“He Never Died”

Sudhanva Deshpande

IT was as if we were watching a recap of the year.

The first play to be performed at Dr Ambedkar Park, Jhandapur, Sahibabad –

 the place where Safdar Hashmi and Ram Bahadur were killed 28 years ago – was on demonetisation. It was done by a group of school girls from NOIDA, and they spoke about a number of issues around the central theme, including unemployment.

Following this, young actors from Jan Sanskriti, Delhi, did a hard hitting piece about the cultural appropriation by the Hindutva forces. The play creatively upturned many notions and myths, and underlined the fact that Hindutva is as much against religious minorities as against the culture, beliefs, rituals and practices of dalits and adivasis. It was an energetic and forceful presentation.

Then Jana Natya Manch (Janam) took the stage. This is the group of which Safdar Hashmi was a founder-member, back in 1973. Over the past 44 years, the group has done thousands of shows of about 100 different stage, street and other performances. These plays have spanned a huge range of issues, from communalism to gender to working class issues and so on. However, Janam had never before done anything on the environment.

Badal Rahi Hai Ab-o-hava, Janam’s latest play, takes up the issue of climate change and environmental damage. The play talks about a range of issues, from the deteriorating air quality in Delhi to the rapaciousness of corporates vis-à-vis the environment to the petulance of the rich countries, led by the US, at the climate change negotiations.

The fourth play of the evening was a hilarious take on demonetisation, called Tughlak Samman 2016, presented by the renowned theatre artist from Kerala, Mavoor Vijayan, and his co-actor Suresh. The presentation was by Navdhara Theatres. Remarkably, the two actors whose first language is, naturally, Malayalam, were able to engage the entirely Hindi-speaking audience despite the language barrier. It just showed how theatre has its own language that goes way beyond the spoken word!

The final play of the evening was by a Delhi-based group of Bengali actors, Shapno Ekhon. The play was called Manohar Kahaniyan, and takes as its centerpiece the Park Street rape incident of Kolkata. Given the violence against women in and around Delhi, again, the play struck a chord with the audience.

The audience, of course, was mainly workers and their families. It was a lovely, warm, winter day. The sun was out and families were enjoying the performances because they connected with their own lived experience, and were done in a style that they could relate to. Even though the area around Jhandapur is no longer strictly industrial – a number of showrooms, office complexes, banquet halls and private educational institutions have come up on lands that used to have factories – the bulk of the audience that comes on the first day of January every year is still working class.

“Safdar was not just a do-gooder artist,” says Subhashini Ali, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and main speaker at the public meeting organised jointly by Janam and CITU. “He was a Communist. He was performing with Janam for workers.They were attacked by Congress-supported goons of the factory owners. That is the reason he was killed.”

Ali reminded the audience that Safdar was not the only person to have died that day. Ram Bahadur, a worker and CITU supporter, was also killed. Ram Bahadur had migrated from Nepal, in search of a livelihood and left behind a young widow. “The reason for the attack was the class politics that Safdar and Ram Bahadur stood for,” Ali said.

Mixing Hindi with Purabiya, Ali had the audience alternatively in splits and enraged, as she spoke about the attack on the lives of the poor by Modi and his ostensible “surgical strike” on black money. “Did any of you ever see a rich man stand in line to get money,” she asked. The rich always find ways to figure things out for themselves. It is the poor who are hit. So many workers, especially daily wage earners, have had to return home, because there’s no cash with the employers to pay them.

Modi’s “surgical” strike is actually a strike on poor people’s livelihoods and savings. Earlier, Modi was globe-trotting all the time. Now, after demonetisation, Modi is not really travelling abroad much. “We say, let him travel – that way, at least our money can be safeguarded!” Earlier, she said, “PM” stood for prime minister. No more. Today, “PM” stands for “Pocket Maar” (pickpocket), because that is what Modi is doing. Under this or that pretext, he is actually depriving the poor of their livelihoods.

The Uttar Pradesh elections are on the anvil. Ali cautioned the audience that the BJP will pull out the communal card right before the elections. Suddenly, the BJP hopes, people will become “Hindu” or “Muslim.” Some other party may pull out other caste cards. “But we must remember that we are workers. We are the poor of this country. And irrespective of our religion or caste or language or region, the interests of the poor and the working class are common.” She exhorted the audience to vote for working class candidates fielded by the CPI(M) in Ghaziabad and NOIDA.

While the attack on Janam took place on January 1, 1989, Safdar died in hospital the following day. Every year, Janam organises a small, intimate meeting in memory of Safdar on January 2. In this meeting, the group invites one person who knew Safdar, as the main speaker. This year, it was Indu Agnihotri, who is a long time women’s movement activist and scholar. Indu recounted how she first met Safdar in the late 1970s. “Janam’s play Machine had a tremendous impact on us,” she said. “Here was a short, 13-minute play that explained the essence of capitalism in a delightful and artistic way. We had seen nothing like it before.”

Indu also spoke about being present for the first performance of Aurat by Janam in March 1979. “To see a young woman, Moloyashree, perform on the streets was very empowering for us,” she recounted. But Safdar was not just a Janam activist. He reached out to, and connected with, a large number of people in and outside the movement. He played a very important role in the creation of protest materials on both the Muslim Women’s Bill and the sati incident of the mid and late 1980s. And he of course helped galvanise so many artists, intellectuals and others on the anti-communal platforms in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

B Mohan, a long time Janam member and doctor by profession, also spoke of his memories of Safdar. “I was not from a background that oriented me towards progressive politics or the Left movement,” he said. “But talking to Safdar, one never felt that one was talking to a leading Left activist or leader. He always just seemed to be great guy to spend time with, a friend you could have long and interesting conversations with.”

The third speaker of the meeting was Satyam, another Janam actor. Satyam was born in 1997 – about eight years after Safdar’s death. “I first encountered Safdar on a road sign, when I had gone to Mandi House to see a play and found myself on Safdar Hashmi Marg.” Soon thereafter, he found himself in Janam. “I don’t think of Safdar as a distant figure,” he said. “I think of him as someone close to me, someone who is present. Come to think of it, I don’t think he ever died. He’s alive, right here, through the work of Janam.”

And that, perhaps, is the best tribute one can pay to Safdar Hashmi.

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