There are still ways to produce art and social commentary without having to be routed through the media monopolised by Big Business. On 1 January 1999, theatre activist Safdar Hashmi will have been dead ten years. Time flies when the struggles are intense and what time there is, is spent less on grieving than on continuing the battle for which Safdar gave his life.
For a period of five days between 28 December 1998 and 1 January 1999, activists from across India and elsewhere will meet in Delhi in memory of Safdar Hashmi to defend the following six axioms which are at the core of the cultural politics of those such as Safdar:
- The participatory nature of popular democracy.
- The plurality of Indian traditions, all of which have legitimate and equal political claims, all of which originate from lived contemporary experiences, rather than from a mythical ancient mind.
- Pacifism, peaceful coexistence and the solidarity of the Third World in the face of the new challenges of globalisation orchestrated by imperialist powers.
- The legitimacy of dissent, indeed, its indispensability and value in a democratic system.
- Secularism as an integral part of the politics of the Indian State; tolerance of diverse faiths as the foundation of civil society.
- The nuclear weapon as an illeg-itimate instrument of coercion, which engenders a political doctrine that is deeply antithetical to every basic value of Indian democracy.
In 1948, Bertolt Brecht criticised the mode of drama which sought to transform human beings into “a cowed, credulous, hypnotised mass” who become not only incapable of social thought and action, but who also believed that life takes place on the proscenium stage and that their own existence is unimportant. Brecht said, “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?”
The situation has become worse in 1998, as the Entertainment Industry attempts to persuade the masses to be passive receptacles of whatever is fed them by the various media. Of course, not everyone is taken in by the ideas proffered by the big media monopolies, but they find it very difficult to find information to challenge the opinions that come from this plutocracy (comprised of Paramount, NewsCorp, Time Warner-Disney-Turner, MGM and Matsushita, which control almost all media production and distribution and which attempt to dump their products outside the advanced industrial states and provide singular ways to interpret the world’s news).
For a brief instant the Internet offered some hope for the freedom of information, but now that fabled territory is also under threat by the Information Giants whose websites have more visitors than any other and who have made it their business to tar independent sites as liable to perpetuate hoaxes (or be the refuge of the Conspiracy Theorist). One need only keep in mind the ongoing anti-Trust actions against Microsoft and of the merger of America On-Line with Netscape.
In terms of a sense of empowerment, the masses certainly seem massified, paralysed by the sentiment of incapacity and worthlessness. However, there are still any number of popular attempts to produce art and social commentary without having to be routed through the media monopolised by big business. Graffiti art, xerox magazines and pamphlets, street-corner rap and the street cassette industry, body art (with tattoos and piercings) among others, provide some indication of the wide variety of ways people try to exert their views despite the closed gates of the Entertainment Industry. Occasionally, these forms are also appropriated by the monopolies, and they quickly lose the edge and energy of their roots. The appropriate example here is the transformation of street corner rap into the kind of nihilistic rap of the big record labels.
Socialist theatre is one avenue to combat 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 summarised in the cultural criticism of T.S. Eliot). In 1918, Vsevolod Meyerhold, the constructivist, broke with the conventions of bourgeois theatre when he produced Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery Bouffe on the streets of Moscow to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution. The play’s prologue noted that conventional theatre isolates the action on a stage and disregards the audience. “We, too, will show you life that’s very real,” wrote Mayakovsky, “but life transformed by the theatre into a spectacle most extraordinary.”
Meyerhold (1874-1940) was a unique product of the revolution. An opponent of social realism, Meyerhold believed that actors must keep their performances to a minimum so that the play might draw in the audience. He also used pantomime, acrobatics and other popular forms of play into the theatre to highlight the visual dimensions of the theatre so that the audience might actively provide meanings for events on the stage, rather than be fed all the meanings by the troupe on stage. He designed an interactive stage to move away from the tight frame of the proscenium arch and he eliminated the concept of the curtain, which he felt divided the audience from the players. Meyerhold’s avant-garde stage design attempted to draw the audience into the play, a concept that he also developed on the streets.
