Sahapedia: We have Moloyashree Hashmi with us talking on street theatre, Safdar Hashmi and Jana Natya Manch. Moloyashree di, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us.
Moloyashree Hashmi – My pleasure
Q: Let us begin by talking about your association with Jana Natya Manch, your coming to street theatre and your association with Safdar Hashmi and thereon.
MH – Well, you see actually before Jana Natya Manch was formally formed, that was in the year 1971-72 thereabouts, there were a bunch of theatre… I would say art enthusiasts. They were largely young people, often many of them students and this was actually an initiative that the left wing student’s organization, SFI (Students’ Federation of India), had done to initiate the revival of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association). And I think that the true history of Janam begins there even if it is pre-history, that people wanting to do something and that was the time when a lot of young people and not so young people, creative people were responding to the world around them. And they were young, not just people who were actor aspirants but also people who wrote plays, poets, writers.
So those were the people who were coming together and the revival of the IPTA or rather I won’t say revival, actually it was just lying defunct and bunch of these young students, they just got in touch with the people who were there earlier in the Delhi chapter of the IPTA and kind of revived it. And it suddenly became a place where lots of young people went and created something. So in those days we were also doing things like, for example, singing for Vietnam in the marketplaces in Delhi. So we would go around singing songs, occasionally collecting money but certainly a small leaflet or something.
So what was interesting was, that sort of a thing had never happened in Delhi before where they found that a bunch of young people who were singing and were singing not about….I mean they were singing about the oppression of another country and that country’s people and our people were same, I mean this famous thing, Aamar naam, tomar naam Vietnam Vietnam that is the spirit that we could get.
And that was very interesting because somewhere I think it also formed the, what should I say, I mean politicization is a very strong word but certainly an orientation, a social orientation of all the young people who were there at that time, I think that did give us that sort of an orientation. We also made some plays, a lot of them, I mean most of them actually were old IPTA plays translated into Hindi. Old IPTA Bangla plays translated into Hindi.
Jana Natya Manch is actually People’s theatre forum which is actually another way of saying Indian People’s Theatre Association. We think we are the torch bearers of certainly one of the streams of IPTA and we take that very seriously, we are very proud of that fact. So in fact now after many many many years the kind of logo that we use which Orijit Sen, the designer, designed for us is taken from ‘People’s theatre stars the people.’ And of course he has designed it differently. So that is how we feel, that is the stream that we belong to.
Jana Natya Manch, I was there even before. When Jana Natya Manch was formed, those some years I wasn’t in Delhi, I was doing other sorts of things but I knew exactly what was happening. So after the Emergency when new plays were being made, at that time I was part of Jana Natya Manch not necessarily acting full time but helping backstage. My actual very active involvement with Janam happened really from 1977 when we were actually in the process of making plays and then in 1978 doing street plays and since then I have been there in all productions in some capacity or the other, often acting but sometimes doing other things also. So that has been my association and I find it now hard to answer the question why am I here because I am just here. It is just there. It is very hard to say why I am here. I think it would sound very patronizing if I say no, it is for very deep… of course it is for political reasons also but it is not something that I constantly feel that I have to be there. I am there because well, I am there, it is part of my life now. As simple as that. So I can’t think otherwise.
Q: With regard to Janam and it links with street theatre, would you kindly elucidate as to what street theatre encompasses specifically in India.
MH: Well, I guess the street theatre movement or the whole thing began with the IPTA even though Panu Pal is reputed to have written the first play but even before that, that was 1952, Chargesheet, but even before that in the mid 40s after the IPTA had been formed, in Bombay for instance, people like Zohra Aapa … Zohra Aapa mentioned it was like an impromptu thing, not hugely rehearsed but planned. So it was not entirely go there and suddenly do something. Certain amount of rehearsals, short things that they were doing and I remember she mentioned the dowry thing (play) also. That was one thing. In the same way in Kerala it has been happening, in Andhra Pradesh it has been there, Tamil Nadu, many parts of MP, Punjab. So it is not as if…in some form or the other it is very hard to give a…I mean street theatre actually is very interesting in many ways when I look at it now. It is not simply one, I mean we call it one genre but there are many different aspects to it and I think different people do that particular genre very very differently like in proscenium theatre. So while there was that background in the 40s and in Bengal it started in the 50s with Utpal Dutta and everybody else but in North India it wasn’t really particularly popular. It was only in ‘78 that the whole thing happened.
In Jana Natya Manch the way it happened was we used to do theatre in places where people lived and worked. So it was theatre to the people. It wasn’t just performing... So these were big plays. They were either songs or things like that or they were big plays or they were what was called one-act plays but they weren’t really one act but they were shorter plays. They would be an hour long maybe or maybe even forty minutes. Sometimes we did short plays or Brecht’s short plays, Exception and the Rule, Kanoon ke aka which was translated by Saeed bhai. That particular version was done by us, I know that. This was in the IPTA days and subsequently in the Janam days also but those were shorter plays. Jana Natya Manch when it was formally formed, then it made big plays like musicals. So there was Bharat bhagya vidhata, Bakri which were like 2 ½ hour long actually musicals where music was a very important element. And Kavita Nagpal directed it and Vinod ji was a wonderful singer and these bunch of youngsters were doing things. So all that was there.
But after the Emergency the kind of attack and repression that had come on the host organizations, people who basically called us to various places, they were not in a position to in any way think of art and culture at that time even though they admired the work that we did because either they were fighting cases to free the leaders, to free the people or there were some of them still in jail. Some organizations had been completely in shambles. They needed to regroup and all. And that is when, I mean we did two plays, two big plays after the Emergency, both the plays were actually not related to the Emergency, one of them was, one was Jab firangi laut aaye, that was not directly about the Emergency but it was a new kind of colonialism that was being talked about. And the other one was Ebar rajar pala (Ab raja ki bari hai) which was as it happened, a comment on Emergency though Utpal Dutt had written it before that. Now those shows, I mean if they were a dozen I would be lying, I think they were not even eight from what I remember, maybe nine, we did two or three shows in hall, in auditorium. One was Triveni, we did three shows of Ab raja ki bari hai which was really good. Space was full and all but there were not very many shows which were possible after that. As a result we did not know what to do and once you don’t have a play then a lot of people also drift away.
