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Theatre and Politics of Safdar Hashmi

Shayoni Mitra (smitra@barnard.edu) teaches at the Department of Theatre, Barnard College, New York.

Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande, 2020; New Delhi: Leftword Books, pp 264 (price not indicated).

 

It is not till the near end of this fast-paced book (p 215) that we get to the play it takes its title from, Halla Bol. Reverberating through pop culture, including in a 2008 Ajay Devgn-starring Bollywood movie of the same title, a YouTube series, and a startling Wikipedia entry that attributes the campaign to Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1994,1 this revolutionary slogan exemplifies the life of the slain convenor of the street theatre group Jana Natya Manch (Janam) and full-time worker of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]), Safdar Hashmi. But more than that, Sudhanva Deshpande, the author of this latest account of Hashmi’s life, fuses the man with his art. It makes sense then that we see how Halla Bol is the culmination of Safdar’s2 violently abortive life’s work, rather than a popular slogan to rally around.

To understand his life, we start with his death. The attack on Safdar by mercenary goons during a performance on 1 January 1989, and his subsequent death from injuries sustained on 2 January unfolded in the public eye with surprising simultaneity given that this took place in an era long before cell phones and the Metro as a reliable and fast public transportation. Of this oft-mythologised death, some even call it martyrdom, of a political artist, Sudhanva in Halla Bol provides us with something we have never had before—a visceral, gut-wrenching, etched-in-detail first-person narrative of the events of the day. It is gory, horrific, and heartbreaking. Sudhanva, with two of his comrades Brijesh and Vishwajit recover the prostrate and wounded Safdar from where his attackers left him mid-road, and try to get him immediate and competent medical attention, a precarious journey riddled with rickshaw rides, reluctant taxis, broken-down cars, and multiple hospitals.

Why is this necessary? In some senses understanding this is accessing the genre-defying book that is Halla Bol. It is in equal measure personal memoir, theatre history, and communist organisational treatise. So this vivid opening account of Safdar’s death, to my mind, does the work of recording an important historical moment through the eyes of one of its most involved participants. Sudhanva, by his own account,3 was far from the most important, senior or even talented member of Janam, present that day. In fact, as he is at pains to tell us, his presence there, after a night of New Year’s Eve revelry, was happenstance. But, he was one of the most physically proximate people to the tragedy as it unfolded. Moloyoshree Hashmi, Mala for short, Safdar’s wife and co-performer, for instance, spent hours that day locked in a room with two other performers, given a pot of water to drink from after an interval, not knowing what was happening outside. It is only the cover of darkness that allows her to leave Jhandapur, the site of the attack, and find her way to the hospital just as Safdar was being moved from two prior facilities to Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU).

Escaping the Attackers

Sudhanva’s narrative in Part I of this book does the complex task of unravelling the threads of time knotted around this traumatic event. He traces, through personal memory and multiple interviews, where key players from Janam were on that fateful day. Along with Mala, were the two other women actors from Janam—Shikha and Prachee—in hiding after Safdar had asked them to escape when it became apparent that the party office where they had converged during the attack would not hold? Actors Tyagi, Vinod and Lalit had escaped lathis and rods through similarly being pulled into refuge by someone from the mohalla, and then outrunning their attackers through rooftops and on foot. Brijendra, unaccounted for during much of the day, was later found to have been in pre-emptive lock-up in the police station where he had tried to lodge a complaint.

These details, hitherto unknown, undercut the many versions of Safdar’s death that seek to sensationalise it. The reality, Sudhanva suggests, is enough. This reality must be understood, without embellishment, without heroics, to gauge the true magnitude of events that day and after. But this reality is also reconstructed in these pages. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this opening part of the book where trauma, personal and collective, layer memory. Sudhanva does not try to reconcile discrepancies to give us one polished authoritative version. Instead, he lets the differing accounts sit next to each other to show the frailties of human recollection. For instance, Vishwajeet, one of the three people carrying Safdar to safety does not remember Sudhanva being there (p 25); or Tyagi and Jogi, in different places, both think they were with Diwakar (p 31). But for me, this is also what makes this book urgent. Coming on the heels of 30 years of Safdar’s death, it finally chronicles his passing in first person narrative before time further muddies the memories.

