Book Review: Halla Bol- The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi
ART THRIVES AND THE ARTIST LIVES ON
24th December, 2020
Written by Hunardeep Kaur
Artwork by Anna Abraham
The book then is not just a memoir of Hashmi’s life and death but also a manifesto of the ethics and aesthetics of street theatre as well as a commentary on the political and cultural milieu of the time.
Raised fists, voices singing in unison, people marching on, chants of Halla Bol piercing through the silent air- the streets often become the site of resistance against oppression, the ground for marching forward in search of freedom and a stage for the articulation of voices that need to be heard. Raised lathis, water cannons, barricades, frenzied mob- the same street is often transformed into a site of oppression, tyranny and violence.
How do we reconcile the two contradictory functions that the street is put to? More importantly, how do we as a society understand the two functions in relation to each other? And how do we, as citizens with the right to protest and resist, use the street as a common, collective space for demonstrations? How do we counter the oppressive and often institutionalised violence that spills on the streets when we as citizens choose to resist? What do we make of a country where the use of public places for sit-ins and demonstrations is looked at in terms of a menace and an inconvenience? How do we prevent the streets from being reduced to merely a means of conveyance and how do we reclaim them as sites of resistance, of articulation and assertion of rights?
Sudhanva Deshpande’s Halla Bol- The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi, by tracing the trajectory of street theatre in India through the life, time, and demise of Safdar Hashmi, encourages a re-imagination of streets as well as art in cultural and political terms. By blending together art and politics via the medium of street theatre, Jana Natya Manch, under the leadership of Safdar Hashmi and many others, established art and activism as strongly rooted in each other. The book then is not just a memoir of Hashmi’s life and death but also a manifesto of the ethics and aesthetics of street theatre as well as a commentary on the political and cultural milieu of the time.
The book begins by giving a first-hand account of the circumstances that led to the death of Safdar Hashmi. The attack by a mob on the actors performing the play Halla Bol in Jhandapur, the use of lathis and rods for attack, the escape of the actors has been described in a way that rends the reader’s heart. The author, as part of the performing group and a close friend of Safdar, presents a detailed picture of the socio-political circumstances of that time and captures Safdar’s persona, his life and death through brilliant strokes of pen.
As Deshpande writes, “Less than 48 hours after Safdar’s death, we performed the interrupted play at Jhandapur, at the same spot. It remains, to my mind, perhaps the single most important performance of a street play in Indian history”.
That Deshpande begins the book by narrating the circumstances of Hashmi’s death is significant as the reasons that led to his death were political. The street that had become the ground for creative activism was turned into a place of degenerative and oppressive violence by the attackers, who having a political affiliation with a Congress leader attacked in order to stifle the voice of reason and dissent. This was the time when the Centre of Indian Unions (CITU) had organised workers’ strikes demanding better wages and better work conditions. Janam (as the Jana Natya Manch was called), through its street plays, had also played a pivotal role in supporting the issue of the workers. Halla Bol, the play that was performed on 1st January, 1989 also dealt with the issue of fair wages for the workers. The reader has been given a meaningful insight into this political context in which to view Safdar’s life as well as the meaning and existence of street theatre.
The death of Hashmi and Ram Bahadur (a worker) in the attack was followed by outrage from all sections of the society. Safdar’s funeral procession, the sloganeering and the wailing have been powerfully described. That Safdar’s wife Mala insisted on performing the play at the same place where the attack had interrupted the play is a powerful gesture to say the least. As Deshpande writes, “Less than 48 hours after Safdar’s death, we performed the interrupted play at Jhandapur, at the same spot. It remains, to my mind, perhaps the single most important performance of a street play in Indian history”.
The sense of loss that pervades the first section of the book continues to be relevant and poignantly felt even today with the repeated attacks of the ruling dispensation on artists, activists and peacefully protesting students, farmers and workers. And yet, the powerful gesture of resistance embodied in the performance of the play at the same place of attack just a few days later also continues to resonate with the present times. The significance of Safdar’s life and death therefore is not just symbolic rather its significance lies in its continued relevance that transcends symbolism to represent the everyday tyranny and the everyday resistance, it is significant in all its ordinariness as well as in its extraordinariness that is rooted in the ordinary, everyday realities.
The Book is divided into three parts with the first part being about Safdar’s Death. The second part of the book traces Safdar’s life from the beginning- his family and upbringing, his school and college days, the initiation of activism in college and his contribution to the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). The founding of Janam in 1973 has been talked about. The second part also talks about the development of street theatre as well as about the plays that Janam performed, especially the famous plays titled Aurat and Machine.
The book can be read as a theatrical history of India and can also be read as a ‘communist’ manifesto of street theatre. But most importantly, the book needs to be read in terms of the hope it emits and the spirit of resistance that it wholeheartedly evokes.
Part three of the book can be seen as an attempt to make the reader understand the process of playwriting as well as performing. It elaborates upon the making of the various plays performed by Janam. The play adaptation of Premchand’s stories by Hashmi and Habib Tanvir has been eloquently described. The writing of the play Chakka Jam/ Halla Bol, about the workers’ strike and the need for better working conditions, has also been elaborated upon. The book also contains the translated version of the play Halla Bol. The play is interesting and powerful as it raises important issues about censorship, conditions of living of the workers as well as the issue of gender. The play and its issues are discussed in the context of the 1988 seven day workers’ strike called by CITU.
The book further explores the importance of theatre, especially street theatre, in inculcating the spirit of questioning as well as in performing the important task of educating the masses. As Deshpande writes in the book, “Theatre can help us see that transcendental future, not as a pipe dream or utopia, but as a concrete possibility, a realizable actuality.” It is in this regard that Hashmi’s legacy as well as the legacy of street theatre needs to be appreciated and understood. Safdar’s life then epitomises not just the spirit of resistance but also the indomitable art of standing for truth to power and the creative rage against tyranny. In words of Deshpande, “For, Safdar was that, an exile from the future, Spartacus of the theatre, a non-believer whose doubt in the permanence of injustice imbued him with unshakeable faith that a just world could be created, here and now”.
The book is at one level a tribute to the wonderful artist and human that Hashmi was. At another level the book refuses to iconize Safdar Hashmi rather humanises him by bringing out the ordinary in the extraordinary life. By including and describing different actors and activists in the book, Deshpande allows the reader to get a taste of the cultural milieu of the time. The book can be read as a theatrical history of India and can also be read as a ‘communist’ manifesto of street theatre. But most importantly, the book needs to be read in terms of the hope it emits and the spirit of resistance that it wholeheartedly evokes.
The book becomes all the more relevant today and so does Safdar’s life and death. When democratic principles are once again in peril and resistance is often violently thwarted, the book can provide us with hope that the streets out there can be transformed into creative sites of struggle and resistance and that art and activism alone can provide the way forward.
The evocative image on the last page of the book beautifully encapsulates what the book stands for, that “Safdar died but not in vain” and that people will continue to create, resist and articulate, carrying on the legacy that Safdar Hashmi left behind. What better way to end than by saying, ‘Hazar bhes bhar ke aayi maut tere dwar par/ Magar tujhe na chhal saki, chali gayi voh haar kar’ (‘Death came to your door in a hundred guises/ It could not deceive you, and retreated, defeated’), for Safdar outlives death and continues to inspire the masses by encouraging them to “Halla Bol”.