Come April 12, the streets and its corners are abuzz with activity. One is not referring to demonstrations or mass protests. It is a day when country wide, groups perform street theatre to celebrate the National Street Theatre Day (NSTD) at diverse venues. It could be adjoining the vegetable shops or a park or a bus stop or an open area in a commercial or industrial complex.
NSTD coincides with Safdar Hashmi’s birth anniversary, who died in 1989 succumbing to injuries received during a lethal attack by hooligans while performing the street play Halla Bol in Sahibabad. Talking about NSTD’s genesis, SAHMAT’s Rajinder Prasad recalls, “Safdar’s passing created an upsurge of protest among people cutting across party and ideological divide. From workers to peasants and students to professionals spoke in one voice. Seeing that, we decided to celebrate his birthday as Street Theatre Day. Our call saw unleashing of plays and from then on it has continued since three decades now.”
Spotlight on farmer
What makes the street theatre on this day unique is the uniform theme it deals with. This reflects in the thematic poster that SAHMAT releases every year and sends to different theatre groups. Earlier editions saw celebrating Bertolt Bretch in 1998 or Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 2010 or calling for protest against Iraq War (2003), attack of free speech or Gujarat riots (2002, 2005, 2012). This year the focus is on ‘kisan’, emphasising on agrarian distress and farmers’ protest.
At SAHMAT’s Delhi office, three plays will be staged today. These are Bigul’s Ann Data ; Bhain (cow’s mooing) by Maitreyi College’s Abhivyakti; and Ankur’s (SGTB Khalsa College) Kheti Bhari (farming is a burden). All of them are about farmers and their problems. The first deals with the vicious debt trap that farmers are caught in, while Bhain is a comic satire about the protagonist wanting to be gau rakshak. The last talks about farmers’ suicide, indebtedness and poverty.
‘Weapon of dissent’
With changing times one wonders about the relevance of street theatre in today’s fast-paced life. Historian Sohail Hashmi feels otherwise. “Its efficacy has not gone down over the years. It is effective for trade unions or women’s organisations or people or students agitating about an issue. Street theatre is a potent weapon of dissent.”
Citing example of Aurat staged by Safdar’s Jan Natya Manch, Hashmi recalls, “Staged at conferences and rallies, it was watched by women in thousands who felt aggrieved about their status. Likewise, Halla Bol , his last play about workers’ victimisation and exploitation, was so powerful that it made vested interests attack him. Even today this art form is used effectively in colleges and campuses and by several NGOs, women and self-help groups, to espouse a cause. Street theatre will remain relevant as long as social, political and economic issues dominate.”
Noted theatre actor and Safdar’s associate, N. K. Sharma, makes a pertinent observation. “Street theatre in isolation is ineffective. You just don’t go to a place, perform and leave. The show needs to be supported by groups and organisations. For example, in 1980s, we staged DTC Ki Dhandli , a 15-minute skit at different places against hike in bus fares. Everywhere we were supported by trade unions and consumer groups, helping us reach masses and thereby forcing the Government to relent.”
Prasad points out that street theatre has now been adopted by Government agencies to spread awareness about family planning and hygiene. “Though traditionally staged by Left oriented groups, now even right wingers are opting for it,” he quips. Sohail deems Government use of street theatre for messaging programmes, inappropriate. “Street theatre is known to be agitational propaganda and does not fit Government’s programmes. Street theatre’s aim is to present an issue without offering any solution; make audience aware, think, raise questions, react and start a conversation, which is not feasible in plays on social and health related issues.”
For both M. K. Raina, Safdar’s friend and compatriot, and Sharma, participation in street theatre was a different experience altogether. “I admire their democratic method of functioning. A script is never attributed to a playwright. With a basic outline in hand, all the members contribute to build the plot. From rehearsals to actual staging, one can feel the sense of camaraderie,” observes Raina. Unlike proscenium, the street form enables continuous improvisation. “This is true about the script, dialogues and verses in the play. Requiring presence of mind, it allows impromptu change. Many years ago, in a play, a protagonist playing cop was heckled by a policeman in the audience. Latching on that, the actor changed his dialogue forcing an interaction with policeman much to audience delight.”
Sharma feels participation in street theatre prepares one better for life. “You need to open your voice in order to reach out in the open to the last person in the midst of the pervading noise. While keeping the voice audible there is a need to vary it according to the scene and character. That is indeed tough.” He deems fitness as imperative for indulging in street theatre.
Countering the view that street theatre has become more of a fad among youth, Sohail says it is their idealism that attracts them to the form. “When young, you tend to revolt against what is wrong and street theatre provides space and springboard to express dissent peacefully.” Agreeing with him, Raina, states, “With passage of time, the form has undergone change for the better. New ways of storytelling which are not linear are being adopted. The traditional forms of art are used with a contemporary touch and poems and songs are used in a big way.”
They hope to see street theatre become more popular and feel that it would be an appropriate tribute to the Safdar, who lost his life for it. “I have fond recollection of him. A dear friend, we participated in several demonstrations together. As a fellow theatre person, he criticised my plays as I did his, yet it was all in good spirit.” Raina recollects that just before his death, Safdar had seen his Veergati . “He said he will talk to me about it but alas that never happened.”