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Janam’s Commitments

On January 4, 1989, Jana Natya Manch (Janam) convened at Jhandapur village, on the outskirts of Delhi, to complete an interrupted play. Three days before, Janam began to perform their play Halla Bol in support of Ramanand Jha’s campaign for the Ghaziabad municipal elections. Jha was backed by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the federation of unions affiliated with the Communist Party of India [Marxist] (CPI-M). Jha’s adversary, Mukesh Sharma of the Congress (I) Party worried that the play would turn the tide in Jha’s favor. He, along with a group of armed men assaulted the actors. They fled to the CITU office. En route to the office, Sharma and his men shot a CITU activist and laborer, Ram Bahadur. At the CITU office, Janam’s leader, thirty-four year old Safdar Hashmi, held the weak door while the rest of the troupe fled. Sharma and his men eventually broke in and ferociously beat Safdar Hashmi. The next day, Safdar, as he was and is known, died in a Delhi hospital.

The country was stunned.

On January 3, over fifteen thousand people gathered to cremate Safdar. The funeral procession was nine miles long. Every artist, every intellectual, every worker – it was a sight to behold.

Janam returned to Jhandapur, to finish what they had begun. Dressed in their trademark black, solemn and angry, the players threw themselves into their art and their activism. Among them was Moloyashree Hashmi, Safdar’s wife. Reflecting on that moment, Moloyashree wrote several years later,

“We are often asked what made us perform in Jhandapur that day. Why did we go there a day after Safdar died? Was it difficult? And so on. At that time, it seemed the most natural thing for us to do; I don’t think it was carefully planned. Was it an emotional response? Perhaps it was – we had lost a dear friend, comrade, companion. But I don’t think it was merely an emotional response. We were doing what we had been doing for so many years: performing among the people. And as performers, we felt very strongly, as we do till date, that we should never leave a performance incomplete. The 4 January performance was also Janam’s salute to Safdar, the people’s artist. And there was also the political context: we had to assert that people’s art cannot be crushed by brute force.”

The clearing was packed, not just with those who had come from the city itself, but with the workers of the area who came out to honor their fallen comrades and their struggles. Janam’s brave action of that day seared its importance for many of us.



Habib Tanvir, the remarkable director and writer, remembers ten-year old Safdar Hashmi (this is one of the fine pieces in Deshpande’s collection). It was in 1964, and Safdar’s father Hanif Hashmi who worked in the Soviet Information Department, brought his son to work. Meeting Tanvir, Hanif Hashmi said of his son that not only was he a Communist but “his color is much deeper red” than the father, who was a member of the Communist Party of India. After which, Hanif Hashmi added, “he is trying to follow in your footsteps,” by which he meant that Safdar had a deep interest in the theatre. The two pillars of Safdar Hashmi’s life had already been erected: his politics and his art.

A decade later, in 1973, Safdar and his friends created Janam. He was not yet twenty. At first, Janam produced full-length proscenium productions, the first a translation of an Utpal Dutt play and then original work done by the many talented young playwrights who are to be found in Delhi. Janam did not come out of nothing. It grew on soil fertilized by an arts movement that incubated alongside the anti-imperialist movement. During the last legs of the freedom struggle, and into the new republic’s first few years, cultural production from the left, including activist theatre, was commonplace. The Progressive Writers’ Movement and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) are well known. In 1943, the IPTA’s bulletin proposed that this cultural movement must delve deep into the lively traditions of folk culture and link them with the energetic freedom movement,

“It is not a movement which is imposed from above but one which has its roots deep down in the cultural awakening of the masses of India; nor is it a movement which discards our rich cultural heritage, but one which seeks to revive the lost in that heritage by re-interpreting, adopting and integrating it with the most significant facts of our peoples’ lives and aspirations in the present epoch. It is a movement which seeks to make of our arts the expression and the organizer of our people’s struggles for freedom, economic justice and a democratic culture.”