So one of these smaller meetings that was there, I remember Safdar said that if we can’t take big theatre to the people, we take smaller theatre to the people and that is how the journey of small theatre, you know what it was. We looked at many plays and I remember when we read them, we thought how we can do this? How can we do this? We are just seven or eight of us. So we need to do something else. And that is when one of us, he had two comrades, talked about a particular incident that had happened in 1976, an attack on a factory called Addick which is very close to Delhi and how on the issue of a place to park the bicycles and a place to eat their food, actually make tea, there was protracted struggle ending in a strike and then firing, people dying, all over these two complete non-issues at one sense that you just do it normally. Now that was what was shocking. So the play that came about on that which was written by Rakesh Sharma there and Safdar and of course on the floor it underwent some changes, it was really a very tight play of six people doing it. And it is a play when I look at it later on, it is really a play on capitalism. So there is no storyline in that way and very beautiful poetic verse and all and many people have written about it. And the second show of that play, the first show was at a Progressive Writer’s Forum which was of course very well received, but the second show which was in front of about 7000 odd trade union leaders across the board, across the country at the Indoor Talkatora Stadium, that was the show which made us realize that Oh! We are doing something which we are not even aware of, the importance of which suddenly hit us. We weren’t sure what it was but that this is something significant. And the audiences also realized that okay, this is what is, I mean this is nothing but art and it is nothing but politics, so it’s both. That is what it is. And it was just amazing.
So while it is true that in Delhi a few months before that M.K.Raina had also been doing, I think he was doing Juloos Badal da’s, and I think he did another play after that, but that he was doing Badal Sircar plays, that is what he was doing. And of course that he performed again in many areas. So what came first is unimportant, but 1978 suddenly becomes an important phase, year it becomes. And after that we realized that we better go hammer and tongs at it and which is why we had plays coming like this one after the other. And in the next six months we had virtually six plays and all of them very powerful, one of the most powerful being Aurat which we continued to perform for many many many years until recently, and even today I know many groups perform it. So it is something that, that is how the whole thing started.
One of the things that we realized very early on and I am saying this now when it sounds a little pedantic, we never talked about it quite like that but this was a feeling that all of us, not just Safdar, all of us in Janam felt that it was important to try out something new, it was important to be good at what you were doing. So if you sang, you better sing in tune and if you were acting, it has to be of a certain quality. The fact that we are going and performing virtually where people actually live, I mean our bigger plays atleast were on a slightly elevated stage, we are right there, we have to be so powerful that that is what is going to bring the audience and watch the play and comment upon it and that it has to be a complete experience of the mind as well as of the thought of an artistic experience and of a thinking experience and everything. So all these are words that I am saying now but we did feel strongly about it.
One of the things that we couldn’t do in the earlier years though we often talked about it was how to equip ourselves continuously. It is all very well to do the odd bit of breathing exercises from here and there. We were able to do that with each other but that clearly wasn’t enough because we did need that kind of a….one of the earliest workshops that we did was with somebody who came and worked with us I think a few years later, three or four years later, 1982 I think, she was a dancer, modern dancer from some other, not just another group, she had learnt dancing I think from somewhere else in the west, I am not sure where. And we were working on this play which was later called Police charitram, it was actually about custodial rape because this was the time when the Mathura case that had happened nearly 7-8 years or 10 years before that but a lot of women’s organisations had moved together and there was this news forum that was there and we were part of it, also performing. And in that there were 2-3 other people who joined in who were not really from Janam who came in only for that production which was great. So she was one of them. Promila, her name. And she did a kind of a creative movement workshop with us which was actually very good because we had never done something quite like that. And then on and off we would keep doing things but really on and off. It was really much late that we worked on it more regularly. And then again it sort of declined because it is all to do with time frankly at the end of the day, not simply intention but also time.
Q: Now that you have talked about Machine (without naming the play), after Machine the phenomenal work happens to be Aurat from what I understand.
MH: Actually DTC ki Dhandhli was not, it was quite an experience because I remember Friday we were going to rehearsals, Safdar and I, and by mistake I gave that man extra money, the conductor, the bus conductor, and he said, don’t worry, from Monday you will have to give me this much, something like that, some conversation over that. So I thought he was just making conversation with you. So we laughed over it and set out. And sure enough on Sunday morning announcement came. And that is because all offices was closed and this was going to impact essentially a lot of…at that time the people who travelled in buses, huge numbers were from the government offices and related offices. Of course private companies also did but they were really one. So when it came up there was nothing. So that is when we realized we better have a play ready. And so on Sunday afternoon Safdar was working from his office and he called everybody, whoever had phones, and we met and something was written and it was not quite a big, long drawn out performance, short, not even fifteen minutes but it captured the spirit. So it began with somebody standing with a pole and the logo of the DTC, with two arrows going, standing there and just looking at the watch. That was enough. Everybody who was in the audience, 100% related with us. They knew exactly what we were doing, doesn’t matter we were actors, they were there with us. So we did performances of that play which was called DTC ki dhandhli. Then one week I think we did forty odd shows and there was some impossible number because what we did was the first show we did at Shivaji Stadium I remember and there were couple of photographs of that and then we moved from Connaught Place bus stop to bus stop. And there were some people who moved with us. There was one policeman who moved with us, not in all of the shows but a few shows and initially we thought he was just following us, doing his duty. Later we realized, he said no, I also travel by bus, so does my daughter, she goes to college and so I have to understand what this is all about. Because at the end of it, the call that we were giving was that board the bus and pay the old price because that was the call that had by then, many people kind of spontaneously, not even formal unions but groups of people may have done that and in fact a lot of people in the Krishi Bhavan area since that is where hundreds of people came out to buses in the morning, all the government offices were there. Those days most people travelled by buses. And nobody paid the…I mean very often people did not even pay the old price but most people paid the old rate. So the conductors did not think it was worth fighting because there was no point in fighting so many people. So there was this usual, police also entered the Krishi Bhavan offices I remember. We weren’t there actually at that point of time but we were performing all around and so I think that was one of those, it was a very wonderful and it was an experience one of its kind really.