Meyerhold’s theatre was not only available to the people, it also attempted to grasp and politicise everyday popular trials. Watching the play, the audience could be stimulated to consider familiar experiences which might, in turn, lead to discussion of things hitherto obscured. The theatre became the means towards the politicisation of everyday phenomena as well as a place to celebrate the extraordinary struggles of heroic folks.
These are the values of the tradi-tion of street theatre, which is less about drama on the street and more about the values of critical inquiry and struggle. Safdar Hashmi, India’s most famous exponent of this art form, 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.”
To call any kind of play performed in the open air “street theatre” is to denigrate its important heritage of social protest. “The very term ‘traditional street theatre’ is an anachronism,” noted Safdar. “If street theatre has any definite tradition in India, it is the anti-imperialist tradition of our people forged during the freedom movement. In other parts of the world it is the peoples’ struggle for a just social and economic order.”
Safdar saw the plays of Jan Natya Manch (Janam, or the People’s Theatre Troupe, with which he was closely associated) 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 disconnected 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 principal issue is the “definite and unresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people’s collectivist view of art”. One young Janam actor, Brijesh Sharma, noted candidly that “lives haven’t been changed by our plays, but I think we have been helpful in the struggle, in consolidating people behind fighting organisations, in making them think of a better system for the future. I believe that culture is a catalyst in the slow process of change in our values and attitudes.” Art must not principally mesmerise, but it must enjoin the spectator to develop a critical consciousness about things familiar.
The point of street theatre reminds us about the crucial issue of audience. Must the people’s culture be brought into the living rooms of a bored bourgeoisie for whom the folk themes are useful simply as a way to exoticise the masses rather than to render them human and filled with an emotion for social transformation? Or must it enthuse the working people to act against the structures that keep them fettered? If the latter, then street theatre cannot be inert productions for the voyeurism of the elite, but it must be part of dynamic social movements for transformation. “One must speak of a struggle for a new culture,” wrote Antonio Gramsci as he sat in Mussolini’s jail, “that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing.”
The struggle shapes artists with a social “poetic aura”, one that enables them to transform art itself. Street theatre develops popular culture not by denigrating those forms that might not be progressive, but by delving into the past in order to draw it into the future through a radical lens.
Safdar Hashmi was the embodiment of those values which shaped his craft—that of cultural activist and street theatre artiste. He wrote books for children and criticism of the Indian stage, but he will be remembered best for his work with Janam, formed in 1973 as an outgrowth of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Janam (which means “rebirth” and works as an acronym for the troupe’s name) came into its own with the performance of Machine to a trade union meeting of over 200,000 workers on 20 November 1978, and went from strength to strength 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’s membership of the Com-munist Party of India (Marxist) enabled him to forge art as part of the struggle in the party. There was no question of the subsumption of art to the will of politics, since art was simply part of the political life of the masses. Art came from the struggles of the people rather than from the parlours of a detached bourgeoisie. All of Janam’s plays reflect this.
On 1 January 1989, Safdar and Janam were performing 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 in their economic struggle. During the show, a crowd of Congress supporters arrived at the scene, armed with guns and bamboo poles. The confrontation that ensued led to the murder of Safdar—evidence of the shallowness of liberal democracy in which a terrified bourgeoisie enacts its fear through terror.
A tribute written eight years after his death by Safdar’s mother ends with a prosaic call to remember the lives of people like Safdar: "Comrade, your name, your actions, your commitment will never be forgotten. Your courage brings strength to my 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." But, as Safdar’s wife Moloyshree (a member of Janam) remarks, "Safdar’s death was a trem-endous blow, but it was also a source of inspiration. For Janam he is no cult figure—a word with negative implications. He himself had no time for such concepts. He saw himself as the people’s artiste whose creative energies were unleashed by the forces of society. He identified himself with those who fought for a better world. He is part of our strength and convictions for the future."
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)