Three decades later, IPTA had wilted (except in West Bengal), and its Delhi office had been usurped by a member for his import-export business. Safdar and other young people around IPTA seized the office and set to work to revive not only cultural production, but also this institution of the left. From this base, they took their plays to working-class neighborhoods, to colleges, and to parks where office workers gathered for lunch. They also went on the road, around Delhi, doing plays on behalf of trade unions and Communist Party candidates for local elections. Drawing from Nautanki (the folk theatre of the Hindustani speaking region) as much as from Brecht and Utpal Dutt, Janam experimented with songs, with the structure of a narrator and a counter-narrator, and with a democratic form of play making. The company would interact in the making of the play, as would the audience, whose input became important to the development of their repertoire. As Safdar told the theatre scholar Eugéne van Erven in an interview collected in Deshpande’s book, “That was our real initiation to street theatre.”

Janam’s signature, street theatre, came to life after the Emergency (1975-77), when Safdar returned to Delhi from a teaching stint in Kashmir. The spur came in 1978, when a Communist leader told the group around Janam about a workers’ struggle at a Harig-India factory (A U. S. tool and die maker, Harig moved to India in 1961 to become an industry leader in hydraulic machinery). The workers’ demands were elementary: they wanted a parking space for their bicycles and a canteen to make tea. Harig refused, so the workers went on strike. Their demands were modest, but they struck just as the post-Emergency Janata government decided to introduce a draconian Industrial Relations Bill to the parliament. The Left poised to fight back, with an all-India united trade union delegate conference on 19 November, and a 200,000 person rally the following day. Janam prepared a play. It is called Machine, and it is perhaps Janam’s most evocative and powerful product (Lalit Vachani’s documentary uses a stripped down section of the play as a device to introduce Janam and its current members).

As soon as the 7,000 delegates ended their session and began to file out of the cavernous Talkatora Stadium in Delhi, a group of actors dressed in black ran into the center of the arena. They formed a machine that huffed and puffed along till they got the attention of the delegates. The machine eventually stops. The narrator asks, “What has happened? The machine has stopped. This is a first-rate crisis! Why has it stopped? Can someone tell me?” An actor steps forward and says that he or she has stopped the machine because he is on strike. When he finishes with his complaint, the owner steps out of the machine, then a factory guard, who “persuade” the workers to go back to work. Eventually, the workers refuse and they shout slogans, including Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution). The guard fires on the workers, and kills them. The narrator then steps in, “No matter how many bullets you pump into us, the workers are not going to be defeated. They will rise again.” The workers rise, and gherao (surround) the owner. The play lasted for a quarter of an hour. As Safdar told van Erven, “After we sang the final song, the trade union delegates jumped over the rails. The leaders were like kids. They lifted us on their shoulders. We became heroes.”

Janam repeated the play the next day, at the rally. People tape-recorded the performance, went back to their towns and cities, formed groups and performed the play in their own languages. The trade union movement adopted Janam, and it became a fixture at factory gates and in working-class neighborhoods. Sixty-eight original street plays and ten original proscenium plays followed in over the next three decades. The content ranges from women’s rights to international solidarity, from the price of bus tickets to the police violence at a Honda factory, from the rise of Hindutva to the visit of American presidents to India. Not much happens in the Delhi region or in world affairs that misses Janam’s dialectic of inspirational satire.

The murder of Safdar Hashmi marked Janam, and its reception. After 1989, Janam was identified with the assassination of its founder. Lalit Vachani’s documentary is haunted by Safdar, as are most other such documents of Janam. Vachani, who made his name with a pair of sensitive films about the RSS (Boy in the Branch, 1993, and Men in the Tree, 2002), is led by Janam member Sudhanva Deshpande through the fateful day. They walk through Jhandapur, down the streets where the Janam and CITU members ran, to the CITU office and then finally to the street, where “in full public view,” Safdar was beaten to unconsciousness. The film shifts focus, a brief archival sequence of Safdar in a relaxed mode at a workshop, a title “Safdar,” and then an homage to Safdar and their relationship by Moloyashree. This part of the film is deeply moving, but at the same time it shows us how differently the filmmaker sees Safdar from the radical “friend, comrade, companion” (the phrase used by Moloyashree in an interview collected in Deshpande). For Vachani, and for much of the liberal arts establishment in India, Safdar’s death has become a ritual occasion – to allows for an engagement with what is without a doubt one of the most innovative and dynamic sections of the Indian art’s scene. Safdar alive was a man of politics, a communist who was moved to act and acted to move history. But Safdar-as-martyr allows the liberal establishment to “consume” Safdar as a dead hero, and to ritualize his practice.

