January 10, 2016

JANAM Commemorates Safdar Hashmi’s Life & Works

S Mitra

JANUARY 1, 2016 marked the 27th year of commemorating Safdar Hashmi’s life and works at the site of his attack, and subsequent death from injuries sustained, in Jhandapur by the CITU and the Jana Natya Manch (Janam). The interrupted Halla Bol show finished on January 4 that year, is marked with a new production by Janam each year, along with a roster of revolutionary songs and speeches. This year too the programme, with Badal Saroj as the chief guest, was a careful selection of acts in solidarity with the workers’ movement, with one major exception. The new play was a joint production between Janam and The Freedom Theatre (TFT) from Jenin, Palestine. Six student actors Ameer, Ibrahim, Ihaab, Osama, Raneen and Samah, joined by director Faisal and manager Yousef, have as part of a historic collaboration between theatres in these two countries, been in India since November working on a new play Hamesha Saamida (Forever Steadfast). Every morning of January 1 starts for Janam with loading its mobile theatre onto a truck, to be assembled and hammered into the grounds of Ambedkar maidan in Jhandapur. This small park has transformed over the years from a dusty empty lot to a more vibrant community space in an increasingly built and crowded neighbourhood of residential houses and a busy bazaar gali. The new year starts here with the festive festooning of red flags, banners and pennants leading to the park, and announcements through the busy streets for the CITU-Janam programme. Over the years, a collection of visual and graphic elements of revolutionary slogans, art and exhibition panels have transformed the venue into the site of this annual remembrance. This year the Palestinian flag and visuals from Jenin, detailing the devastation and rebuilding process this camp routinely goes through, form a prominent part of the exhibition. Striking graphics, created by artist designer Orijit Sen detail especially the significance of political cartoons – simple evocative images using iconic Palestinian symbols of the innocent, shunned Handala, a little Palestinian boy holding the hands of a friendly pigtailed Madhubala, a kaffiyeh in an Escheresque pattern of fishes, and finally a key, crumbling the divisive walls of the occupied territories into a new and flourishing land. As the crowds started congregating from near and far, TFT warmed up, and the audience, with a spontaneous routine of acrobatics and a spirited, high kicking, coordinated dabke dance. The children enthralled as ever, sat packed tighter, jostling for the best view, as the adults arranged themselves into order. Ratan Gambhir, accompanied by a dholak, started the morning off with lokgeet on revolutionary themes. Saibal, strumming a guitar, revisited Faiz classics like Bolki Lab Azad Hai Tera, in fresh lilting new tunes. And finally Janam, including two founding members, music director Kajal Ghosh, and Shehla Hashmi Grewal, sang old revolutionary songs, some from IPTA’s era. Badal Saroj gave an expansive and fiery speech aiming primarily at the Modi government and its staunchly anti-people policies. He gave a long and detailed history of the evolution of the idea of minimum wage alongside a more nebulous principle of the social life of the mazdoor, one where cultural experiences become important. With basic needs and amenities like the price of dal reaching increasingly unaffordable heights for the average citizen, it has become clear that the promises of achhe din have translated to mean good days only for the very rich in a brazen BJP iteration of crony capitalism. Equally troubling is Modi's foreign policy that seems just about the perfect photo opportunity. Badal Saroj provided a moving account of India's relation with her neighbours, one where opportunistic posing with Nawaz Sharif hardly undoes the deeply divisive communal ideology that bars legends like Ghulam Ali from performing at a concert in India. One where India has historically had close relations with Nepal but now is blocking aid to our friendliest neighbour, who also contributes largely to the labour force of India. And finally there is the question of Palestine. History records India as Palestine's staunch supporter and ally, the first to recognise it as an independent State, under Nehru's policies. A strong Left has also bound these two countries in a common ideology of fighting against oppression, excessive militarisation, and the basic dignity and precarity of humanity. Modi's regime is consciously undoing all of these by recklessly embracing a Benjamin Netanyahu Israel led, US supported, twenty-first century imperialism. Badal Saroj skillfully led the crowd through this expansive overview of the problems of the BJP led central government and its anti-worker policies, to focus on the specific impacts of such hate filled agenda on the question of Palestine and the importance of the present collaboration between the two countries premised on artistic and cultural solidarity between its people. With this context, the audience on January 1 was introduced to the new play, Hamesha Saamida by co-directors Faisal and Sudhanva Deshpande. They explained the dual language of the play in terms of the large presence of Arabic words in the common Hindi lexicon, such as mazboot, etc. So in a sense Arabic is a language that has a long presence in the Indian subcontinent, it is no more foreign than going to other parts of India and hearing a play performed in Bangla or Tamil. As Deshpande’s introductory remarks continue, he is interrupted by a frantic character, a director at pains to stage a play. This director, played ably by Osama, runs into a somewhat recalcitrant stage manager, actor Kalia, who is unable to provide the director with even simple Palestinian familiars like an olive tree or a military tank. The next scene is the unfolding of a beautiful relation between two women, poignantly portrayed by Samah and Komita, narrating the trajectory of their lives. They share a burden, metaphorical but also literal; a trunk that fits all of one's possession, but also all of one's memories. A kaffiyeh is unwrapped telling its own tale of domesticity and sisterhood. We are told of a young and vibrant Fayeez, favorite of the children, who is martyred. We see a key that once locked brick and mortar houses but now can only symbolise belonging and a promised return. And we see the sharp outlines of a tree, the wonderful evocative zaytoon or olive, that once sheltered a first kiss between two tentative lovers. But this reverie is shattered. There are tanks, sirens, gunfire, flames, destruction, arrests. A teenager, forever shed of his youthful amour, stands accused of terrorism, his interrogators find his Palestinian identity guilt by association. Palestine in the play is both art and resistance. A beautiful wooden puppet no taller than two feet, inspired by Japanese life-like style of bunraku, wears a bright scarf with Palestine and its flag emblazoned, and is delicately manipulated by three skilled and loving puppeteers Ihaab, and Katkatha members Raghavendra and Shravan. First this puppet is pressed upon by four martial, soldierly characters demanding a homeland, an agreement to sign over its land and sovereignty. Palestine, as puppet, shuns each increasingly shrill demand. But its gesture is to no avail. In the climatic scenes of destruction by tank it reappears, this time with a simple, iconic gesture of resistance. With carefully measured steps, it picks up and weighs a stone and in a slow measured movement throws it at the tank. Three times this repeats, each time more people join in. A stone and a tank, that is the stark equivalence of violent reality in Palestine. Hamesha Saamida also features some of TFT and Janam’s favourite theatrical techniques. Circus gags, slapstick routines and humor are used to deal with some of the most complex political arguments. For instance the nexus between global arms trade, international debt financing and a self-serving definition of terror are shown through the clowning of actors holding caricatures of American President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and our own, 56 inch chested Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The three engage in a ribald round of kissing each other's rear ends, a sure sign of sycophancy, mutual dependence and subservience, drawing much ribald laughter from the audience. January 1 at Jhandapur for the past 27 years has been drawing an eclectic mix of people – some comrades come every year, and were even present as the CITU organisers of the watershed show of Halla Bol in 1989 that resulted in the attack on Safdar and shooting to death of worker Ram Bahadur. Some never knew Safdar, but have been deeply influenced by him and come for this shahadat divas from far flung places like Kurukshetra, or even Patna. And then there are some for whom this is the first introduction to the workers movement, this Left carnival of speeches, songs and revolutionary theatre. People after the show expressed appreciation for the performance in their own terms, either as a unique cultural experience of politics and entertainment, or as part of a long history of radical art in the people's movement where workers, artists and intellectuals unite.