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A Force to be Reckoned With


Kusum Haidar

THEATRE OF THE STREETS
Edited by Sudhanva Deshpande
Jana Natya Manch, 2007, pp. 160, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 2 February 2008

Street theatre in Delhi is synonymous with Safdar Hashmi. He was a gifted and committed artiste who spent his tragically short life in taking theatre to the workers and toilers, the poor and the dispossessed. Embedded in the performance was a message of revolutionary change, a call to confront and forcibly remove the exploitation that India’s poor have always suffered. It was an intensely political theatre played out in the open, in the teeming and lowly suburbs of the unprivileged, not tucked away in halls and playhouses. Safdar’s troupe drew large audiences and became a force to be reckoned with. He promoted the causes of the Left, campaigning ceaselessly through his plays, without hope of converting the public response he elicited into success in elections but endeavouring nevertheless to raise awareness and encourage a popular response. His dedicated work created enough trepidation among political opponents to bring out the street thugs and goons who, in a barbarous and chilling attack right here in the nation’s capital, assaulted him with rods and staves, inflicting mortal injury. You do not have to share his political ideals to feel the shock of this tragic loss. But his foul murder was not the end of the Safdar Hashmi story—far from it. The group that had congregated around him continued its work and has remained active, and others have emulated them in many different parts of the country. Safdar Hashmi is rightly seen as the first martyr of our theatre, an abiding inspiration to the many who have followed where he showed the way.   The slim volume now published by Jana Natya Manch (Janam) provides an account of the birth and growth of street theatre under Safdar Hashmi. It consists of a number of essays and interviews, the centerpiece being an extended interview with Hashmi in which he talks about his experiences and sets out what he was trying to achieve, and how—a kind of manifesto. We learn that during Hashmi’s time of a decade or so, Janam gave over four thousand performances—a phenomenal number. Some of the performances went on into the early hours and were played to throngs of spectators. The company did everything together, sharing between them the multifarious tasks of production, working for the cause and not for individual recognition. Through constant experimentation, they improved and refined their skills. They also sharpened their capacity ...


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