Safdar deserved his memorial. When the Bengali writer Somen Chandra was killed in 1942, his comrades created the Anti-Fascist Writers’ and Artists’ Association. In Safdar’s honor, and much the same as for Chandra, his comrades created the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), which has since become the hub not only to remember Safdar’s own legacy, but also for assembling the materials for an alternative, secular Indian culture. SAHMAT, of that period, was not simply a response to the barbarism of capitalism; it was occasioned by the death of a beloved person, and it used the basis of a memorial to galvanize a cultural movement. Janam had a different orientation.

For Janam, it is not Safdar’s death that is as significant as it is his life, his commitments. His death is only the spur to continue the project to which they aspire collectively. Moloyashree’s intimate portrait of Safdar is one space; but another is January 4, 1989, when she as part of Janam return to complete their interrupted play. Writing in 2003 after Safdar’s killers were finally acquitted, Moloyashree wrote, “The grief and loss cannot be repaired. They remain. But what endures is Safdar’s dreams, our dreams, our convictions. Safdar lives with us. He lives among the people…For Janam,” Moloyashree wrote, Safdar “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.”

Safdar was a people’s artist. But what is also remarkable about him is that he was a horizontal leader. A man of many talents (playwright and dramaturge, children’s book author and illustrator), Safdar was also interested in people’s abilities and problems. In that sense, he was democratic. Nothing went by without his active intervention: if someone needed medical attention, he would summon all his doctor friends, and on. His investment in democracy and socialism was a personal one, in that every person had to be embraced to create humanity. His was not only a socialism of theory or a socialism of aspirations, but it was a socialism of interactions as well. To take from one of Safdar’s favorite theatre people, Brecht, Safdar’s stance, his Haltung, ennobled him in the eyes of his contemporaries. He led. Without Safdar, it is unlikely that Janam would have moved so quickly from ideas and ambitions to having made an institution and a modern tradition. But he did not lead from above. He led with his stance.

Safdar’s commitment drives Janam. That much is clear. It is not as clear in Vachani’s movie or in the morose way he is often talked about by the liberal intelligentsia; this is partly because Safdar’s commitment is to a Communism that is not as easy to digest as the good humored man who was killed by a foot-soldier of tyranny.

Safdar’s mother got it. In 1995, Qamar Azad Hashmi wrote a tribute to her son which ends with this, “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.”


Laal Jhanda Le Kar Comrade.

Safdar joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M] in 1976. Safdar’s father was a member of the CPI, but Safdar joined the CPI-M’s student organization in college. When Janam was formed in 1973, it worked with the trade union organizations of both the CPI-M and the CPI, although Janam avoided the CPI in the 1970s because of its close association with the increasingly authoritarian Congress (the CPI supported the Emergency, but has since been very critical of its positions in that period). The CPI-M became active in Delhi only in the early 1970s.

The CPI-M was formed in 1964, after more than a decade long struggle within the united Communist Party of India. The main fissure within the CPI was the assessment of the international role of the Indian bourgeoisie and of the Congress Party. Was there still sufficient anti-imperialist political dynamism within the national bourgeoisie and the Congress or were they now roadblocks to the further development of the Indian people’s struggles? The election of 1952 returned the Congress to power with a weaker mandate than it expected (a fifth of the electorate voted for avowedly left-wing parties, with the CPI gaining only 3.3% of the vote and the Socialist Party gained almost 11% of the vote — the Congress was by far the largest winner with 45% of the national vote). The showing of the left indicated to sections of the CPI that the agrarian and other crises that the Congress seemed unable to address had made an impact on the election. The left within the CPI was strengthened by this situation. The Congress also identified the problem, and at the Avadhi meeting in 1956 it moved a set of socialistic policies. This furthered the divide within the CPI, as the more right-leaning section now felt that the Congress had demonstrated its socialist character. A compromise held the party together till 1964.