Q: Now coming from as I asked you that with Janam we immediately relate to street theatre. The question is that does street theatre really cater to a particular class of people because it is one, out on the street or many classes of people… not a particular class who can buy tickets and go and watch it in a closed auditorium but people who are moving around and people who could pause and look at the theatre. So do you think that it serves to this particular class, one, and second, after practicing this form of theatre for so many years, how do you think people today receive this form.
MH – I think that any good art, any art worth its salt does not cater to any one group of people. That is one thing I personally feel very strongly about. I think any good art does outlive its time. You might think it is not particularly of relevance to me now but as a piece of work it is something that I will look at with significance. And that is what I think. And I think theatre in particular cuts across, I mean anybody who views it, anybody, whether you pay a ticket or not, I take a big fancy 500 ticket play and do it free in an auditorium, a different group of people become, those who can’t afford to buy that, it will still be enjoyed.
I have seen Habib Tanvir’s play being enjoyed by people in the villages where of course it was hugely enjoyed also and small towns, in festivals or in places where people paid a 1000 rupees a seat and where people didn’t pay anything but all rungs of people. So I think good theatre and good art is something that somewhere strikes a chord with anybody who views it, hears it, reads it, listens to it, whatever. And so I think that is something that is what drove us. Okay, street theatre, the purpose of course is that it takes theatre to the people because yes, most people especially in a place in Delhi and in any big city do not have the wherewithal to go to a hall, to buy a ticket and even if the tickets are cheap because it is not simply the price of tickets but it is the accessibility, the distance. Even today, I mean today in 21st century in Delhi, somebody who lives in Dwarka maybe earning a lakh a year if they are a senior enough Delhi university head of department kind of person, would that person go which is on the metro route to Mandi House and watch. No. May not. So what I am trying to say is that there are accessibilities of various kinds. There are accessibilities that even if you want to you can’t go. There are accessibilities that you don’t want to go. Therefore you have to acquaint yourself with it, develop something. There are accessibilities because okay, once upon a time it used to be something important but today in this hustle-bustle, it isn’t. So there are many things.
Our theatre or theatre like this, street theatre, I think not only went to places where people lived and worked and therefore their accessibility question was never an issue but also that it talked about issues which were very deeply connected with the lives of ordinary people. I am hesitating to use the word class because that is a technical economic thing, concept but I can say working people that is what I would say, ordinary people, people who had to struggle on a job and live and do anything. So middle classes also enjoy it, lower middle classes also enjoy our plays, working classes. Yes.
In this I would like to share an experience. We were doing a play called Samarth Ko Nahi Dosh Gusain which is a play actually on price rise. And it is also linked to the fact that the shop keeper who is the lala, who is selling grain, he is saying that I don’t have grain and so there is that metaphor of the grain being hidden and things like that. There is a wonderful song of the Bora which is a sack of grain. So we are talking about the grain being there and that it should be sold at a decent enough price and the minister is playing false and the big hoarders are of course, that sort of thing. So now we were doing this play, I think at DYFI, the Democratic Youth Federation of India employed us, in a place which was like a…it was amongst the most poorest shanty towns that I have ever seen which used to be on the banks of the river Yamuna and to say that they were beggars would be wrong because many of them were working…and many of them had no jobs, so they could actually go to shops and where the people clean the rice and thing, what they threw away because it was not clean enough, they would pick that up, clean it and eat it. The play, it is a very interesting play and the storyline and the acting and the songs, it is very interesting to watch, so all thought they were watching. But there was this unusual quietness which somewhere we noticed. There was appreciation but there was quietness. And there was clapping and everybody came, we realized that this doesn’t affect them. We are talking of rice. They don’t even the money to buy it. So you know what I was saying is was it relevant to them at their level? I am not sure. So that also sometimes does happen. And suddenly it makes you feel that okay, we are thinking of people who can still afford to buy even if it is at 50 paisa a kilo but even that is not there. This was way back in the early 80s.
So that sometimes is a shock, you realize it, where are you going, are you addressing everything. But then not every play can address everything. But certainly we, the heroes and the heroines, okay, the male heroes and the female heroes are always working people who are often not perfect people, thank heavens. In fact, they are rarely perfect people. So they say and do things which are sometimes what ordinary people say and do and then over through the plays somewhere they figure out that okay, maybe this is not the best thing, maybe this is. So there is no change of heart but there is a new thought. And that is an important thing where that kind of a storyline is there. Sometimes those storylines are not often there. But whatever. So that is how it sort of….and now I have lost track of what you were saying.
I – No, the question was that after so many years how do you think the reception, this is the kind of experience that you shared with us, is part of the reception of the street theatre and whatever you are doing very recent, if you could talk about that, today.
MH – To begin with people are always, they receive the play very well meaning that even people who have never seen the play and even today every time we go to a place I realize that 90% of the audiences has never seen any play in their lives. So people listen to the play if it is well acted and if it is interesting enough and which usually our plays are. People watch it, they may have a different point of view which is great because then there is a discussion after that and that is where the thing stands. But the interest with which people watch, while performing I get a sense that okay, we are connecting. So it is that is the sort of…you know feedback comes there. And this is while performing a performer gets this sense that connection is there.