But Halla Bol is not a biography, at least not in any straightforward historical sense. And here I am not referring to the book’s inverted time structure where we begin at the end, although aesthetically that is a key strategy in holding the reader’s attention—we know the protagonist dies; what we find out is what makes him a hero. To date, the most visceral account of Safdar’s death can be found in Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust’s film Safdar, released three months after his killing on his birthday in April 1989. In a remarkable feat for that era of clunky video technology, it features theatre interviews and footage from those initial days of Safdar’s time in the hospital, of various eyewitnesses to the attack, his funeral and the mass processions around it, and of the outcries by various prominent theatre persons speaking out against attacks on public culture. I have watched that film several times, indeed I screen it in class every year, so I am familiar with the timeline it presents. Halla Bol allows for something different, a deepening, through time, of understanding the forces unleashed that day, not quite spontaneous and not quite planned, but still the culmination of a long history of labour disputes of the time.

Mysterious Characters

In some senses Safdar’s delayed death from the attack that day is twinned by the less mentioned, but equally important, fatal, randomised, punitive shooting of Ram Bahadur, a young migrant Nepali labourer and new father, who would be made anonymous by history for taking a capitalist’s bullet were it not for the efforts at remembrance by the film, the book, and the remembrance each year on 1 January at Jhandapur. Similar near mysterious figures haunt the pages of Halla Bol, appearing with near spectral messages or assistance at opportune moments. One is a labourer who crucially helped carry to the main road Safdar’s grievously injured body just as his two comrades were flagging, disappearing into the firmament before he could be thanked (p 23). Another is an onlooker during Safdar’s funeral procession emerging on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg to tell the author he had watched a play by Janam a month earlier and remembered Safdar from it, only to melt back into the historic crowds of that day.

For me though, perhaps one of the most enjoyable, revelatory parts of Halla Bol are the intimate portraits we get of a host of personalities normally not written about in artistic and communist histories, with historiographies being so riddled with the cult of personality of great, charismatic men. Be these of Janam actors Vijay Kalia and the various jobs he has held in his lifetime, N K Sharma giving up formal education due to changed family circumstance only to become a prominent director later, or Jogi and Brijendra—inseparable friends from college—one a dholak player and the other a singer (pp 53, 83, 143). Or leftists and communists like Mohan Lal, a CPI(M) candidate for state assembly in Haryana; Niaz Haider, an eccentric autodidact; Comrade Major Jaipal Singh, popularly called Major, the Delhi party secretary in the 1970s; and Suraj Bhan Bharadwaj, trade unionist and Delhi CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) secretary (pp 48, 67, 72, 191).

A Strong Partnership

While these are affectionate, vivid snapshots, a more persistent—I do not know if it is conscious, although one hopes it is—and consequential theme of the book is writing in the missing contributions of women into left cultural work. A significant portion of Halla Bol animates the relationship between Safdar and his partner in life and in work, Mala. There is a beautiful, moving, previously unpublished private correspondence4 from Safdar narrating his then new love. More significantly, Sudhanva credits Janam’s entire life force, and subsequent longevity, after 1 January 1989 to a function of Mala’s will. Like the decision to go back and finish the interrupted play at the very spot of the attack on 4 January accompanied, seemingly spontaneously, by busloads of people from Delhi. Even at the foot of Safdar’s hanging-by-a-thread bed in the ICU of RML Hospital, Mala enquired about the arrangements for returning to the site, vowing, “And Janam will perform” (p 36).

These moments of heroic clarity are etched with historical import, but Sudhanva’s point is larger. The task of theatre, and indeed its most potent secret of success, is tireless organisation. For Janam, Mala, often behind the scenes, is the one to do it. In his account Mala has frequently been hailed as a memorable, unassailable street theatre actor. Many remember her from the first moments they encounter her in a play; often this is Aurat (Woman) where Mala cleaves into the acting area with a definitive raised hand. Sudhanva also points out that Mala, while working away from the limelight while Safdar was alive, was nonetheless a profound influence on much of his thought and creative output, including his writing for children (p 111). She is by disposition the doer and documenter, always uncannily prescient of the task of theatre. When a hail of lathis and rods first break out on that momentous morning while the show is still on, Mala’s instinct is to gather the props as she runs (p 33). This is a tiny detail. But of the sort with which a first-person account seeds an entire field.