During this decade, an important development occurred in the international Communist world that has a bearing on the CPI-M’s formation and on Janam. Nikita Khrushchev, who was now the head of the Soviet Communist Party, formed a personal relation with Jawaharlal Nehru, and he pushed the CPI to have good relations with Nehru’s Congress. In the midst of this initiative, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev revealed details of Stalin’s authoritarianism. Bitter debates enveloped the CPI for the next few years, and it sharpened when Nehru’s Congress unconstitutionally dismissed the CPI government in Kerala (1959) and when the CPI central leadership backed the Congress-led war against China (1962). When the CPI-M was formed in 1964, it took with it the bulk of the cadre and with a substantial section of the leadership (including members of the central committee who had held a central or moderating position over the past decade, such as Jyoti Basu). It was because of Khrushchev’s role in trying to move the CPI to the Congress that the CPI-M adopted Stalin in its iconography (much the same occurred in China at this time: Mao was a strong critic of Stalin, but as a consequence of the Sino-Soviet dispute and after the 1956 Congress, the Chinese adopted images of Stalin as a way to denounce Khrushchevian revisionism and Soviet interference). The “Stalin” of iconography does not imply that the CPI-M or the Chinese party championed Stalin’s entire history (although “Stalin” is also seen as the symbol of the Russian people’s resilient sacrifices during World War 2). Indeed, in its documents and in the writings of its leaders, the CPI-M has quite consistently abjured the “personality cult” around Stalin and been very critical of the style of administration during the Stalin years (for example, B. T. Ranadive’s article on the USSR in the 1987 issue of The Marxist). The CPI/CPI-M split happened because of domestic factors, largely, although developments in the USSR certainly refracted upon the Indian scene. “Stalin” is a symbol of those splits, rather than a glorification of his personality.

Stalin mesmerizes Lalit Vachani’s camera. Stalin’s portrait in Moloyashree”s house is not far from pictures of Charlie Chapin and Albert Einstein, of Haneef Hashmi and Tagore, as well as a poster of Safdar. But the camera lingers on Stalin. Then, in the home of another Janam member, Nakul, the camera is stopped by an image of Stalin on a calendar. The problem is Stalin himself (and a lack of analysis of how “Stalin” becomes iconic as part of the CPI/CPI-M split), but it is more the communism of Janam. Vachani follows Janam to Pauri Garhwal, where the group does an agit-prop election play on behalf of the CPI-M candidate Vijai Rawat. When Rawat loses, Vachani interviews Sudhanva Deshpande at his office, and asks him if it is worth it. Deshpande answers, “In a sense, of course, you’ve asked me about all our work,” and then goes on to suggest that Janam performs to create a “space for dissent, a space for an alternative viewpoint.” He is right, that Janam opens up space for all kinds of alternative views, of dissenting forms. But it is not simply dissent or an alternative that is being offered in abstraction. What is offered is communism, which is far more specific. Brijesh, another Janam member comes to the heart of why he performs with Janam, “There’s so much poverty that surrounds us. You look at the poverty and feel that something is wrong with the system. Even if you say socialism is a utopia, I think it is a better system in any case.” Janam acts, Brijesh says, to “mobilize public discontent to join our fighting organizations.” This is a significant point, in that there is little illusion that Janam’s work itself changes the world. Janam, as artists and as culture-shaper, is able to allude to reality, or in Louis Althusser’s words, to draw attention to certain problems, even to provide understanding of them. But, art “cannot define the means which will make it possible to remedy these effects.” For that one needs the “fighting organizations” that are driven by a different kind of knowledge, a science of society that has a theory of the mechanisms that produce the social effects that are depicted by art. For that, one needs an organization with a “science.” For Janam, it is the CPI-M/CITU and Marxism.

