A new book on street theatre doyen Safdar Hashmi

A new book on street theatre doyen Safdar Hashmi serves almost as an emotional call to arms in these tumultuous times

Irreverence is the champion of liberty, and its only sure defence…

— Mark Twain

Creativity — satire and theatricality — is a decisive weapon in the non-violent armoury of Safdar Hashmi’s legacy. Actor-theatreperson Sudhanva Deshpande’s recent book Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi (LeftWord Books), published in Hindi and English, with translations due in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi, recounts the engaged, albeit short-lived, interactions between Hashmi and the author in 1987, and the persona of the artist, poet, songwriter and activist.

Second only to Qamar Azad’s (Hashmi’s mother) book The Fifth Flame (1997), this anecdotal retelling begins with the day Hashmi was killed at the age of 34 (January 1, 1989). What begins with the seemingly dark, penetrating silence of death turns gradually into a life that foregrounds the unrelenting cry for truth and demand for fundamental rights, and also the power of protest for co-existence and co-empowerment.

Much of what we know of the beginnings of theatre group Janam (Jana Natya Manch, of which Hashmi was a founding member in 1973), and even of Hashmi’s commitments, is revised and augmented by the author by acknowledging the immense contributions of those who were with him — ‘Mala’ (Moloyshree Hashmi), his wife, as well as renowned thespian Habib Tanvir.

Response & repercussions

Hashmi arrives in 1969 at St. Stephen’s College, when the growing Naxalbari movement was taking root in the mind of the urban intellectual. He seems to capture the moment by making claims to civil rights, and years later, following a seven-day industrial strike in Delhi in 1988, Halla Bol was produced as a theatrical response, with violent repercussions.

The plays performed by Janam subsequently gained renewed force and included the now iconic Machine, Aya Chunav, Michil (Badal Sircar) and Samrath Ko Nahi Dosh Gosain, or Mai Diwas Ki Kahani. We must see this legacy in the context of the workers’ movement — labour and trade union activity — that has exponentially grown through the necessity to ‘organise’ and resist. Such performances, and their images, some of which are featured in the book, invoke the repeating arc of history — of the power of metaphor, the unflinching potency of symbols, and those dramatic and dynamic acts that bring meaning to the very essence of our unabashedly diverse cultural imprint on the world.

Untimely passing

Halla Bol puts forth the very need for a people’s theatre, a people’s will. This not only harks, as author Joyoti Roy mentions in the Lalit Kala Contemporary magazine (‘Depth of Field’, Vol. 52), to French dramatist Romain Rolland’s idea of ways in which performance can be used to create community awareness, but also to the essential task of advocating for social justice and human dignity as the bare minimum requisites of a society.

Hashmi was a full-time member of the Communist Party (Marxist), and 1989, when the book begins, itself stands alongside other significant Leftist developments taking place across the globe: the Velvet Revolution in Prague in memory of a student killed by Nazi forces 50 years earlier; or the students’ movement in Tiananmen Square demanding reforms to the freedom of speech (an event which has been strategically removed from textbooks and blocked on the Internet in that country); the collapse of the Berlin Wall following the terrible societal distortions it created along with the Cold War; or, in fact, closer home, the benchmark exhibition titled ‘Artists Alert’, which was organised by the Sahmat Trust at Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi to raise resources for the Janotsav art festival following Hashmi’s tragic and untimely passing.

No box

In essence, Deshpande’s book suggests that in order to defy the seemingly unmovable order of things, we must not only think ‘outside the box’ but also imagine that there is no box, that the fetters constructed by us, can only be destroyed by us, as suggested by NYT columnist Thomas Friedman.

To me, Hashmi’s life epitomises the art of countering — revolution, or peaceful protest, and how it must be seen in unison across the world — from the surge of voices chanting ‘We are the people’ at a church in Leipzig before the Berlin Wall came down to the artists in Turkey, one of whom (Erdem Gündüz) was later called The Standing Man, who quietly defied President Erdogan at Taksim Square in 2013.

Halla Bol compels us to revisit author Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (1994), which creates the case for the single individual in society who dares to stand up — who in our present times could be Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg or the congregation of brave women at Shaheen Bagh. They, in turn, remind us of moments such as the “eighteen golden days” (as recalled by novelist Ahdaf Soueif) of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, following which Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned; or of acts of sheer disarming poise, such as that of anti-Vietnam War protester Jan Rose Kasmir confronting gun-wielding forces with a flower in October 1967 in Washington, D.C. (photographed by Marc Riboud). Together, these incidents suggest that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” (Milan Kundera).

The book reminds us of the compelling stories of those who acted, documented and carried Hashmi’s legacy forward over the next 31 years. And it has poignantly lurched into our conscience at a critical time, when the very issue of citizenship rests before us. Perhaps a stepping away momentarily leads to greater perspective. It is only then that we will find ourselves racing “zigzag towards the precipice” as Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski said.

Deshpande suggests that we must continue to find ways of persevering, given that at one time Janam too seemed as though it was about to lose momentum. But Hashmi was unyielding. Like him, we too must scrutinise and volunteer constructive acts of defiance from our modern history — for instance, when press freedom was heavily curtailed during Emergency in 1975 and newspapers ran entire blank sections in protest.

And who better to quote than Bapu: “Given a just cause, capacity for endless suffering and avoidance of violence, victory is a certainty.”

The writer is Curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, and Founding Editor, PIX.

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