TAKING THEATRE BACK TO THE PEOPLE

by Harshita Sethia

Contrary to public opinion, theatre isn’t what happens when actors strut and fret their hour upon the stage; it is what happens when the audience reacts to what is happening. That intangible electrifying and completely evanescent moment is theatre. It could happen when a street juggler stops your stride in the street; it could happen when a teacher in a class holds your attention; but in the imagining of the word, it is what happens on a proscenium stage in an air-conditioned hall, with lights and props and sound machines…


That kind of theatre is not accessible to every stratum of society. However, there are some artists who have consciously made the effort to make theatre accessible to the masses. There were always folk theatre artists who went from village to village but even they had to be paid for they had to live. Payment was sometimes in the form of food grain, sometimes in the form of fuel and when there was a rich man with an open hand, some money. But when we think of cities, and talk about “theatre for the people” we have to look at the different socio-economic backgrounds of the people. 

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Safdar Hashmi defined street theatre as, “a militant political theatre of protest whose function is to agitate the people and to mobilize them behind fighting organizations.” In order to understand political theatre I talked to Moloyshree Hashmi, the President and convener of Jan Natya Manch (JANAM) and Manjul Bhardwaj, the founder of the philosophy of ‘theatre of relevance’ and Sirish Pawar, a person of multiple talents, an actor, a filmmaker, a singer, an activist. 

 “Difficult times lie ahead, humein darna thodi na hai, humein toh hanske saamna karna hai.” (We must not succumb to fear, we shall face difficulties with a smile.) says Moloyshree Hashmi, the wife of Safdar Hashmi. 

Safdar Hashmi was the person who revolutionised the Indian street theatre. Hashmi was a playwright, an activist, a theatre artist, a voice of political theatre in India. He founded the Jan Natya Manch  (known as JANAM) in 1973. JANAM traces its roots back to the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

Jan Natya Manch performing a street play on freedom of speech.

Moloyshree Hashmi says, “We have taken JANAM’s slogan from IPTA, since we think that we are continuing the same legacy. I believe that workers' issues have been raised by only relatively few groups according to me. There have been plays on communal harmony, gender, patriarchy, but we have looked at the notion of work, at the idea of labour.” 

JANAM remains one of the most prominent street theatre groups in India, and has completed more than 8,000 shows across the country. 

In essence, street theatre is a tool of protest.  Even in the current times of fragmented attention, cellphone hypnosis and masked madness, Nukkad Naatak: literally 'theatre on the street corner', the theatre of the people still holds our attention. The call, 'Aao aao, naatak dekho” (Come see a play) in different languages across the country can still draw a crowd. A group of people, clad in kurtas with some instruments, suddenly change the aura of the entire place. Talking, singing, laughing, and slowly as the crowd gathers, what begins unfolding is something significant. Sometimes one is so intrigued by this unexpected activity that one doesn’t realise the sudden shift of gear from fun and games to talking about issues that matter, and that is the magic of street theatre.

Manjul Bhardwaj of the Experimental Theatre Foundation (ETF) of which he is the founder, says, “Theatre of relevance as a philosophy is complete in itself. We perform the street plays, we do perform the proscenium theatre, we perform the community theatre. So the theatre of relevance is a guiding philosophy to all these forms. Street theatre is a political tool. It's a crisis. It's a theatre of protest. 

 

“We want to detach theatre from its links to the auditorium. The auditorium is not theatre. That is the venue for a play. Like a shopping mall is not the entire shopping industry. Shopping malls are just for selling and buying. So, a venue, or a place doesn't mean theatre. Theatre means when an audience and a performer exchange their views, exchange their vibrations and complement each other, that experience makes theatre.”

One of the major principles of ‘theatre of relevance’ is art not only for entertainment, but art for empowerment and change. ETF’s play Mera Bachpan has been acclaimed internationally, it has been performed in 12 different languages.

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It has helped in the rehabilitation of more than 50,000 child labourers, says Bhardwaj.  The artists for this play were these child labourers on whose lives the play was based, “When I was working with these children, they could see themselves excel as artists for them, it was the reincarnation. It was like breaking the cycles of the bondage,” said Bhardwaj.