Vachani’s film is structured so as to introduce us to the individual members of Janam. There is a great deal of warmth in his strategy, so that we come to know Sarita, Nakul, Kalia, Uttam, Sudhanva, Moloyashree and others as complex human beings who come from disparate classes and are yet joined by activist theatre (they are not all on the Left, as Sudhavana tells Vachani, for “no precondition is being laid down” when they join Janam). Vachani’s earlier films introduced us to Kali and Sandeep, two people whose situation leads them to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and to the Hindutva Right (this is the political formation of the Right that emerges with full force in the 1980s with a hierarchical and culturally cruel moral project with no discord with the neo-liberal state). The Janam actors often have similar stories to tell, but their political orientation takes them elsewhere, to a political space that is not about regimentation (the shakha of the RSS) but about cultural development (the rehearsal space of Janam). But there is a curious undertone in Vachani’s film, a wishing almost that we could have these same people do this same kind of theatre, but without the politics, without the red flag.

Moloyashree, perhaps responding to this sentiment, tells Vachani, “I want to join the struggle, but I don’t want to have the red flag. It’s your choice. Not mine. My choice is to have the red flag. Janam’s choice is to have the red flag. The red flag is the worker’s struggle. The flag which is soaked with the blood of the workers.” Sitting at home, with Charlie Chaplin behind her, Moloyashree underscores her point, “The revolution to me is not a dream. It’s reality. It’s yakeen. It’s conviction.”

It is this conviction that is not ancillary to the work of groups like Janam, but is indeed their life-blood. Without this conviction, they would not have been able to do 8,500 performances in 140 cities and towns over the course of their history. Post-modernist theory rigorously denounces teleological thinking – that human beings strive for autonomy and freedom, and that this striving in a collective fashion leads to a just future. Instead, the post-modernists tell us, history is far from logical, and that the linearity of teleology is more misleading than it is helpful. But from a political standpoint, teleology is indispensable. Without something to hope for, even if it is provisional, there is little incentive to act in a way that is not simply selfish. If there is no good to come in the world, then why not simply take care of oneself. The conviction of a better world is what drives groups like Janam; why would its members sacrifice their evenings, drive across Delhi’s vast expanse to do two or three plays a night? For the play itself, for the audience’s reaction, but also for the social, political and cultural changes that such work might produce.


Struggle for a New Culture

Sudhanva Deshpande’s edited volume is published by Janam. This is not unusual. Janam, from its inception, involved itself in theoretical work about its own practice and that of the theatrical and cultural world around it. Safdar wrote a column for the Economic Times in the 1980s, where he produced criticism about Delhi theatre, of cinema and of the trends in cultural activism in general (shortly after his death, Moloyashree collected these columns for SAHMAT into The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi). Janam publishes a regular journal Nukkad Janam Samvaad and it holds periodical seminars and talks that take theatre and theatrical theory seriously. In 2000, Janam devoted its journal to a compendium of important Marxist thinkers on culture, such as Plekhanov, Gorky, Lu Xun, Gramsci, Mayakovsky, Piscator, Utpal Dutt, Cabral, and of course Bertolt Brecht. Brecht is the patron saint of radical theatre in India. But for Janam it is not Brecht’s plays or even Brecht’s concepts themselves which are of central interest; what is Brechtian about Janam is the scrupulous attention paid to public theoretical self-assessment of Janam’s cultural practice and cultural impact. The writing about what they do is as important for a Marxist theatre troupe as their plays.

