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Political theatre places before its audience a picture of reality that illuminates the nature of oppression prevalent in society and draws the masses towards a particular cause or course of action. The Delhi-based Jan Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Front) engineered a radical renewal of this type of theater in India. While Jan Natya Manch may not fit easily into the category of a social or political movement, its consistent association with political struggles, its ability to remain rooted in the problems that plague the deprived sections of society, and its unwavering activism are sufficient reasons to explore its history.
Origin of People’s Theatre in India
The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) was formed as the cultural front of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1942. It was the first national-level theatre movement in India, and primarily focused on proscenium plays (1). IPTA regularly performed short skits and plays in working class apartment buildings, “where workers with their families would gather on one side or peep through the doors and windows of their dwellings” [Tanvir 2007: 68]. One of the few street plays performed was Shanti Doot Kamgar (“Working Class: Harbinger of Peace”), inspired by the Chinese Revolution, where “communist activists would visit restaurants, and other public places, cook up some kind of quarrel between themselves, and when people’s attention was sufficiently drawn to them, one of them would scramble up on top of a table and deliver an agitational speech summoning support for the cause” [Tanvir 2007:68].
Post-independence, with several internal conflicts within the communist movement, IPTA gradually became defunct. By the late 1950s, it was formally dissolved as a national organisation, with only independent state units existing, including one in Delhi.
The Birth of Jan Natya Manch
In 1964, the CPI split, with the left wing breaking off and forming the CPI (Marxist), also known as CPI (M). This new party soon formed a student wing, SFI (Students’ Federation of India). In 1970, a group of students from the University of Delhi, including Safdar Hashmi, who had been associated with SFI, felt that they needed to “work throughout all the cross-sections of the democratic movement…[and could not] remain under the organisation and discipline of the SFI” [Hashmi 1989: 148]. They decided to form a troupe, and called themselves IPTA. At this point, IPTA was practically defunct in Delhi, and the secretary of IPTA had established an import-export business on the premises of the office. The students asked the secretary to allow them to use the office. He refused. Then, as Hashmi narrates, “We just picked…up…his things and his import-export business and threw it down from the first floor. It was not very violent for he didn’t resist” [1989: 149].
They used the office for the next one and a half years, and started establishing communication with the left movement in Delhi. They performed full-length proscenium plays in working class areas, with temporary stages and microphones. They had song-squads that went to factory gates and neighborhoods around the city, collecting money and distributing pamphlets [Hashmi 2007: 78]. They began performing for the mass fronts of both Communist parties, having taken the “position within the group that we would not perform under any party flag directly” [Hashmi 1989:152].
In March 1973, the CPI had organised a large demonstration in Delhi and wanted the group to perform; however, around this time, the CPI had begun supporting the highly corrupt government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Hence, the group refused to perform, despite heavy pressure. Finally, in late March, they were physically removed from the IPTA office. In April 1973, they formed a new group called Jan Natya Manch, or Janam. Only five members of the original group remained.
The Formative Years
The first play performed by Janam was Utpal Dutt’s Bengali play Mrityur Atit (“After Death”). With the money earned from this performance, they went about contacting other students, until the group had reach a size of about 50-60 students. In September 1973, the group performed Bharat Bhagya Vidhata (“The Architect of India’s Destiny”) by Ramesh Upadhyay, based on fraud within the election machinery. It was taken to working class and middle class neighborhoods, factory gates, colleges, and public parks. In January and February 1974, they staged it in a few towns in the state of Uttar Pradesh during the mid-term assembly elections, in towns where the CPI and the CPI (M) had candidates [Hashmi 1989:17]. Following this, it staged Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s Bakri (“Goat”), based on contemporary politics. They performed this play until June 1975, when larger political concerns overwhelmed the group.
On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad High Court declared that Indira Gandhi had used unfair means to win her election, and required her to vacate her seat. Janam responded with a short skit called Kursi Kursi Kursi (“Chair Chair Chair”), which was about an “elected king who is sitting on a chair and a new king is elected. He gets up from his chair but the chair rises with him and no matter how hard they tried to separate the king from his chair, it was impossible” [Hashmi 1989:156]. It was their first attempt at street theatre, and they performed it at the Boat Club, then the centre of oppositional activity. On 25 June 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. This marked a severe attack on civil liberties and freedom of expression in the country, and Janam stopped performing due to fear of arrest and torture, which was widespread. For the next 18 months, Janam remained inactive.
Ascendancy and Expansion
Most of the trade unions had been severely affected by the emergency and were left with no funds. Thus, following the emergency, Janam could not perform many shows for financial reasons. With the weak trade union strength, it was felt that a reorientation of the group was necessary. Safdar Hashmi reportedly said, “If we can’t take big theatre to the people, we can take small theatre to the people.” The members of Janam “took a very major decision…which was probably one of the important turning points…that we are going to write our own plays” [Hashmi 2007: 79]. They started looking for suggestions, and a senior communist leader related a recent event concerning workers at a chemical factory called Herig-India, on the outskirts of Delhi. The workers had two basic demands: a bicycle stand and a canteen. The management refused, and the workers went on strike, following which a standoff occurred. Some goons hired by the management fired from inside the factory, at which point the police fired, resulting in the death of 6 workers.