One of the things that has never happened is that somebody has not actually come and misbehaved with any of us. What does happen is that if there is a local big daddy, he would sort of in an inopportune moment laugh. Suddenly the whole audience would turn around and say Shhh or glare at him. And then depending on what the play is and sometimes there is occasion for some actor to respond to that person which could only be a look, that is something that again over the years we have developed. Not everybody can do it because not everybody is alert to it but if you are alert to it, then you have the confidence to do it. It is nothing, there is no line change, it is just a look, that is all and it doesn’t have to be a scolding look, it is just a special look that you are in the audience. You know you are laughing but now you are part of us, that sort of a thing. So that continues to happen, that sort of a thing.
Sometimes I have seen people purposely push a dog inside the acting area. That is naughtiness. That doesn’t really matter. People ignore those things and they get on with the play. I have also seen more than once this has happened and I don’t know why we do it there, there is a particular trijunction in a place near Ashok Vihar Industrial Area where at a certain point of time in the evening the buffaloes pass by. Now of course it doesn’t happen because all the cattle sheds have been pushed away outside the city. What made us perform at that trijunction so anytime we would go there, we would perform only at that, I don’t know why we did it, this is a question we kept asking each other. The local people said, yahin karna hai and say why, we would do it and then the buffaloes would come, we would all move to the side, buffaloes would go, and we would go back to the play. Now people got back to the play, so there was never a problem. This doesn’t mean that we have never actually been, people haven’t tried to stop us. They have and they have succeeded and they have and they have not succeeded. Both things have happened. But in terms of a general reception I find that a lot of people, they connect to very simple things sometimes. So simple things would be you know, what is the particular incident that we are showing in the play. If that is accurate that is capturing something of life that is something that people connect to. But people also connect to interesting verse providing you sing it well. Otherwise nobody understands what we are singing. But that is something people do connect to. People of course connect to humour and people connect to good acting. That is something again over and over again I have seen that the role maybe anything, it could be just like a cameo role, one comes in and does something, it is not there in the every scene but if it is done well, people remember that. So good quality acting is something that people recognize, appreciate and are willing to watch it again and again.
Q: I have seen Janam plays but it is for our audience, how you all begin?
MH: It depends, it depends where we are. Meaning if we are going to a completely residential area or a market place or a completely public area which is actually public, I mean even a college is in one sense public but it is within the college premises. So there the thing changes. But one of the things that we usually do is we stand at a particular place that we decide and the decision of where to perform is something that I think has now become an act which we don’t consciously realize. And people going here and there start watching what is happening. Why are these people going here, then they are going there, then some local organizer says, nahi, nahi comrade, yahan nahin karenge, hum wahan karenge, wahan khuli jagah hai. We will say yes but you know wahan se who hota hai. And then he is just what the hell are you talking about. but then people in that area, I think I mean actually we get a little irritated when this delay happens but again over the years I have come to see that that is great pre-publicity.
Q: Because you start integrating crowds…
MH – Yes, but one thing does happen, that sometimes our plays are pre-publicised meaning not by posters or anything but in that area especially if it is a residential area or if it is a factory or it is a market place, one or two days before that the local organizer, usually the CITU would go and say that a play is going to happen.
People don’t gather beforehand. The activists gather. Audiences don’t gather, not at all. That had rarely happened unless it is a pre-planned big programme. Then people gather. So that is what happens and we go there and of course we have a little dhapli and we say ‘Aao aao natak dekho’ we do some little juggling. Once we tried something and it worked quite well. One of our younger actors, he was very wonderful actor with movement. So we created something which was soundless but certain beat on the dhapli where five actors would come in, do something, something and there was no text but there was of course a thought text which we were following and it was to do with working and that work being trashed by somebody who was more powerful and the people being lost and then coming together and achieving something. All that very beautifully and he had worked it out very well. We did that and it worked best when it was a slightly more quiet. By quiet I mean more settled settings. There it worked. We have done it like in a park. It worked very well there. But right at the corner of the road there was too much of traffic there, the play works better because there is voice and acting and all that. Now this is was done very well and we really should get back to it because this is something that I thought was very interesting we had done that and we had brought it out quite well. And really worked upon us, polished it to do it well also. So that is the sort of thing we do. But usually we just speak like that.
And before the play we always speak to the audience. We tell them who we are, why we are here. If we are part of a larger agitation, we mention that. If not, we just stop there, before the play we say who we are and then after the play, if they like the play, they should give us donation and that is how. I mean it is not a long drawn speech or anything, it is usually 3-4 minutes and we do the play. And after the play we go back and ask money from people and people usually give. I mean till today a lot of the money that Jana Natya Manch gets is from donations like this which are after performances though the more performances we do out in the open, the more money we get. Of course when we go to a Bank Union or a middle class union, we get much more money because nobody gives less that 10, 20, 50, 100s, these days that is what we get. And if we go to a working class area, nobody gives more than 5 rupees, sometimes they give ten rupees. Very often when we say that you can even give 1 rupee, young children like 10-12 year olds, maybe they have got 2 rupees in their hand to buy something, they give one rupee and I think that is wonderful. And then when we tell children, now you go home quickly and get one rupee from home, you have seen a play, you have liked it, yes, yes, go and get, and so some of them come back and give. The point is that if you like something there is no harm in giving a rupee. We are not asking for much because that is what supports us, as simple as that. We don’t get any funding or sponsorship or anything. Donations is what we survive on.
Q: Coming back to the IPTA part of it, now IPTA had this let’s say vision or a theme of an organized people theatre movement in India which did not happened as we all know, which kind of, well, it stopped, it started again, again it stopped, again it started, again it stopped, again it started at various places. Now do you think that Janam has this, if not the same idea of an organized people’s theatre movement, somewhere it wants to pull in these kind of strengths? I am asking you this because it is for future generations or the future readers or the future audience, one would want to know that what are we exactly looking at because the kind of theatre that Janam has been doing for these many years, it is very important because the issues that are taken up by this theatre, they are very sensitive, I can’t call it non-political because they are political issues, absolutely political issues and they are given a voice which often lacks in the mainstream politics or the mainstream media. Now the question is, do you look at it as an organized movement?