Vachani’s documentary sees Janam’s politics as principally in the issues taken up by the plays and by the formal affiliation of the group with the CPI-M (and the trade unions). But Janam’s politics are also to be found in the form that the collective takes, in how it functions, how it writes its plays, and how it interacts with its audience (one of the exceptions in the scholarship is the new Ph. D. by Arjun Ghosh entitled “Idiom for Change”). These elements are essential if Janam is to actively create a democratic cultural space out of the bourgeois one that envelops us. And it is this democratic theatre that is far and above Janam’s raison d’etre. Only superficially are Communist groups like Janam “street theatre artists.” What is far more important to them is not their main theatrical location (the street as opposed to the theatre) but their notion of art. As Safdar wrote in one of his insightful pieces on the theatre, the “definitive and unresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people’s collectivist view of art” is far more important than anything else. The point is to both draw people into the struggle, to allude the real, but also to challenge the bourgeois idea that art is an escape from reality. The bourgeois theatrical space, Brecht wrote in 1948 (in a piece republished by Nukkad Janam Samvaad in 1996 and 1997), transforms human beings into “a cowed, credulous, hypnotized mass….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 alienation of the consumer-spectator is to be undone by a new kind of ethos, one that promotes collective work, both among the artists themselves and that draws in the audience to both shape and be shaped by the play.

The collective ethos is evident in the way Janam interacts. Vachani’s film has some wonderful scenes of the troupe on the road or in hiatus as rain clouds threaten their performance, or again, as they rehearse in one of those wonderful colonial central Delhi homes given over by a Communist parliamentarian for useful work such as this. The easy camaraderie, the gentle way in which people interact is deceptive; when it comes to the rehearsal the question of quality is not to be squandered. Good politics does not make good art. In his edited collection, Sudhanva Deshpande includes one of his many essays on the mechanics of playmaking (this one originally published in the Kolkata-based Seagull Theatre Quarterly, September 1996). He walks us through the collective process by which Janam crafts one of its many plays: a “fighting organization” invites them to perform at a particular function or else an event of importance takes place; Janam members gather, discuss the issue, perhaps even call in an expert to give them a seminar on the matter; they think of characters and of short skits that might or might not work; they try them out; it is then given over to one or another of the members to knit together these scenes and characters, as well as draw from their studies of the matter, to write a play; they workshop the play, find what works, and what doesn’t; friends who are song-writers give them a few songs on request, which they incorporate into the play; when they have a working play, they try it out on other friends, whose input is crucial; the play is performed, and at each performance, the members try to cull input so as to continue to shape the play. Sudhanva describes the way Janam created a play to depict the horrors of work in the National Export Promotion Zone in NOIDA, Delhi. I don’t want to repeat his story; it is well-worth the price of the book.

The collective ethos is not only within Janam, but also in its close association with the trade unions, the student organizations, the neighborhood associations and on. They “commission” the plays, and sometimes their members offer expert advice on the issue. Of course, this input is not capable itself of making the art; just as the plays only allude to their reality, so too does their theory about their struggles only hints at its theatrical possibility. And finally, Janam is also actively part of the community of actors and of spectators: the public space created by its journals and books, by its seminars and performances allows it to risk its ideas and to receive constructive criticism. The unions and the women’s organization are not theatre critics whose perch is the Sublime; they see the plays as their plays as much as Janam’s, and so they have a vested interest to make them better (or more effective, which is not always the same thing, since effectiveness for a fighting organization might mean more didactic).

One of the more astounding passages in Vachani’s movie is Janam’s performance of Yeh Dil Maange More, Guruji. A reaction to the criminal massacre of thousands of people in Gujarat (2002), the play is spectacular. It opens with the cast reading some of the most heartfelt and earnest Hindi poems written shortly after the enormity of the anti-Muslim pogrom was known. Then, they walk out from the center of their circle bearing placards upon which are mounted photographs of the carnage. This is all heavy stuff. But it is the bookend for a remarkably farcical show about the twin forces of neo-liberal capital and theocracy made manifest by stock characters and a humorous scenario. Guru Golgangol and his two chelas (disciples) Buddhibali and Baahubali are on a quest to create the Hindu Rashtra, and we follow their ridiculous adventures, which is a summary of India’s recent history. The farce and the tragedy coexist, and heighten each other, so that it becomes harder to see the ridiculous in the spoof and the overwhelming solemnity of the poetry and images are broken when we realize that the perpetrators of these crimes are ridiculous (in his essay in Seagull Theatre Quarterly in late 2002, Sudhvana Deshpande recounts what worked and didn’t work and how an industrial worker in Faridabad pushed Janam to make the play more political).