Janam and Habib Tanvir

Similarly, Sudhanva spends much time and ink discussing Janam’s relation with Habib Tanvir. They were close—Habib Sa’ab, as was his affectionate honorific by all, and Safdar, and Janam, and Sudhanva. Here, though, we see in a climactic scene during the conceptualising of Moteram ka Satyagraha that Moneeka Misra, his wife, breaks an impasse that Habib, Safdar and Sudhanva were wracking their brains over. She does this with a simple observation that one cannot mix literary genres of storytelling, here farce and tragedy, even when thematically the stories may seem close, as were others’ attempts to reconcile Premchand’s two stories Satyagraha and Hinsa Parmo Dharma (p 115). This kind of attention to biographical detail is a feature of the book rather than an anomaly, particularly when it comes to gender disparities in recorded contributions. We find in these pages details of women in left organisations, in street theatre (pp 65, 95). There is also a thematic conundrum—in street theatre women as desiring agents, both in material terms of labour organisation and sensual terms of agent provocateurs are seldom embraced. Janam tackles these head on, in the more traditional Marxist treatment of women in the plays of Aurat and Woh Bol Uthi, but also as sensual characters in the internally controversial but publicly beloved Chameli Jaan in Moteram Ka Satyagraha (p 157).

Only in the short life of Safdar can such a dazzling array of dramatis personae exist. Sudhanva documents those close to him, those touched by proximity of his inexhaustible artistry. And of these there are many. Of the many things Safdar was, he was first a gregarious, warm man of the people, touching lives wherever he went. Sudhanva recounts poignantly a day spent wandering with him in central Delhi where Safdar knew well the photocopier, photo printer, dosa maker, and the framer (p 209). A year later Sudhanva trudges through these same familiars tasked with framing a posthumous portrait.

Sheer force of personality aside, more than anything else Part II of Halla Bol captures a cultural and political zeitgeist of Delhi in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the book’s most invaluable contribution. There are many academic accounts of Safdar—contemporaneously in a long interview by Eugene van Erven, and after by Arjun Ghosh, Dia DaCosta and myself among other academics.5 But we are able to see, by fault of our limited after-the-fact position, only a fraction of the forces that make Safdar’s legacy. The only other book-length study of Safdar is by his mother Qamar Azad, in her excellent memoir, The Fifth Flame. Whereas that is a personal history of Safdar rich in detail of his early life, Halla Bol provides us with a badly needed intellectual history of Safdar Hashmi.

Safdar—the All-rounder

In my mind this is akin to the incomparable Patti Smith’s book Just Kids documenting her loving friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe that is a homage to New York City of the 1960–70s with its impossible confluence of artistic geniuses of every genre. Sudhanva documents, through Safdar’s life as the touchstone university politics of the early 1970s, theatre experimentation of the early 1980s, and trade union organising of the late 1980s as a host of characters, often crossing over in their roles from one era to the next. His work and organisational skill touched documentary film, early television, children’s literature, intercultural theatre, charity art auctions, etc. For instance, who knew that Safdar played a pivotal role in popularising the films of Ritwik Ghatak, seated in front of a large poster of the Bengali film-maker during his stint in the West Bengal Information Bureau, by securing funding to get the maestro’s decaying reels international film festival quality (p 100)?

Part III, the final part of this book, makes its most consequential argument —that you cannot separate Safdar’s death, and the import of his life, from the popular Marxist struggles he was engaged in. Yes, there are many examples in these pages of him insisting that theatre should be good, full of craft, and of commanding excellence.6 Only then will it engage its audiences. But, the premise of this engagement is an understanding of the working-class person’s life. Safdar along with others took the crucial decision of writing original works for Janam after the ennui of new dramatic scripts, prohibitive theatre rental costs, and depleted funds of national organisations post Emergency. The best of Janam’s work has come from deep research and collaboration, like Machine, its first and seminal street play, which Safdar wrote near spontaneously with Rakesh Saxena.

Safdar’s Art of Organisation

The euphoria of the early years, infused with the enthusiasm of having discovered for oneself, and honed through practice the genre of street theatre wore thin in its first decade for Janam.7 Safdar realised this and by 1987 was actively working to train his actors better through a series of workshops, making plans for a cultural institution that would support a plethora of activities, including theatre, regularising the finances of the company (including opening its first bank account more than a decade after it first convened), and setting up an administrative structure through an executive council and general body that called regular meetings. Sudhanva provides details for this kind of organisation building work, insights which will prove invaluable to any not-for-profit, revolutionary, or cultural agency in the field of arts management (p 89).

The Labour Movement

Halla Bol also fills in a vital gap in the history of Delhi and the labour movement, spearheaded by the CPI(M)—a near forgotten, historical, never repeated seven-day strike of industrial workers in 1988. If you are coming to this book with the hopes that it is a theatre history or biography, this can seem like a long, confusing digression. Why go into such detail of how a trade union is established in a working-class neighbourhood, what are the structures of factory employment and payroll, what does minimum wage and automatic dearness allowance even mean? Sudhanva provides clear answers (pp 183–89). In fact, they anchor his central thesis that Safdar’s work with Janam has to be understood in step with his politics. They cannot be cleaved. And if Safdar immersed himself in the minutiae of the CPI(M)’s work we too must delve into it sincerely. For the book, and for me as a reader, this historic strike of 1988 is inextricable from the brutal suppression from working-class assertion in the last month of the year, leading to a violent  disruption of a performance near factory gates of a play that extolled the strike’s virtues and queried its aftermath,8 which in turn, as we know, led to the death of our hero.