 

The roots of modern street theatre can be also traced back to Indian People’s Theatre Association, the first organised political theatre movement, born in the 1940s. During that time the thrust was anti-colonial. Moloyshree Hashmi says, “Even at that time, a lot of social questions were being addressed. So even in the 40s, there were short plays, which were done, actually where people lived and worked and where struggles were happening.” Street theatre was emerging in different forms in different areas. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, one important phenomenon that was emerging was: theatre was becoming accessible to the people. Theatre was now being revolutionized in local languages by both social activists and playwrights. Since these were the developmental decades of a new and free India, so newer social questions were being raised. During the 1980s and 1990s after and because of Safdar's murder, a lot of people, you know, took up street theatre, by way of showing solidarity, and then subsequently they became engaged in street theatre.” 

Artists from Jan Natya Manch performing in Jhandapur.

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The War Beats performing "Jai Bheem"

Street theatre is driven by social issues. Hashmi says, “The word issue makes things appear separate, whereas almost all the things are inter-connected, some more, some less. However it’s all a part of the larger picture.” But what is the process of brain-storming and how do the ideas come together, is something that has always made me curious. Hashmi says, “Talking to people really helps. We often plan a larger overarching thrust of the play, because of something that has either happened or will happen. But mostly, society determines the theme.” 

Today street theatre has also become popular in university spaces. A culture has emerged where street theatre has become a part of college fests and competitions. Hashmi comments, “How can you judge artistic value? How can you have competition oriented street theatre? These competitions have  a set of rules which has to be followed. No play breaks any rule, it's a creation. How can you say only this is correct, there could be many ways of doing the same theme. Unfortunately, that's not a good way to understand the value of any artistic form, street theatre or otherwise.” However talking about the only bright side of this type of theatre practice she says, “The only good thing out of it is the only good thing is that for whatever reason, I know for the wrong reasons. More and more people are doing theatre, and because they are doing theatre in college, some interest is carrying on beyond their college days. To me that’s valuable.”

Shirish Pawar, who has worked with Lokshahir Sambhaji Bhagat for eight or nine years, He started his journey with Bhagat he has performed with Sambhaji across India. With Bhagat, Pawar started a YouTube channel called “The War Beat” through which they create protest songs, songs on Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, and reach out to people across the internet. Pawar says, “If we write a song that is only for applause and ends at entertainment and that doesn’t make people aware of what is happening around, what is the point? It is an artist’s work to disturb people.”

 

Creating rights-based awareness seems to have been the forte of the Left. However, it often did not do too spectacular a job. In Vasanth Kannabiran’s translation of the songs of Gaddar, she reports that one of the Left’s most devoted workers once compared the way these ideas were introduced as feeding a child a fiery mango pickle (avakai) on its anna prasan, (the ceremony in which the infant is fed its first solid food) when it can only take soft, palatable food. 

Pawar said, “Workers cannot go and read articles. I feel that entertainment and art can be used to create social change, to reach out to the workers, that is what we are trying to do through our art.”


Talking about the ripple effect that art creates Pawar said, “ If we are performing on say, freedom of speech and out of the 1000 people 10-15 people understand, they would go and talk to 10 people more about their rights. Through songs and people, we represent our people” 

 

In times like ours, Pawar talked about the importance of social media to reach out to people, to reach out for help, to voice an opinion. “I use art to raise my voice against the system that has suppressed it. Art is my weapon, it can be a song, a poetry, a sketch, a film, anything. The biggest source of my inspiration remains Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.”

Talking about the decreasing spaces of dissent, Mr Bhardwaj said, “Of course such spaces have declined. The state has been working at it for a while now. From 1992 onwards we were against everyone. When we are fighting for child rights, when we are fighting for human rights, when we are fighting against dowry, when we are fighting for education rights, against communalism, we are always fighting some vested interests but we will always rely on the Constitution. That's why we are not taking any favours or grants or any kind of support from the government. But the difference is, this government has a clear agenda. And Indians have to decide whether Manusmriti and Hindu rashtra will survive or the Indian Constitution will prevail.” 

Today, when the space for dissent is constantly shrinking in the world’s largest democracy, where do we stand? “If I look at the last ten years, definitely the space for dissent has shrunk, there are no two opinions about it. But in spite of that, in that space, more activity is happening. There are two kinds of oppression on an artist, one is direct. You arrest a person, or you put a case against that person. The second is self-censorship. Because of that fear, you start curtailing your own work. But I must say that that has not happened. So even in this shrunken space people are still creating great stuff, especially young people. More difficult times are going to come. Theek hai, koi baat nahi. (So be it.)” said Mrs. Hashmi.  

Shirish Pawar performing with the War Beats

SCM SOPHIA