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Art and activism was not separate for Safdar Hashmi, says disciple Nandita Das

Actress-filmmaker Das credited her mentor Hashmi and his Jana Natya Manch for her social and political understanding and training and said she would not have been the person she is without them.

Nandita Das with screenwriter Annie Zaidi and Sudhanva Deshpande at a reading of Halla Bol in Mumbai. Photo: Roushni Sarkar

Roushni Sarkar

Actress-filmmaker Nandita Das today recalled her days of performing with the Jana Natya Manch or People's Theatre Forum in Delhi and shared how JANAM founder Safdar Hashmi played a crucial role in her formative years.

Das was speaking at an event titled Halla Bol, meaning Attack, at the St Andrew's Centre for Philosophy and Performing Arts in Mumbai.

The event saw discussions on the book titled Halla Bol by Sudhanva Deshpande, a student of Hashmi, active member of JANAM and film actor.

After the discussion, Nandita Das read out portions from Hashmi's play Halla Bol with Deshpande and Moloyashree Hashmi. As they finished, she said she had goosebumps.

“I clearly remember I was 17 or 18 when we used to perform this play 30 years ago," she said. "The most fascinating aspect was how working-class people, who had probably never watched a play [in a theatre], would be overwhelmed to see us telling their stories through this play. They would be amused that we were raising issues about their daily lives.”

Das recalled how people would generously donate money as they went around with a chudder (sheet) after the street play got over. “They would suddenly feel that we were talking about them and that’s what theatre does — by going into the consciousness, discussing intriguing ideas and raising questions about issues, it gives us the strength to voice our ideas,” she said and expressed gratitude for her experiences with JANAM.

Speaking of the late Safdar Hashmi, a man known for his theatre activism and plays and who was killed by a mob of Congress goons back in 1989, she said, “I have said in many places that Safdar was one of my earliest mentors. Though my parents [the painter-sculptor Jatin Das and the writer Varsha Das] were quite naturally secular and inclusive, I didn’t really know the 'isms'. I owe it to JANAM, Safdar, Mala and all the experiences I had with them for my social and political understanding and training. Had I not had those experiences, I don’t think I would be the person I am today or make certain choices in life.”

For Das, it is difficult to separate Hashmi's contribution from JANAM's legacy. She also shared memories of days spent rehearsing plays in an open space in the CITU (Centre for Indian Trade Unions) office in the national capital. “All of us were into different activities," she said. "There would be students like me, while Mala-di (Moloyashree) was a teacher. We would get together in the evening and discuss the play. It was not just about reading plays, but we would get educated in the particular subject, then we would rehearse, somebody would play the dholak and so on.”

The director of films like Firaaq (2009) and Manto (2018) specifically mentioned that Safdar Hashmi was a natural charmer. “He is one of the most charismatic persons I have met in my life," she said. "Everybody was in love with him.” Except, of course, the ruling class of the time.

She recalled how their street theatre would often get interrupted by the entry of a stray dog, or a child suddenly crying out, or an old man shouting across the street, and how Hashmi would deal with the situation with spontaneity. “Very few people are so deeply talented yet don’t wear it on their sleeves," she said, obviously still in awe of the man. "In times when we are posturing so much about being liberal, to have that authenticity was inspiring.”

According to Das, Hashmi never saw art and activism as separate. Referring to debates on art for art’s sake, or art’s role in determining social change, the award-winning actress said, “He was someone who believed in art as much as in activism. We had to perform well; the play had to be well-written. It was not enough to have the right intention. He was someone who taught me that content and form are equally important.”

Das, who said she is often questioned for not making more commercial films that can reach out to a wider audience, said she believes Hashmi’s life needs to be documented properly and acknowledged the importance of discussing his death in the beginning of the book Halla Bol as “in a strange way it was after his death that street theatre got a lot of respect and position in social discourse.

"We are talking about an incident that took place more than 30 years ago," she continued. "He has played such a pivotal role in our understanding of art, activism, and of engaging with whatever is happening around us. Though many people are not directly related to his activism while I have been lucky to have that contact, he still remains a part of that consciousness.”

Safdar Hashmi was attacked by thugs of the Indian National Congress while he and his troupe were performing Halla Bol during the Ghaziabad municipal election at Sahibabad's Jhandapur village (near Delhi) on 1 January 1989. He was badly beaten up and eventually died of his wounds.