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Safdar Hashmi and the art of cultural resistance

On the morning of the first day of the new year in 1989, a group of young men and women set out from Delhi for Jhandapur, an industrial area in Uttar Pradesh, where they were scheduled to stage Halla Bol, a play on workers’ rights. They were running late and their bus was rickety. When they arrived, an audience of workers was waiting. The performers from Jana Natya Manch, better known by its acronym, Janam, hurriedly changed into their trademark black costumes and slipped into performance with practised ease. To them, this was yet another performance of yet another street play. Except it was not to be.

In the middle of a satire-laced love scene, the play was disrupted by goons. Municipal elections were around the corner and a trade union leader, Ramanand Jha, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the party most Janam members were affiliated to, was contesting against a Congress-backed independent candidate, Mukesh Sharma. A violent mob accompanying Sharma chased and beat up Jha, shot a worker called Ram Bahadur, mistaking him for Jha, and ran around looking for the actors, who hid wherever they could. The founder of Janam, 34-year-old Safdar Hashmi, tried to reason with the attackers but was brutally beaten up. He died the next day.

The story of the death of this young artiste is the story of the most persistent scourges of Indian democracy—intolerance for free speech and the politics-crime nexus. Hashmi died because his belief in a liberal democracy clashed with the brute force that rides on impunity. But he is not the only one. Countless others have died because of the failure of constitutional morality. Why write about Hashmi then after all these years? Why read about him?

The answer to this question lies less in the tragic events of the first two days of 1989 and more in what followed over the two days thereafter. In a surprising act of solidarity, thousands of artists, intellectuals and workers showed up on the streets as part of Hashmi’s nearly 10-mile-long funeral procession on 3 January. In 2005, theatre director, poet and actor Habib Tanvir spoke to me about that day. “A crowd such as that had never come together before,” he said. People came not because the attack on Hashmi was unprecedented—he himself had been attacked twice before—but because it felt like the last straw. If there was one thing that united that diverse crowd, it was the belief that words and art must be argued with, not snuffed.

On 4 January, Janam went back to Jhandapur and finished the play that had been interrupted, with a much larger audience in attendance. Thus was born, from the death of Safdar Hashmi, the powerful idea of unyielding cultural resistance. It is the contours of this idea that need to be revisited through the prism of the times we live in.

Hashmi grew up in a family of intellectuals influenced by liberal values and Marxist thought. He started theatre in college with the Indian People’s Theatre Association and went on to found Janam in 1973, largely performing proscenium plays. After the Emergency, he gave up his government job as a lecturer and decided to dedicate his time to street theatre. In public memory, therefore, he is associated mostly with India’s street theatre movement, but his biggest contribution to theatre, or art for that matter, were the principles on which his creative work was constructed.

Hashmi worked to democratize theatre—both in the way it was created and in the way it was presented. Janam developed plays collectively and performed them amid the people whose issues they addressed. He believed in the power of the written word, of colloquialisms, of music and of satire, to craft plays that his working-class audience could engage with; to share with them tools that enable them to deconstruct hegemonic narratives and ask questions that empower them.

He was committed to subverting the idea of art as a bastion of the elite and providing a rich, cultural experience to the masses. His politics and his creative expression were inseparable but he strove to find a balance between aesthetics, entertainment and messaging. He was neither willing to patronize his audience with propaganda, nor was he willing to deliver a cathartic experience designed to evade harsher realities. The larger import of this movement, however, was the example Hashmi set with his careful introspection about his own art.

Today, when historical, cultural and religious narratives are being distorted for political gain, Hashmi’s introspective creative struggle reminds us of the significance of effective and pluralistic counter-narratives—and of the urgent need to question the extent of our commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution.

This idea of Safdar Hashmi is validated by Janam, which holds 200-odd performances of street plays every year. Moloyashree Hashmi, his wife and a theatre person, tells me attempts to heckle them or stop the performances continue, but she also points out that the objections always come from organized groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates, or the police acting at the behest of the state, never the actual audience. In Janam’s experience, the ordinary Indian is capable of engagement, irrespective of disagreement. Whenever there is an interruption, the group tries to reason with the troublemakers and continue performing. Exactly as we imagine Safdar Hashmi would have done.

Hashmi performed Kursi, Kursi, Kursi before the Emergency to highlight the government’s obsession with, and exploitation of, power; Machine to articulate the basic demands of factory workers; and Hatyare, against engineered communal riots in Aligarh. I travelled with Janam earlier this month into the bylanes of Badarpur in south Delhi, to watch them perform Natak Chhappan Chhati Ka at a street crossing. It’s a play that critiques the Narendra Modi government’s curtailment of social sector schemes for the poor; and watching it helped me understand what Moloyashree calls the “relentless continuity” of the struggle envisaged by Hashmi.

This continuity is also the raison d’être of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or Sahmat, a collective that organizes exhibitions, concerts, seminars, lectures and protests and mobilizes a wide array of artists and intellectuals with the aim of defending the plurality of India’s cultural space against growing manifestations of cultural and religious nationalism.

But as Hashmi’s sister and activist Shabnam Hashmi, one of the founders of the Act Now for Harmony and Democracy, or Anhad, a sociocultural organization set up in response to the Gujarat riots of 2002, puts it: “Safdar’s legacy is not confined to the organizations that are run in his name. It is a wider legacy of the idealism and creativity of youth; of cultural resistance against any kind of authoritarianism”.

Moloyashree recalls Safdar’s ability to bring people together, as well as his indomitable perfectionism. Shabnam remembers the laughter, open-mindedness and spirit that defined his persona. Their mother, Qamar Azad Hashmi, wrote of him as an inspirational comrade. But he is greater than the sum of his many parts, any one form of artistic expression or any one political ideology. He represents the quest for free and fearless expression in the aid of justice and equality.

There is little point in glorifying Hashmi as a martyr if we forget that he was inconvenient as long as he was alive. As Bertolt Brecht, the playwright who inspired him most, wrote, “Pity the nation that is in need of heroes.” To eulogize Hashmi is to take away from the fact that the courage of his convictions was not mythical. It was a quiet, persevering and attainable courage. His short life is testament to Brecht’s belief that “a lot is won when a single man gets up on his feet and says no”. Exalting the man distances us from him but examining what he stood for is warranted, more so now than ever.

Very little has changed for workers in industrial areas like Jhandapur since Hashmi’s death. They continue to struggle for basic rights. It is difficult to say whether the world would have been a darker place without the idea of cultural resistance that is synonymous with Hashmi, but if there was no singing in dark times, about dark times, the world would certainly be a less hopeful place.

First published in Mint Lounge.

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Safdar Hashmi and the art of cultural resistance

On the morning of the first day of the new year in 1989, a group of young men and women set out from Delhi for Jhandapur, an industrial area in Uttar Pradesh, where they were scheduled to stage Halla


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