January 08, 2023
‘Safdar’s Passion was Social Change’

A Reporter

“I FIRST heard of Safdar Hashmi around 1970, when I joined the National School of Drama in New Delhi. All I wanted was fame and popularity, and I couldn’t understand how an artist as accomplished as Safdar would not care for that. It took me a long time to realise that Safdar’s passion was social change. For him, his principles were more valuable than his life. I was deeply distressed when I heard of his killing. But he kindled a fire that continued to burn brightly.”

So said the actor Naseeruddin Shah at the 34th rally to commemorate the killings of Ram Bahadur and Safdar Hashmi at Jhandapur, Sahibabad, on January 1, 2023. He was accompanied by Ratna Pathak Shah, also an acclaimed actor. He proceeded to do two readings: a poem, ‘Mere Geet’, (My Songs) by Sahir Ludhianvi, and a short story, ‘Art Ka Pul’ (The Bridge of Art) by Fahim Azmi.

The previous evening, Ratna Pathak and Naseeruddin Shah had performed their hugely popular play Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, at Studio Safdar in Shadipur, New Delhi. This is a space created by Jana Natya Manch in memory of Safdar and taking inspiration from his idea of a cultural centre in a working class neighbourhood. The space was created in 2012, and in fact the Shahs had performed the same play at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai as part of fundraising efforts for Studio Safdar.

At the Jhandapur rally, A R Sindhu of CITU was the main speaker. She recalled the day, January 2, 1989, when she heard about Safdars killing while studying in a college in Kerala. SFI took out a march with red flags to express anger and solidarity. She didnt know about Safdar till then, but since that day he became part of her activist life.

On behalf of CITU, she expressed gratitude towards Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah for coming to Jhandapur on this occasion. She said coming on this platform in these times is a political statement in itself.

Sindhu said that the agents of Ambani-Adani who are spreading communal hatred are in their last phase of this vicious game. We who understand the working-class politics have to understand that they are the ones who are facing crisis, not us. By spreading hate, they are trying to shift focus away from the real issues like unemployment, health services, education, etc.

During the pandemic when migrant workers were leaving the city in desperation to be with their families, this government didnt do anything. When people were dying due to lack of oxygen cylinders in hospitals, the government was conspicuous by its absence. When people needed food, when workers needed wage protection, when working people, elderly folks and those at the margins needed social security, the government was conspicuous by its absence.

On the contrary, in midst of this gigantic humanitarian and health crisis, the government passed new laws that snatch away whatever little the farmers and the workers had. The farm laws, now withdrawn, were designed to take away from the farmers their freedom to decide what to cultivate, and bargaining power to get a fair price for their produce. All this was to pave the way for handing over the agriculture sector to the big corporates.

Similarly, with the new labour codes, workers are being forced to work longer hours for lower wages, we see a massive contractualisation of labour, and increasingly workers’ right to form unions is also being snatched away.

All this points towards one simple reality. This government doesn’t stand with working people, it stands with, and for, the Ambanis and Adanis.

There is, however, no cause for despondency, Sindhu said. The year-long farmers’ movement was surely the largest mass movement since independence. It won because it received the support from diverse sections of the population. In particular, the trade union movement extended full support to the farmers’ movement. It is this wide-ranging support that resulted in the victory of the farmers’ movement. This is a lesson we should always remember.

 People’s movements make the people fearless. The women of Delhi came out openly raising their fists and shouting anti-government slogans when women and men farmers set up camps on the borders of Delhi. Similarly, in Muzzafarnagar, which had been the flashpoint for communal mobilisation by the Hindutva forces a few years ago, people of different castes and religious communities came out in massive numbers to assert the unity of working people. Sindhu concluded her speech by saying that all this makes clear that building people’s movements with a clear-cut class perspective is the only real alternative that can mount an effective challenge to the corporate-Hindutva nexus.

 Besides presenting songs in memory of Safdar, Jana Natya Manch performed two of its recent plays at the Jhandapur event. The first was Katha Kalraatri Ki, directed by one of India’s top theatre directors, Sunil Shanbag, and the second was Hau Hau Ki Kahaani, directed by Shaili Sathyu, a leading exponent of theatre for children. Shanbag worked with Janam last summer, while Sathyu’s production took shape in December.

 Both the plays employ an allegoric style. The first play tells the story of Kalraatri, a writer who writes in the people’s language and whose stories challenge the king. For this crime, her works are burnt and destroyed, and the king’s courtiers spread the propaganda that she did this voluntarily when she realised her folly. However, the stories, with all their subversive power, survive in the oral narratives of the people. The second play, based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, is the story of a jackal who wants to be powerful like humans and therefore tries to shed his animal identity and take on a human identity. This doesn’t go well for him, and he suffers as a result. The play, made especially for children, is an allegory about identity and the desirability of staying true to one’s authentic self.

 Janam was formed in 1973, and is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. Both these plays are part of Janam’s effort to reinvent itself creatively in its golden jubilee year. Right from its earliest years, Janam has attempted to push the envelop as far as street theatre is concerned. Safdar used to often say that we shouldn’t see street theatre and proscenium (stage) theatre as mutually-contradictory. He would always emphasise that street theatre should be as artistically inventive as politically sharp. This is a tradition that has continued in Janam over the last half century.

 To mark the fifty years, Janam has also come out with an exhibition that is flexible and mobile, and can be put up anywhere at short notice. This exhibition has been designed by the students of the Indian Institute of Art and Design in New Delhi. It seeks to communicate to spectators the essential spirit behind Janam’s work – the spirit of freedom and enquiry; the connection with and partisanship towards people’s movements, struggles and organisations; the group’s internationalist perspective and collaborations; and its financial model, which, rather than seeking grants or support from the government or NGOs or political parties, relies exclusively on people’s contributions to keep itself alive. The exhibition was viewed and appreciated by hundreds of people at Jhandapur.

 The attack on Janam had taken place on January 1, 1989, but his death anniversary falls on January 2, the day he died in hospital. Accordingly, Janam organises a small, intimate get together to mark Safdar’s death anniversary every year. This is attended by Janam members, and there is one guest speaker, someone who knew and worked with Safdar. This year, that was the singer and scholar Madan Gopal Singh, who spoke at length of Safdar’s contributions, particularly when he served as the information officer of the West Bengal Information Bureau for about three years in the 1980s. The Bureau’s office became a meeting place, an adda, for all kinds of artists, intellectuals and activists, and some incredible initiatives came out of that, including the restoration of some of Ritwik Ghatak’s films.

 Safdar was deeply passionate about poetry. On January 3 every year, Janam organises an evening of poetry reading. This year, the theme of the evening was the poetry of the last ten years, and the curation and selection of poems was done by Ashok Tiwari, a senior Janam member.