
Janam was formed just a little bit before the Emergency of 1975, says Moloyashree. “In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so surprising today, but at that time, it was a shock for all of us. Now you can see why it happened. There was a shift from the policy of a welfare State to pro-capitalism and anti-poor. The slogans were still for the poor, but the policies weren’t.” Moloyashree adds that in fact, from the ’50s, the government’s anti-poor stance is reflected even in mainstream Bollywood, as it is in other policies. “Before that, there was at least a notion of the country belonging even to the marginalised. It may have been patronising, but at least it was there. Now, they may talk about prices and the poor, but the actual policy of the government, whether it’s the UPA or the NDA, is mainly for the fat cats of the country.”
Moloyashree is particularly disturbed by the recent event of December 12th that has so conveniently escaped notice. “There was a huge gathering of nearly a lakh trade union workers, and not even a single ticker line was dedicated to it on the day it happened. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if you want to wish this away.” Moloyashree adds that despite the media’s claims to be champions of democracy and justice, the poor are disenfranchised and truly marginalised today. “There are thousands of workers who don’t even get the minimum wage of Rs.5000. Performing with and for these people has given me great humility. Yes, it’s great fun, doing the play and interacting with the audience, but I’m always surprised about how these people survive on so little. It’s something that I think about every day of my life.”
Today, this theatre company that Safdar Hashmi started has grown and transformed, becoming something even the Janam members had not predicted. “Even two years ago we didn’t have Studio Safdar. Thirty years ago we couldn’t have had it because we didn’t have the wherewithal. We hadn’t even thought about it. And when Janam started, did we think of having a theatre magazine? No we didn’t, but it’s not as if we said that we won’t.”
Moloyashree adds that whether its 25 years or 26 years or even 100 years from Safdar’s martyrdom, the core philosophy of Janam keeps them going. The nature of the plays changes and new initiatives emerge. “They have to emerge. That’s how the group stays dynamic, and that’s how the legacy survives.”
Another striking thing about Janam is its members, says Moloyashree. “We are all working or unemployed or students with day jobs, and we meet every evening. The other thing is that at any point of time, the group is a mix of ages and backgrounds.” This mix, Moloyashree feels, is another reason Janam has stayed alive. There is constant movement, with no fossilising of members.
Janam reaches out to people from all nooks and crannies of society. “We perform at college and school festivals, and wherever we are invited.” Moloyashree adds that even so, about 75 per cent of their shows are still performed in working class areas. “Ultimately, that’s the mainstay of our work.”
It’s interesting, though, that the response and resonance from the middle class is varied, depending on what the play deals with. Issues like gender equality find a mixed response. “When we deal with rape, the resonance is total. But then, there is a play we do called “Aurat”, where we deal with the position of women in society.” Moloyashree says that after performing this particular play, the kudos of well done and bravo usually follow a denial of the situation. “They’ll come up to us and say, this doesn’t happen in my home, my daughter is pursuing her M.A., my father doesn’t treat us violently.”
Janam has faced antipathy and doubt numerous times, while performing plays that address communalism and Hindu Right wing violence, such as in the case of a farcical play titled “Yeh Dil Maange More Guruji” as well as during purely allegorical plays like “Gadhapuran”.
For Moloyashree, street plays are not just about five people going in the middle of the crowd and talking to each other.
“Street theatre is much more. It involves a certain thought process, structure. It’s a comprehensive experience. And more than anything, it needs to address all the sensibilities of the audience.” Even with plays performed by Janam, Moloyashree has noticed that the ones which are layered and nuanced transcend time, lasting for 10 to even 35 years.
“The important thing is, every member of Janam feels that the idea is not to patronise your audience, or assume their ignorance just because they happen to be illiterate. The moment you become patronising, you stop growing and learning, and without that, you can’t have art.”
“It’s not the play that scares people. It’s the situation it’s happening in, it’s the place you are standing and voicing your thoughts in. That’s what threatens people. I don’t think it’s the play that scares people. The occasion, the situation manners. That’s why we were attacked. The people who attacked us hadn’t seen ‘Halla Bol’, it wasn’t about them, it was about workers,” says Moloyashree, referring to the attack of 1989.”