A look back at the fierce life and ideals of Safdar Hashmi

Book on Safdar Hashmi, Emergency period, Sikhs riot, Halla Bol, indian express news

Front cover of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi.

(Written by Feisal Alkazi)

Title: Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi
Author: Sudhanva Deshpande
Publication: Leftword Books
Pages: 264
Price: Rs 350

I remember Safdar clearly — sitting alone sometimes, but most often surrounded by a group of friends in the Shri Ram Centre canteen. Lanky, bespectacled, charismatic, often writing furiously on a paper, brushing his hair out of his eyes.

Shri Ram Centre was still a new institution in the 1980s — ten years old with an excellent Hindi theatre bookshop and cafe run by Mrs Puran Acharya which served delectable parathas, mint chutney and other delicacies. Much of Delhi’s theatre crowd gathered there regularly: NK Sharma, MK Raina, the recently established group of former NSD students, Sambhav and us — members of Ruchika Theatre Group, as we had virtually colonised the SRC basement theatre with our frequent productions. Chai and cigarettes in a rehearsal break was de rigeur and that’s how many of us met.

The draconian Emergency of the 1970s and the horrific pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984 brought us together, conscious of the need to not only provide material relief to the disaffected but also to loudly voice our protest, dissent and rising concern on the failure of the state to deliver in any way. Though, it was very adept at stifling dissent.

Regular proscenium theatre in Delhi was undergoing metamorphoses. The focus on using folk elements in urban theatre had started: re-vamped bhavai in NSD’s ‘Jasma Odan’, folk devices in Girish Karnad’s ‘Hayavadana’ and, of course, Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre that brought folk and urban theatre artists together. A completely new middle class audience was flocking to see comedies in Punjabi at Sapru House, full of sexual innuendo.

It was at this time, when most of the mainstream theatre was quite out of sync with social concerns, that street theatre emerged as a form. Some like Theatre Union with Anuradha Kapoor, Maya Rao and Manohar Khushalani, among others, were articulating their voices against dowry and dowry deaths while others like Safdar and Jan Natya Manch (Janam) produced plays in solidarity with workers reflecting their concerns.

Deshpande’s recently released book Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi, encapsulates the life of this talented young man who was killed on the first day of 1989, when he was only 34. His death resulted in a public outcry and the establishment of Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) which, for over 25 years, has brought together like-minded people from across India to celebrate Safdar’s life and legacy. The book is a celebration of the actor-activist.

The opening is gripping and extremely well-written and Deshpande gives us a detailed account of Safdar’s last day, January 1, 1989. The reader has a sense of being on the spot with the disrupted street play performance, the horrific and violent attack on Jan Natya Manch and their attempt to disperse, run and hide in different areas of Jhandapur and, finally, the search for the right hospital that could care for Safdar. As his colleagues and friends move Safdar from cycle rickshaw to car to a taxi, the suspense builds so that by the time he reaches the correct hospital and is diagnosed, we know that his death is inevitable. This section is followed by a crisp sketch of Safdar’s family’s modest background.

Jan Natya Manch was created by a group of young people barely out of college in April 1973, who had literally been thrown out of the IPTA office in Shankar Market! Their initial plays were Irwin Shaw’s ‘Bury the Dead’ (in Bengali), Ramesh Upadhyaya’s ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ and Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s satire, ‘Bakri’. Janam was almost an extension of the CPI and CPI(M), performing regularly at election campaigns for party candidates.

In the late 1970s, when Safdar and Moloyshree decided to marry (after a romantic interlude in Srinagar), they both decided to exchange surnames. The banks were baffled, adding Hashmi to Molayshree was, of course, easy but adding Roy to Safdar was not possible at all. Sudhanva recounts this story of bureaucratic blindness with a sense of humour.

By the time Indira Gandhi was replaced by the Janata Party post the Emergency, Janam was already into creating street theatre. Within days, their iconic script ‘Machine’ came to be written and performed. Twenty-two other plays emerged over the next 10 years.

A major part of the book is dedicated to exploring the process of conceiving, writing, rehearsing and performing street theatre. This part is particularly fascinating because it is the first time a theatre practitioner has actually described the process in sufficient detail. Questions like ‘Why no play on the Dalit issue?’ and how ‘Moteram ka Satyagraha’ and ‘Aurat’ were created, or how ‘Chakka Jam’ metamorphosed into ‘Halla Bol’ are well-documented. The background for Janam’s work — the situation of workers, the party position, and what goes into organising a strike, provide much-needed context. These are excellent authoritative materials that will over time form an essential part of the history of theatre in our country and how it was shaped, developed and grew over a 70-year period. Sudhanva is able to move effortlessly from the first person narrative to nuanced backgrounders on several issues, and Safdar emerges as fierce and gentle, charming and charismatic.

‘Rangeen Mijaz Fakir’ was one of the many names Safdar was known by, and it was the most suitable one. This elegantly produced slim volume with a striking black and white cover is a testament to the times we live in.

Alkazi is a veteran theatre artist