Safdar Hashmi Amar Rahe
(Long Live Safdar Hashmi)!
Communist Cultural Activism in India

In 1948, Brecht cast aspersions on the mode of drama which sought to transform human beings into "a cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass" who become not only incapable of social thought and action, but who also believe that life takes place on the proscenium stage and that their own existence is unimportant. The modern Entertainment Industry dulls, rather than promotes, the scientific spirit of rational inquiry. "How much longer are our souls, leaving our 'mere' bodies under cover of the darkness, to plunge into those dreamlike figures up on the stage, there to take part in the crescendos and climaxes which 'normal' life denies us?" [Bertolt Brecht, "A Short Organum for the Theatre", Brecht on Theatre (New York: Hill & Wang, 1988), 188 189]. In 1997, like 1948, the bourgeois Entertainment Industry attempts to persuade the masses to be passive receptacles of whatever is fed to us from our various media. Last year, The Nation offered a worthwhile analysis of the media monopolies and showed how five corporations (Paramount, NewsCorp, Time Warner-Disney Turner, MGM and Matsushita), which reported assets of $7 billion in 1993, control almost all media production and distribution [Mark Crispin Miller, "Free the Media", The Nation(3 June 1996); also see, Janet Wasko, Hollywood in the Information Age: Beyond the Silver Screen (Austin: University of Texas, 1995) ]. Outside the advanced industrial states, these same media giants attempt to dump their products and to provide singular ways to interpret the world's news [An early analysis was offered by Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Age of the Disney Comic (New York: International General, 1975).].

Socialist theatre combatted the Entertainment Industry not just with socialist realism (which was only one of its forms), but also by offering a challenge to the idea that art is an escape from reality (a notion best summarized in the cultural criticism of T. S. Eliot). In 1918, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the constructivist, broke with the conventions of the bourgeois theatre when he produced Mayakovsky's Mystery Bouffe on the streets to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. The prologue noted that conventional theatre isolates the action on a stage and disregards the audience; "we, too, will show you life that's real very!," Mayakovsky wrote, "But life transformed by the theater into a spectacle most extraordinary." The theatre was not only available to the people, but it also attempted to grasp and politicize everyday popular trials. Watching the play, workers and peasants might be stimulated to consider familiar experiences which might, in turn, lead to discussions on things hitherto obscured. The theatre becomes the means towards the politicization of everyday phenomenon as well as a place to celebrate the extraordinary struggles of heroic folks. These are the values of the tradition of street theatre, which is less about drama on the street and more about the socialist values of critical inquiry and struggle. India's most famous communist cultural worker, Safdar Hashmi, wrote that street theatre "is basically a militant political theatre of protest. Its function is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organisations....Street theatre became inevitable when the workers began organising themselves into unions" [Safdar Hashmi, The Tradition of Street Theatre (6 April 1986), The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi (Delhi: SAHMAT, 1989), p. 9].

Safdar Hashmi (12 April 1954-2 January 1989) was the embodiment of those communist values which shaped his craft -- that of cultural activist and street theatre artist. Although he wrote books for children and criticism of the Indian stage, he will be remembered best for his work with Jan Natya Manch (People's Theatre Front) which was formed in 1973 as an outgrowth of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and which became closely linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] during the 1970s. Janam (which means 'Rebirth' and works as an acronym for the troupe's name) came into its own with the production of Machine to a trade union meeting of over 200,000 workers on 20 November 1978, but went from strength to strength after that with plays on the distress of small peasants (Gaon Se Shahar Tak), on clerical fascism (Hatyare & Apharan Bhaichare Ke), on unemployment (Teen Crore), on violence against women (Aurat) and on inflation (DTC ki Dhandhli). Safdar saw these plays as "the manifestation of protest against the bourgeois concept of theatre, against the bourgeois appropriation of the proscenium theatre." The bourgeois artist takes refuge on the stage and uses its power as well as the design of the auditorium to lecture to a set of diconnected individuals who all sit in awe of the raised platform. Of course, Safdar argued, "this concept of interaction between isolated individuals and a work of art is in itself a bourgeois need and an offspring of a system founded on the philosophy of individual enterprise." The issue is not where the play is performed (and street theatre is only a mode of ensuring that art is available to the people), but the principle issue is the "definite and unresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people's collectivist view of art" [ Safdar Hashmi, "The Enchanted Arch, Or the Individual and Collective Views of Art (April 1983)," The Right to Perform, pp. 28-29]. Art, then, must not principally mesmerize, but it must enjoin the spectator to develop a critical consciousness about things familiar. This communist ethos terrifies the bourgeois establishment.

On 1 January 1989, Safdar and Janam performed one of their plays, Halla Bol (Raise Hell!), to offer solidarity to industrial workers on strike as well as to the CPM election campaign in the hinterland of Delhi. The play was about the government's role in the repression of the workers' organs for the economic struggle. During the show, Mukesh Sharma, supported by the Congress Party, as well as a crowd of Congress supporters arrived at the scene, armed with guns and bamboo poles. They began a confrontation which led to the murder of Safdar; a terrified bourgeoisie enacts its fear, once more, through terror. The shallowness of liberal democracy was made evident by the death of Safdar, which inaugurated a series of important massacres of the Indian left: the police murder of striking CPM industrial workers at a Cement Factory at Dalla on 2 June 1991, the murder of Shankar Guha Niyogi, leader of the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, on 28 September 1991 and more recently, the murder of Datta Samant, maverick hero of the 1982 Bombay Textile Strike and leader of Kamgarh Aghadi, on 17 January 1997. Safdar's death led to the formation of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) which attempts to further progressive values.

In 1995, Safdar's mother, Qamar Azad Hashmi, published a biography of her son and his milieu, Paanchwa Chiraag, whose English translation was released on Safdar's eight death anniversary. The book, The Fifth Flame: The Story of Safdar Hashmi, tells us about the enduring left-wing traditions of north India which enflamed the people as well as of the extent of suffering produced by state terrorism, notably during the days of violence in 1947-48 as the formation of India and Pakistan came amidst massive bloodshed. The book shows how a family fought to build the means to survive at the nether end of the imperialist system as well as to build the means to foster the popular will for justice. There is an eloquent discussion of the authors' own fight to work in the field of education and to struggle with the social pressures on working women. Further, one meets Safdar Hashmi as an ordinary young man with fairly mundane worries about family life and employment, but a man filled with the type of courage which is in all of us, but which we more than often fail to realize. We learn of his turn to the CPM, of his circle of friends (which includes Moloyashree, his comrade and wife, as well as the most well-regarded artists of our day) and of the way in which the street theatre performers survived.

The book ends with a prosaic call to remember Safdar with action: "Comrade, your name, your actions, your commitment will never be forgotten. Your courage brings strength to these arms today. Your love will envelop us, today and in the future. We will not give up hope. Though you no longer walk beside us, your laughter and your songs will rise again from our throats, and when we advance to new revolutionary goals, your example will be there before us, encouraging us to forge further ahead. Comrade, farewell!" Or, in the vernacular of Indian communism, Comrade Lal Salaam [Red Salute]!

by Vijay Prasad
Assistant Professor, International Studies
214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106.

[Reproduced from: Political Affairs, 1997]

This page is maintained by Vijay Prashad

Back to Culture Page