MH – You see when we began doing street theatre I don’t think we really had that in mind because at that time we were really working with a particular form and trying to do something in Delhi. Even today we really feel that we are really a small Delhi based group but it is not modesty or anything, it would be stupid not to realize that our work has a certain impact across the country and yes, the impact was…you know, it hit the headlines when we were attacked and Safdar was killed and so was Ram Bahadur but even before that we had an impact.
I will give you a small example. And I have quoted this hundreds of times because it is something that was fascinating and yet very sad that in the early 80s, I think it was 1981 or 1982, a person, the progressive writer Sabyasachi based in Mathura, he used to bring out a small literary magazine and he decided that here is Jana Natya Manch doing these interesting plays and there were some others like us doing plays, original plays, so he felt that he should make a Theatre Visheshan or something like that and he insisted, he got after us and told us, now you give me the script because I can’t take it to press with you people supporting it. So whatever texts we had, put it in order somehow and gave it to him and he printed it and it had a huge circulation in north India. Even today when I go to some small town in some older person’s, somebody my age who is a literary person or is interested in literature knows of Sabyasachi and has read those plays. In those days seven of our plays or six of our plays got like wide circulation which we could not have reached. And thanks to Sabyasachi it did.
I mean there is this story which I, I am sure it is not entirely true, I think it is that in Aligarh Muslim University, or maybe it wasn’t Aligarh, somewhere else, there was one of these colleges in north India, they had this all India festival, short plays and so they got people to sign up and all. The first play happened, it was Raja ka Baaja, a Janam play, super powerful, super successful play. Even today I find people telling me, why you don’t do it because you talk about the same issues but yes that context has changed, so we need to bring in a slightly different angle though the issue still remains, fees and stuff like that is different. So that play happened.
Then the second play was Raja ka Baaja. So then people laughed, what a joke, ha ha ha.
Third play, Raja ka baaja, half the audience walked out. The judges were there.
And fourth and fifth, apparently all the plays were Raja ka baaja. Of course they played to empty houses and think of the judges. Now it is a great story but it is such a sad story that there weren’t any plays. And that is what I think. But it showed two things and they all had got it from that same place. So what I am saying is that there was an impact.
I remember in the 80s, the single thing that we all talked about was that newer plays need to be written. In 90s I remember in all the various seminars where I was suddenly invited and people would of course ask me stupid questions, so you are carrying on your husband’s legacy. I said, no, I am carrying on nobody’s legacy, I am part of a movement in which all of us are taking something forward. Let us not reduce it to that. But the thing was that everybody said, what the challenge is? And I really think the challenge at that time which continues but not so much is that new plays should be written. In the mid-90s there was a lot of interest around street theatre. Before that it was the street theatre, there would be open air theatre, there would be lot, but not many. But by mid-90s most of them were doing street theatre. They weren’t very good and many of them were either rehashes of what we did or some play converted into a street play, some idea, very rarely original ideas coming out.
And in those days I did agree to be the judge and everywhere I went I fought and fought, I judged but I said, let us not have competitions, let us have other things, of course nobody listened to me but atleast I said it. And the fact that write your own plays. I mean if young people don’t write their own plays, who else will. I am not saying I was the only one who said it, many of us said it. And now you know certainly in the last ten years, I don’t think that, and certainly in Delhi and in some of the other institutions where people go in north India and elsewhere also, younger people, student people in colleges, they do write their own plays and they are quite serious about it. Sometimes they are over-serious about it. Now competition street plays are a different category. It is being reduced to something else, that is a different matter, the level of the form, it has really become for competition. But I would say maybe we hadn’t intervened much. We have never had the time. I mean I see the problem but for that problem to be resolved, I need to enter into campus theatre in a big way and we have not been able to do that. Yes, we have sometimes thought about it but we just don’t have the time. But that is a separate point but that is definitely there. Now I am distracted from what I was saying.
Q: We were talking about organizing people’s theatre.
MH: Yes, so I would say, I mean my simple answer to you would be that I think there is a people’s theatre movement. It is just not under one umbrella. That is it. I mean the number of people who are engaged in meaningful, socio-political theatre which is not only geared towards getting a CV, just not that. I mean even that frankly I don’t have an issue with, if somebody is doing good theatre and getting a good CV, that is fine but somebody who is doing socio-political and doing it for something larger than themselves, there are many many people. I mean a lot of people think that theatre is not being done. It is being done. Just today if you see how many plays are happening in Delhi? When I was a young person in college barely one play happened in one week and that also at AIFACS. And usually by a group from outside maybe, Bengal usually. Today you have many more things happening. Different people. In Delhi itself there are so many young theatre groups who come and perform and they are young people but they are not necessarily been doing it for one month. They have been around for 3-4-5 years, maybe not forty years like we have but that is a different matter. Also across the country the number of people who are engaged in theatre in some way or the other, again meaningful theatre, is much more than we think it is.
In 1998 we contacted a lot of people who were kind of doing this sort of work we were meaning not exactly this level of form but again people who felt an affinity towards IPTA or who were directly from the IPTA, very often that also, so Samudaya, Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, Purogamana Kala Sahitya Sangham, Praja Natya Mandali, the various IPTA’s in MP who may not have been, who were independently in touch with us, in UP, many of the IPTA’s in Bihar, Prerna, Bengal, the IPTA of course and other groups, Assam, Rajasthan. We contacted many people whom we knew were doing theatre, Disha in Bombay, different people who were doing not necessarily street plays quite like us but who were doing political theatre, social theatre, we contacted them and we had a kind of a meeting and we called it All India People’s Theatre Activists. So it was just a meeting.
Q: This was when?
