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In Memory Of A Theatre Legend Who Died Creating Art That Spoke To The Masses

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By Karthik Venkatesh:

I was a day away from turning 14 when Safdar Hashmi passed away on January 2, 1989. When his news made the front pages (albeit at the bottom of the page), I wasn’t sure if it was because of the circumstances of his death or on the basis of his accomplishments. But I do remember wondering who he was, what street theatre was and why an actor and playwright would meet with such a violent death. In time, these questions were answered.

Born in Delhi on April 12, 1954, Safdar Hashmi grew up in a liberal environment. He went on to do his Master’s in English from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. Associated with the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Hashmi founded Jana Natya Manch (Janam) in 1973. For a while, Hashmi taught at Zakir Hussain College in Delhi and then in Garhwal and Kashmir. He also served as Press Information Officer at the West Bengal Information Centre in New Delhi. But in 1983, he became a full-time worker of the CPI (M) with which he had been associated since 1973. Along with party work, he continued his work with Janam as a theatre activist.

Janam had become a well-established name in the street theatre movement by then. Hashmi was its de facto director and completely involved in all its productions. Along with his wife, Moloyshree, herself an actress, Hashmi sought to build a theatre that ‘spoke’ to the people without indulging in crass propaganda. He wrote songs, contributed to the scripts and also acted. Janam, true to its name was at the forefront of creating a people’s theatre that strove to liberate theatre from the clutches of the elite.

On January 1, 1989, Janam set out to do a play called ‘Halla Bol’ in Jhandapur, an industrial area in Ghaziabad. In the middle of a scene, goons arrived on the scene and attacked the crowd and actors. A municipal election was round the corner and the CPI (M) candidate of the area was contesting against a Congress-backed candidate. Hashmi tried to reason with the attackers, but was brutally beaten up and succumbed to his injuries the next day. Thousands showed up for his funeral and the procession was 10 miles long. In his memory, his birthday (April 12) is celebrated as National Street Theatre Day.

True to its spirit, Janam returned to Jhandapur on January 4, 1989, to complete the play, this time to a much larger crowd and it continues to pursue its brand of theatre to this day.

The documentary filmmaker, Anand Patwardhan who has himself been at the receiving end for his controversial documentaries wrote a short poem in memory of Safdar Hashmi. Below that is one of Safdar’s own poems.


So you missed the demolition of the Babri Masjid
And the violence and hate that followed
You missed Ramabai and other Dalit massacres
You missed your nation’s love for the atom bomb
In 2002, you missed the Gujarat pogrom
And in neighbouring Pakistan you missed
The creation of the Taliban and here
This year you missed the coronation of killers

We who survived you missed none of these
We missed you.

Kitabein (Books)

करती हैं बातें
बीते ज़माने की
दुनिया की इंसानों की
आज की, कल की
एक – एक पल की
खुशियों की, ग़मों की
फूलों की, बमों की
जीत की, हार की
प्यार की, मार की !
क्या तुम नहीं सुनोगे
इन किताबों की बातें ?
किताबें कुछ कहना चाहती हैं
तुम्हारे पास रहना चाहती हैं |
किताबों में चिड़ियां चहचहाती हैं
किताबों में खेतियां लहलहाती हैं
किताबों में झरने गुनगुनाते हैं
परियों के किस्से सुनाते हैं |
किताबों में रोकेट का राज है
किताबों में साइंस की आवाज़ है
किताबों का कितना बड़ा संसार है
किताबों में ज्ञान का भंडार है |
क्या तुम इस संसार में
नहीं जाना चाहोगे ?
किताबें कुछ कहना चाहती हैं
तुम्हारे पास रहना चाहती हैं |

They talk to us
About the time which has passed
About the world, about people,
They talk about today, about tomorrow
About each passing moment
They talk about happiness, about sorrow
About flowers and about bombs
About victory and defeat
About love and violence!
Won’t you listen
To what these books want to say?
They want to say something
They want to be with you.
Birds sing in books, crops dance in books
Waterfalls hum in books
They tell tales of fairies.
Books have the secret of the rocket,
Books have the voice of science
How big is this world of books
Books are a trove of knowledge.
Don’t you want
To visit this world?
They want to say something
They want to be with you.)

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