Janam used this incidence to create the street play Machine. The play uses the machine as a metaphor for the system, in which “five people (three workers, the guard, and the owner) come on and start constructing a machine in motion, making all kinds of sounds,” after which the worker comes out of the machine and it stops working. They performed this play for the first time on October 15, 1978, at a meeting of progressive writers. However, their major performance was to take place a little later. The government had come out with an Industrial Relations Bill, aimed at giving unprecedented powers to local governments in facilitating action against Trade Unions, including preventive arrests. An all-India trade union movement emerged, and on 19 November 1978, 7000 delegates from all over India met at Talkatora Indoor Stadium in New Delhi. Janam performed the play here and received a thunderous applause, following which they were lifted on the shoulders of the delegates, and were requested to perform again. The next day, in front of a gathering of 160,000 workers at the Boat Club, Janam performed their play. It became a huge success, and within a month, reports started coming in that “all around the country people were performing Machine… they had taken the tape recordings back to their people and reconstructed it in their own languages” [Hashmi 1989:162].
In December 1978, a series of communal riots took place at Aligarh, a town in Uttar Pradesh. Aligarh was well-known for its lock-making industry, with Hindus and Muslims working together in the seven stages of lock production. Large, newly-formed factories had instigated the riots to break up smaller lock-making factories. Within a week of the riots, Janam prepared a play called Hatyarey (“Killers”), which was set in Aligarh and used the metaphor of the lock to explain the interconnectedness of Hindus and Muslims.
During the period 1977-1988, Janam gave over 4300 performances of 22 different plays in over 90 cities, with an audience of about two and half million people. In October 1988, on completing 10 years of street theatre, Janam organised a workshop and conference to discuss the various nuances of street theatre, the problems plaguing the art, and the way forward.
On January 1, 1989, an event occurred that would shake the foundations of Janam and dissenting art in the country. In the early winter afternoon, Janam was performing their play Halla Bol (“Raise Your Voice”) for a group of workers at Jhandapur, Sahibabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, as a part of its campaign to support the CPI (M) in the local election campaign. A candidate from the rival Congress (I) party, Mukesh Sharma, backed by a gang of 100 goons armed with guns and sticks, ordered Janam to stop the performance. Janam refused, after which the goons spread terror in the gathering, and Sharma shot one Nepali worker at point blank range. The rest of the group started running towards the nearby trade union office, where they barricaded themselves behind an iron gate. Safdar Hashmi held the gate as long as he could, as the others jumped from the back wall. Then the goons attacked Hashmi. He was later found unconscious in a nearby alley, in a pool of blood, and the next day in the hospital he was declared dead. This event enraged the artistic community across the country, and the funeral procession the next day was 9 miles long, with a stream of artists, sympathizers, and workers attending. On January 4, 1989, Janam returned to the very site where he had been killed and performed Halla Bol. Safdar Hashmi, who had been a pivotal figure in Janam, was only 35 years of age.
Following his death, there was a brief lull in Janam, but within six months, they performed Jinsa Parmo Dharma (“Violence is the Greatest Religion”), an unfinished proscenium play that Safdar had been developing [Tanvir 2007: 75]. Based on the cult of violence, the play met with a favourable response from the audience.
In 1997, having completed 25 years of performance, Janam constructed their ‘mobile theatre’, a dismantleable unit that can transport a performing space anywhere. Named Safdar Rang Manch, or SAFAR (2), in a tribute to Safdar Hashmi, the theatre was made with contributions from trade unions and individuals across the country.
Janam continues to perform in working class areas, and the group has developed several new plays over the years, both street and proscenium, remaining closely associated with the trade union movement. Every year, on January 1, Janam goes back to Sahibabad, where Safdar Hashmi was murdered, and performs a play, in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Trade Unions. It has been a regular event for the last 20 years, and, is widely attended by people from all parts of Delhi.
Perhaps Jan Natya Manch does not qualify as a social movement in the strict sense of the term, but the group’s contributions to people’s theatre and its unwavering association with the trade union movement merits a careful exploration. Safdar Hashmi remains an inspiration to theatre artists across the country because of the theatre that he pioneered and the innovations he developed in the realm of political art. In its work, Janam has never moved away from topics that both reflect and define the experiences of the oppressed sections of society.
This article is available in French: Le « Jan Natya Manch » et le succès du théâtre populaire en Inde
Visit the website of Jan Natya Manch
Dharwadker, A.B., Theatres of Independence: Drama, Theory, and Urban Performance in India since 1947, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2005
Erven, Eugene van, Plays, Applause, and Bullets: Safdar Hashmi’s Street Theatre, TDR, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 32-47, 1989
Hashmi, Moloyashree ‘… to just go on performing…’ in Sudhanva Deshpande (ed.), Theatre of the Streets: The Jan Natya Manch Experience, New Delhi: Jan Natya Manch, 2007
Hashmi, Safdar, The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi, New Delhi: SAHMAT, 1989
Hashmi, Q.A., The Fifth Flame: The Story of Safdar Hashmi, New Delhi: Viking, 1997
Srampickal, J., Voice to the Voiceless: The Power of People’s Theatre in India, New Delhi: Manohar, 1994
Tanvir, Habib, ‘Janam Comes of Age’ in Sudhanva Deshpande (ed.), Theatre of the Streets: The Jan Natya Manch Experience, New Delhi: Jan Natya Manch, 2007