MH: 1998. And the idea was not, it was a three day meet, the first time it was done in Delhi where the thing was very simple that people just came on their own and they paid us a small amount to organize the food and all. We were able to get the place free of cost thanks to a trade union, a staying place which was dormitory arrangement and again we are pretty clever in getting help from people without actually paying for it, so we were able to do that also. People supported us, it didn’t cost very much and we had this meeting and essentially it was, the first one was to just be aware of what was happening and so a lot of people for example didn’t know that in Tripura so much was happening. And at that time, this was 1998, very few people elsewhere in the country knew that and so that was one very important, just the sharing part of it, And it was what in today’s world is called network. But yes, that is what we were doing, keeping in touch. It wasn’t a skill sharing workshop and it wasn’t a workshop at all. It was a thinking meet where issues that confront us, what are we doing about it and what do we feel about it. That is what was being talked about.
So that’s what, there was a little note that the group, Janam had written which we can share with you if you want and people had also brought their own thing and that is how the basic structure was. So every alternate year, because we planned to do it every year and we realised that is too much, it is too much organization and so the following two years we did, the next year and the next year and then we realized it is too much and so we did it every other year. We did seven such meets. So Delhi, Hyderabad, Guwahati, Patna, Eluru and I forget the other two places, one in Delhi again and one more, which I am forgetting the place. The whole thing was that it was always very difficult to pull it together, it was a lot of…so Janam took the initiative but it couldn’t have been possible without all these people engaged in it. And everybody was interested. There was this question of should we form an organisation, should we form a large umbrella organisation like IPTA, most of us felt, I mean this question came up because it is a question we are often asked also and we felt that no, what was important was that in our own areas we continue doing our work, we keep in touch with each other and in our regions if we could somehow share skills for example or do workshops for each others, those sorts of things and do smaller things, the idea really was to continue to respond to the challenges in front today on how to respond to communalism for example, these sorts of things and what to do and not simply….. Today of course it is very easy with email and all, you just shoot off a mail but at that time how to keep in touch. So all that was being worked out. And the idea really was that we need to be aware of what is happening and each place, try and get newer and newer people. One of the things that we hope to do and that is something we couldn’t do was if we could, we in fact took one step towards it, that if we make four different zones, so we have the sort of north, south, east, west sort of thing and club together some of the larger states, then say Delhi, Haryana, UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, we all of us hold the meeting ourselves in which we invite more people because when you are doing an All-India thing there is also the constraint of space. You can’t have such a big space to put up so many people. So if we do that one can also….so one of the zones did that.
There was another idea we had that if we could go to like a team, go and do somewhere. Like in Lucknow we all felt that something needs to be revived. There was a time when it was a pretty vibrant place for theatre, it wasn’t by the time we were in 2002/2003/2004. So what we did was that Prerna which is from Bihar and from Patna and Jana Natya Manch, we went there with our contacts and we sort of did a programme there inviting local people. Problem was we couldn’t take it forward. And one of the reasons why we couldn’t take it forward really was that we didn’t have the time and neither did Prerna. Today one thing that I really find is something that we have to understand, I think it is the difference that the economy has done. Traditionally I think and I don’t mean traditionally as in traditional theatre, I mean in the past many many years the backbone of theatre in India has been the so-called amateur groups. IPTA, for example, and its various branches, shades, whether you agree or disagree, you call yourself X, Y or Z, whatever was being done was being done not as a means of livelihood. A lot of people, a lot of groups across the country even today don’t actually earn money. They may get a particular little amount. Even groups today who get some amount of so-called salary grant, that is only a small part of whatever emoluments. Many people in the group have day jobs. So people like us and people like in Samudaya or in Prerna, they all have day jobs. So there is again limited time. The moment you take up a new venture, you need to give time to it. In fact, that I think is a big problem even now because earlier jobs, a lot of people who were in, I need to say it like this, but there were many jobs where you just went there and signed and walked out and you were away and you just went back later. I mean I worked in a school and I never took leave for anything except for plays. And my work in school never suffered because I never took off. But working there meant that I could just leave at 2o’clock except on the odd day when I chose to stay. Today in schools in Delhi you have to stay till 3.30. Things have changed, work conditions have also changed. So private offices now, it is just impossible. Government offices, a lot of people, public sector, timings have all changed everywhere. So distances have become enormous. That I think is also a genuine problem. I mean we certainly face it. We have to always juggle much more than we had to juggle earlier with these.
But this year we have decided, I mean we have decided this every year but we plan to do it that coming year we will, either 2016 or very early 2017, we will again redo the all-India meet because many people call us and tell us, arrey yaar, what are you doing about it? So there is a need. Now what I am saying is, the point is that there is a movement I think except that there is no one organisation and I think that is not bad at all.
Q: That may be democratic I think.
MH – In the sense that things are happening and we need to stay connected with each other. That is I think the need of the hour because I personally feel that the moment we make a committee from top, then….
Q: ….Positions start counting.
MH: Yes. Then I think it doesn’t work quite that way. So I think it is important for more and more people to be engaged in progressive theatre even if it is only for part of the time. So if somebody wants to say that I want to go to Bombay but I want to work one year with you, I’d say, great. I mean, no problem because wherever you go after this, you are taking away something of this thought with you and I think that is important rather than saying no, we will not touch you. That is not the attitude. So I think in that sense there is a lot of theatre happening. A movement gives the impression of something being coordinated and taken forward. No, that is not there. But it is going forward. And I think we need to give a little more time. You see when it is a trade union it is a different thing.
Coming 2nd September there is a one day national strike across all trade unions on the current labour reforms that the current Modi government has brought in. Everybody, all trade unions, they are against it and they are all in their own way fighting against it. So there is a coordinated movement but I think trade unions function differently and therefore we need to understand that but these trade unions wouldn’t have survived if there wasn’t grass root trade unions also in a work existing. So that is how it has to be, both ways, up and down. I think that an All-India body like that right now, I still think it is premature in the field of culture but to be aware of each other, to be in touch with each other, I think that is important. That is definitely important.