While Halla Bol plumbs the questions of class, gender and communalism through a detailed look at the history of creation of Janam’s plays on these topics, it falls short on providing a reckoning for why there was no play on caste by Janam while Safdar was still alive. Sudhanva provides a series of tentative answers, that Janam had undertaken to write one and had several conversations around it as detailed notes from the period would indicate, but the issue was simply too complex. Also, academic research on caste was not quite as prolific and easily available as now. One wonders though why a distillation of approaches could not eventually be coalesced into a single play with multiple vignettes or viewpoints as Janam was frequently wont to do. After all, class or gender are no less wretched in their defiant complexity. The answer perhaps lies in a moment of the author’s candour, “To the best of my knowledge, none of the people in the discussion were Dalit” (p 110).

Contemporary Relevance

If politics, theatre work, and academic scholarship have moved so far ahead from Safdar’s life and death, what then might the book Halla Bol offer at the present moment? Should one even expect such contemporary resonance? The answer, for me, is firmly yes. For one, it can often seem like the present moment in all its political vexedness is singular, the forces of power, capital, communalism intransigent, the main ruling parties irrevocably corrupt. But a careful reading of this book refutes this. Further, it provides an account of creative and popular interventions in the moment that mobilised vast crowds, bringing them  to the streets, galvanised public opinion towards popular struggle be they a student march through North Campus ending at Khalsa College after the 1984 Sikh riots (p 120) or a People’s March for Communal Harmony in 1986 after a string of communal tensions, after the Shah Bano verdict, before Roop Kanwar’s dowry death (p 122).

For someone who identifies as a director, actor, publisher and cyclist, Sudhanva is a writer of considerable skill with the gift of pithy, evocative description. Sample: “solid, oil fed lathi (p 18) or “grin wider than the Bay of Bengal” (p 146). For all his felicity with words, the true animating force of these pages is his warm and admiring relationship with Safdar, a respect that was deeply mutual. And of course the humour. There would be none of this without the gentle, generous, humorous camaraderie. One can almost feel Safdar’s legendary smile warm these pages.

Notes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halla_Bol_campaign, accessed on 29 December 2019.

2 I use first names in this review to preserve the conversational, first person tone the book is written in, and also for the sake of consistency because not everyone’s last name is provided.

3 He recounts, for instance, “My street theatre debut was an unmitigated disaster” (p 43).

4 We also get snippets from his diaries, and several unsent letters, many with consequential plans and ideas for his plans for a cultural institution, with a theatre commune of sorts (pp 173–75).

5 A sample bibliography of works on Safdar Hashmi and the development of street theatre in South Asia includes:

Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. 2004. A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan. Calcutta: Seagull books, Bharucha, Rustom 1983. Rehearsals of Revolution the Political Theater of Bengal. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Bhatia, Nandi Acts of Authority/Acts of Resistance: Theater and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2007. DaCosta Dia 2017: Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hanger Called Theatre, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, Deshpande, Sudhanva Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience. New Delhi: Janam, Ghosh, Arjun 2012: A History of Jana Natya Manch: Plays for the People, New Delhi: Sage Publications, Hashmi, Safdar. 1989. Right to Perform. New Delhi: sha., Mitra, Shayoni 2015: “Safdar Hashmi” “Indian Street Theatre,” “Jana Natya Manch” “Naya Theatre,” and “Habib Tanvir,” in Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Acting, edited by Simon Williams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Sircar, Badal. 1982. The Changing Language of the Theatre. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Van Erven, Eugene. 1992. The Playful Revolution: Theatre and Liberation in Asia. Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

6 For example, “Let us always remember that we are theatrical workers. Unless our work is viable theatrically, it is quite meaningless” (p 116).

7 Sudhanva does not mince words: “The Janam I came to was dying regularising the finances of the company” (p 141).

8 A play, first developed in October 1988 called Chakka Jam, relayed the demands of the upcoming strike and why it was necessary. The same play was rewritten to reflect post-strike conditions and came to be Halla Bol in December that year.

Updated On : 13th Jan, 2020

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