To compare Janam’s approach to communal fascism with that of the films of Anand Patwardhan is instructive (Patwardhan’s ‘considerable work has been given a very sympathetic review by Critical Asian Studies, with a multi-part study by Mariam Sharma, Bhrigupati Singh and Ashok Bhargava in 2002 and Linda Hess in 2003 – these brief notes should not in any way take away from the judgment in these other, fuller statements). Patwardhan’s three films that track communal ideology and violence (Ram Ke Naam, 1992; Father, Son and Holy War, 1995; War and Peace, 2002) are richly documented and lushly filmed. Vachani’s two small canvas films on the RSS are a good complement to Patwardhan’s large canvas, almost sprawling epics. But a viewer who takes in Patwardhan’s films is left with a sense of gloomy futility. The documentaries pound on and on with image and fact about the desolation that is Hindutva. This, to my mind, is a consequence of two problems: first, that an independent leftist, such as Patwardhan, makes films as politics, and therefore mixes the very different forms of art and of “science,” of the representing of problems and the resolution of them. When the art form is to carry the enormous burden of political theory and of praxis, it is diminished. There is room here to question the lack of gap between art and politics, not to champion art for art’s sake, but to maintain the distance between what art can do and what “science” can do. One gets this sense when Vachani turns to the departing audience after Janam’s agit-prop election play and asks them if this play will change their vote (as if the show itself is sufficient). The second problem is in the gloomy response of the audience who now sees what they are up against, but has not the means to take these allusions to reality and find the mechanisms to thwart Hindutva. Without fighting organizations of heft by one’s side, the aesthetics of the independent leftist is consequentially morose. Janam is saved from the latter problem, because it is linked to trade unions and the Communist movement (so are Patwardhan’s movies on the fisher workers, on slum dwellers battles and on the Canadian Indian farm workers fight to create a union). The first problem is often circumvented, because the plays are only one part of the ensemble of ideas presented by Janam and its movement to the people. Janam can afford to be satirical, even humorous when it depicts the Hindutva Right; it can even make us laugh in the wake of Gujarat. This humor, the spoof, draws us in, and even if it does not explain every element of Hindutva, the laughter empowers the audience to feel that he or she can vanquish theocracy and neo-liberal globalization. And when they feel this, the fighting organizations are nearby. That’s the consequence of Janam’s commitments.

FROM:  Naked Punch 09. 


 Vijay Prashad was reviewing: 

Sudhanva Deshpande, Ed., Theatre of the Streets. The Jana Natya Manch Experience (New Delhi: JANAM, 2007).

Lalit Vachani, Dr., Natak Jari Hai (the Show Must Go On), (2005), Hindi/Urdu, with English subtitles. 84 minutes.


A revolutionary theatre without its most living element, the revolutionary public, is a contradiction which has no meaning.

Erwin Piscator, 1929.



Arjun Ghosh, “Theatre for the Ballot: Campaigning with Street Theatre in India,” The Drama Review, vol. 49, no. 4, Winter 2005, pp. 171- 182.

Eugene van Erven, “Plays, Applause and Bullets: Safdar Hashmi’s Street Theatre,” TDR, vol. 33, no. 4, Winter 1989, pp. 32-47.

Louis Althusser, “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre (April 1966),” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Rustom Bharucha, In the Name of the Secular: Contemporary Cultural Activism in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sudhi Pradhan, Marxist Cultural Movement in India: Chronicles and Documents, Calcutta: Santi Pradhan, 3 volumes, 1979-1985.

Utpal Dutt, Towards a Revolutionary Theatre, Calcutta: M. C. Sarkar, 1982.

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