Q: How does Jana Natya Manch function as a unit? Would you be able to give us any idea?
MH: Very briefly, Jana Natya Manch is a completely independent autonomous and yet fiercely partisan towards the working people and their issues and movements. And we pride our independence and we are very conscious of it. At the same time as I said we also link up with other movements but that is our choice.
As an organisation we are registered but that is only the legal part of it. We have a small team of what we call the executive committee. It is a big word but it is really a small team. It is a kind of a collective collaborative leadership. So it isn’t one person but a group of seven people which sometimes changes. I mean every year there is an annual general body meeting and we sort of sometimes re-elect and sometimes newer people come in. It varies over the year. But the idea really is that the day to day functioning is organised, taken care of by this team of seven people but in anything that we do, naturally only these seven people are not involved, other people from the group are also involved in it.
Jana Natya Manch in one sense has a very loose membership. In the sense that there are many people who are not there every day and not there in everything that we do. So there are many people or rather some people who come in for some things. There are some people who come in only some times, say the summer ones, when they are less and they are more free from work. So that is the sort of thing that over the years we realised makes it more flexible and open and therefore more amorphous. So it is very hard to say that somebody who was two years ago with us, they are in every show and today suddenly because of a job reason cannot even come to a meeting or come to a performance, is that person a member, I would say yes because I am hoping that a few months later that person would be able to come. So that is the thing. That is how we function. Decisions are rarely taken by individuals because we have a certain way of functioning and over the years we sort of discuss, we have regular meetings, the executive committee or EC as it is called meets pretty regularly and we are on the phone. So if let us say something has happened when we need to go, where we can’t have a meeting that is fine, we just talk on the phone and go ahead and do it. That is what we do. The purpose is also that every year newer and younger people should be part of this collective leadership and different people so that it again involves more and more people. That is really the point.
Q: Now again further back, could you just recollect the incidents that are related with this phenomenal production, Halla Bol.
MH – Yes. In 1988 in the month of…later half of 1988, I think in June or July, June actually we started work on a proscenium play and that is when Safdar thought that we must get somebody who knew our work, who knew us and would also have something to offer and Habib Tanvir was brought in. and that was great because till the day he died he continued to be a kind of a mentor for us and did more productions subsequently. In doing that new production which was Moteram ka Satyagrah a lot of younger people had also joined in and the previous year also in 1987 a bunch of youngsters had joined in. At that time itself Safdar had started thinking that we need to be more organised about our organisation which we weren’t till then, now we are much more organised and that these younger people should be in the EC because these are the guys who are the guys of the future, guys and gals. So that is when we had a meeting when we had these men, bunch of very young people and Safdar was there and another slightly older person was there.
In November there was going to be this seven day industrial strike about which of course we got to know from our CITU comrades and we all felt, Safdar had initiated that thought but we all agreed that yes, yes, we have to do a show. It was a big thing, seven day industrial strike called by the CITU, issues were there, and we spoke to a number of the CITU comrades to get an idea. The play was partly written, partly improvised, partly changed on the floor. It was a mix of both. The idea really was to draw in newer people into actually to help in direction, to help in writing, that was also Safdar’s long term view I guess because he often talked about that, we need to think of, we need to draw in that person, that person has a skill in writing, let us give him, this scene should be written by him and so on and so forth. So it was very intense at that time internally in the organisation also. And this play called Chakka Jam was made which was clearly, it was a hilarious comedy at one level but also a very powerful play because one of the lines got repeated in many shows. There is this worker and his beloved, worker wants to marry, she is also a worker, so he wants to marry her, goes to the parents and some, some, something happens, they say, don’t be silly, you are a silly worker. So he says, well, there is this strike going to happen, come and ask for my daughter’s hand after the strike. And at the end of it he says that “Joote maroon paanch sau sadsath” because that was the demand at that time, not the demand, that was the amount that was being got, demand was “dus sau pachas” for minimum wage. So those sorts of things were happening. After the strike which was like a huge success, the play had to be continued because naturally everything is not achieved after a strike and the CITU did wants us to do the play with certain changes and kind of post-strike scenario which structurally was very minor change and one new scene was added because it was after the strike. And that we called Halla Bol and it was a super success, the play.
And we had beginning 18th December for about three weeks we had a series of shows planned like today here, tomorrow there, day after there. So on 31st December for example we were performing in Okhla Industrial area and the following day we had to go to Jhandapur which was a Sunday. We went there, we were attacked, Safdar was killed, so was Ram Bahadur and why were we attacked. We were attacked not because they had seen the play because I am sure if they had seen the play they would have laughed, the scene that they saw was happening, it was a complete, it was a love scene, much Bollywood style dancing and running around trees. But because we were performing for the CITU, it was as simple as that. And in this that is what happened. So the play was very powerful also because I think Chakka Jam was a very powerful play and because of this strike that happened, the scene that was added in particular was a scene which moved from metaphor to reality, from the actor to the inner voice to the character of the worker. It was really a very interesting piece that had been sort of created. The rest of the scenes were similar between the two plays except that everything was after the strike. So the tense changed. But this one scene was very powerful.
And I think it made its point and it not only enthused the workers and the movement but it also gave a lot of questions, I mean, food for thought because none of the characters there were cardboard characters who agreed with everything but there was within the play they wake also. So that was what was very interesting because suddenly people, “Ah! Ya, He has got a point” But then how does he change his thought. That is also important. So that is what it was.
Q: Another, it is a completely different question. Say when you have younger people coming in Janam and you have certain issue based plays going on, now not that whoever is coming in is very politically conscious or is very open to the issue that you are dealing with. Let us say if it is about some bill, about some strike or the demands of the strike, not that it is known to the actor who is acting, right. So it is a part of the practice that you educate this actor before or not even to just to inform this actor as to what it is or have a discussion about.
MH – There is no formal education but yes, there is a process. And if a new play is being made on let us say the PDS, public distribution system, a lot of people don’t even know what it is about, that is right. So in any case before we make a play there is a lot of discussion and reading up and that reading up is of everybody who is in the group at that time, by everybody. So whether I know a lot or I don’t know a lot, that is what the play is going to be about. So in that naturally my thought also comes in and what has happened is that there are a lot of people especially younger newer people bringing specific examples of their experience to such plays which is to do with the ration card because that is what they are dealing with. So that is in fact quite helpful. So suppose we are doing a play against communalism, naturally somebody who is pro-communalism is hardly likely to work in that play.
Q: So you have had this experience also?
MH – Such people don’t come to us.
Q: That is exactly what I was going to say.
MH – They don’t come to us but this is not to say that we have not had questions on caste for example. That doesn’t mean that the people who have discussed or debated with us are casteist. They are not. But you know there are questions and I think those questions should be talked about and we have talked about it. That is the important thing. So somehow people are happy to discuss and debate and be part of the play. I don’t envisage somebody coming and doing our play who thinks that all women should be tortured and does a play on any aspect of a woman’s life. I don’t think such a play would be comfortable unless they cover it up. I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that they are not patriarchal because I think a lot of us, men and women, are sometimes patriarchal without realising it. And maybe doing that process is sometimes very useful. And it is. That I have seen. On the question of gender I have seen that happen that when the play is in progress, when things are happening, then there is a self learning involved also on gender but even on other things. I mean I may not be communal but I may not have even thought about the whole thing. So when I am making a play and I am part of a play, then somewhere I have to also understand what I am doing. But it is not a formal education like that and whatever it is whether they are discussions or readings, everybody does that. So it is not that I am above it or you are above it. And we also have people come and talk to us when especially……we are doing plays on issues like this, it is important whether it is a trade union person coming in or a historian talking to us or anybody. Outside experts coming and talking, having a discussion with us is something we found very useful.
Q: What are the forthcoming plays that Janam is doing?
MH – Well, you have to see it because we don’t decide a play quite beforehand like that but a forthcoming programme that is going to happen is a collaboration between Janam and the Freedom Theatre of Palestine and that is going to be a longish thing because already we have sort of worked out and planned certain things. Two people from the Freedom Theatre will be coming in, I mean three people came earlier in the year, then one of our group members visited them for about a couple of weeks and was part of that and now two people will be coming in August and then the students of The Freedom Theatre School, they will be coming alongwith Janam, there will be a actual joint play happening and we will be touring many cities of the country where we hope to draw in other artists of different fields. So Anurupa for example will definitely be part of the tour doing her puppetry and other people chipping in doing things. That is in terms of a big programme that is happening. And to make a play at the end of it. But one of the other things that we are also sort of looking forward to is to again have this all India meeting going in a big way and to be able to do different things to equip ourselves by way of workshopping and such things.
In August we are having a series of talks called “The GPD Under50 talks” which is something again, I mean the talks that we earlier used to have only for us, we are now in a position to open it up to the public because of this space that we have called Studio Safdar. In fact that is one of our, very important part of our future work. Jana Natya Manch got this space only three years ago and that is when we realised that we need to have a separate body also managing it which we have but a lot of us also help out doing things. So this is a Jana Natya Manch…project is a wrong word, it is part of Jana Natya Manch, something that we do, we were the ones who established it, the Studio Safdar and a lot of things happen here.
What happens here we don’t do naturally, that is the whole point. Like other people come in and do things and to create this space of the bookshop which is in coordination with the Leftword Publishers and the May Day Café to see it as a kind of a space where there is a Left space so to speak for Left adda where people can come and read books, buy books, have coffee, watch theatre, do theatre and other art works. But theatre is still the most important that happens here.
Q: Last but not the least, in an urban city space when spaces are shrinking for performance, not in terms of just development but in terms of political shrinking, when voices are being silenced intentionally, in today’s India but at the same time there are alternative voices that are being heard, voices of resistance that are rising from various nooks and corners of the country. How important do you think is the time today for an organisation like the Jana Natya Manch who has always been in the forefront of giving voice to such expressions? Do you think that this shrinkage or this political eating up of spaces or eating up of voices, how do you see it?
MH – You know there are many aspects to it actually. At one level, yes, there are physical, by physical I don’t mean just the space in physical terms but there is a shrinkage. But more than shrinkage there is an attack. And whenever there is an attack in this slightly limping democracy of ours, our country, I think there is a resistance to it which is absolutely there. The point is that the resistance has to spread. So why dissenting voices are being curbed but new dissenting voices are also coming up.
So both the things are happening and I think that is the times that we live in that while it is true that there is curbing absolutely and there is curbing in different ways. Sometimes curbing is physical, open, okay, you shut up, the moment you say that twenty other voices will say, we won’t shut up. So that is also happening. But there is also indirect curbing, so quietly people are being transferred from here and there, in many government agencies and non-government agencies also replaced because they are doing good work, because they are doing just ordinary progressive work which they should be doing, not even political work but even that is being seen as a threat. But nobody is keeping quiet, everybody, people are still recognising that. So there is that behind the scenes thing.
There is also a more planned attack on people. But there is a worse kind of curbing that I think is also happening and that is what is the…is voluntary silence. Will it make a difference? And I think that is the most dangerous part of it because that is coming from within the space of dissent. If I say that will it make a difference, I should be saying, of course it will make a difference, let us get out and do something. Whatever. It doesn’t have to be something big, it can be something small but you have to do. But I actually do see that there are a lot of people who are also not keeping quiet. It is not organised. It is not one umbrella body but there are many more people and I think that is great. That is really what the hope is.
Q: It was fantastic talking to you Moloyashree di. It was an experience and a pleasure. Thank you so much.
MH: Thank you.