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Why Ipta matters

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Today, when a toxic idea of India seems to be throttling us, it has become all the more critical to recall our secular and radical legacies, and to refashion them

It helps to have the outsider’s eye.

Some years ago, my colleague Moloyashree Hashmi and I were presenting the work of Jana Natya Manch (Janam) to a group of activists in New York. The first slide we showed was the Janam logo, with the slogan, “People’s theatre stars the people".

The logo is designed by that genius of a graphic artist Orijit Sen (for the first 35 years of the group’s existence, we didn’t have a logo!), and when people see it, they usually admire Orijit’s beautiful drawing, which combines people, the circle of street theatre, the star, and the idea of solidarity, in a single striking image evocative of Chittaprosad’s woodcuts. The slogan is taken from the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), and we made the point in our presentation that we see ourselves as being the inheritors of that legacy, along with many other such groups all over India.

In the audience that afternoon was a socialist reverend from Harlem, someone who had taken part in Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington, DC in 1963. After the talk, he came up to me and asked me to show him that image again. “Oh, this is beautiful! Who thought this up?" I began to tell him about Orijit, but stopped mid-sentence. He wasn’t asking me about the image. He was asking about the slogan.

I said I had no idea—I still don’t, as it happens. He wanted to know more about Ipta. I told him briefly about the Anti-Fascist Writers’ and Artists’ League of the 1930s, about the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936, with Munshi Premchand presiding over its first conference, and about how, in the 1940s, Ipta became the umbrella organization where virtually everybody who was anybody in the arts field came together to create radical, people-oriented art.

The reverend laid a gentle hand on my shoulder and said: “Son, you’re lucky. This is precious." He continued, with a sigh: “You know what’s the greatest tragedy of this country? It ain’t George Bush (who was the president then). It’s that nobody remembers our radical past. And you know what’s worse? There ain’t nobody who cares either."

Soon after I joined Janam in the summer of 1987, Safdar Hashmi regaled me with stories of how, in the early 1970s, he had been part of a group of student radicals who had tried to revive the Delhi branch of Ipta. They had their office on the first floor in Shankar Market, near Connaught Place. They got together the older Ipta veterans and suddenly the organization, which had lain dormant for a decade or more, sprung to life with new plays and songs.

There was one problem though. The Shankar Market office itself had been commandeered by an older member for his import-export business. He apparently conspired to have the young radicals thrown out. They formed Janam in 1973, and Ipta went back to dormancy.

The year after I joined Janam, we decided to do a proscenium play, after a decade of having done only street theatre. We excelled at this shorter, more punchy, outdoor form, but Safdar felt, rightly, that we needed to train and equip ourselves artistically to be able to work with the longer indoor version as well. He approached Habib Tanvir, who readily agreed to direct the play.

We chose a story by Premchand. Safdar wrote a superb, hilarious first draft of the play, which Habib sa’ab magically improved, cutting here, pruning there, expanding somewhere else, and then directing our production with humour and zest. Moteram Ka Satyagrah has become, over the years, a classic of the modern Hindi stage, and has been in performance in some part of the country or the other over the past 27 years.

Over the next two decades, till his death, Habib sa’ab and Janam remained close friends. A master raconteur, he would tell us delicious stories of his own association with Ipta in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1940s—how the people’s balladeers, Annabhau Sathe, D.N. Gavankar and Amar Sheikh, held thousands of workers spellbound with their resonant singing; how he and Majrooh Sultanpuri would be more popular with the workers at mushairas than some of the more senior poets because they could sing their compositions; how Balraj Sahni gave him lessons in acting and direction which he remembered all his life; how, along with Dina Pathak and others, they made their entry into street theatre with plays like Shantidoot Kamgar.

Over the years, I’ve heard many Ipta stories. The theatre critic Samik Bandyopadhyay speaks of how the most famous Ipta play, Nabanna, was made. It was the time of the Bengal famine, and Bijon Bhattacharya was a young journalist with communist leanings. Hordes had come from villages in the hope of finding food in Calcutta (now Kolkata). But there was no food to be had, and bodies were piling up on the streets. Bhattacharya would walk to work every morning. There was suffering all around, and the sensitive young man would avoid looking left or right as he walked, the sights being utterly heart-rending.

One day, as he walked, he heard the conversation of two people on the roadside. Poor and emaciated, they recalled, with joy, the fragrance of the new rice harvest the previous year. This image, of poor starving peasants recalling the fragrance of rice, became the kernel for the play he wrote, which is now recognized as an undisputed masterpiece.

Tripti Mitra, who would marry Shambhu Mitra, acted in the play. Every time she went on stage, she said, she recalled the image of a starving young woman who pushed aside her own children to drink, hungrily, the rice water thrown away by someone—and, having done so, recoiled in horror at her own action and embraced her children, crying. If she recalled this image, Tripti Mitra said, she did not need to “act". Everything just flowed.

I realized only in hindsight that our production of Moteram joined together four generations of radical artistes—starting with Premchand, going on to Habib Tanvir, Safdar Hashmi, and then my own generation. And again, when Safdar started teaching at Zakir Husain College, his older colleague was the writer Bhisham Sahni, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year.

For many of my generation, and even later, the connection with the PWA and Ipta, and through it, to the ethos of our anti-colonial movement, has been real and palpable.

It is precisely this connection, and the values it represents, that is under threat today.

One hardly needs to belabour the point. Every day brings a new assault—forced “reconversions" of minorities, diktats over what we can or cannot eat, an assault of mediocrity on our cultural and intellectual institutions, efforts to police and monitor young people’s love lives, or just plain vitriol and poison being spewed against minorities. Then there are the more direct attacks on creative artists and works, whether it is Perumal Murugan being forced into a self-imposed writerly death, or attacks on art galleries or documentaries. This daily bombardment has somewhat dulled our senses.

To be sure, none of this is sudden or unexpected. When Safdar was killed by Congress-supported goons while performing a play in 1989, the sense of shock was palpable. If the same incident took place today, I wonder if we would be as surprised. Angry, yes. Outraged, most certainly. But shocked? Perhaps not.

A toxic idea of India seems to be throttling us. Instead of moving towards bridging inequalities and alleviating injustices, some Hindutva forces seem bent upon increasing disparities and sharpening tensions. It has become all the more critical to recall our secular and radical legacies today, and to refashion them.

This winter, the leading Palestinian theatre company, The Freedom Theatre (TFT), will be visiting India for three months. They will stay and work with Janam in Delhi, devise a play together, and this play will then travel to about a dozen cities in the country.

The Freedom Theatre was set up in 2006 in the refugee camp of Jenin, in the northern West Bank. What connects Janam and TFT is not just that we do political theatre, a theatre of resistance, but also a history of sacrifice—like Safdar, the founder of TFT, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was killed in 2011. Both these dynamic, visionary founders continue to inspire not only the two theatres, but have become icons of resistance in the face of oppression and injustice.

Through the play the Palestinian artistes create here, they will paint for Indian audiences the reality of the apartheid state. Our solidarity with them is not about commiserating with their suffering, nor is it a nostalgic trip back to a Nehruvian past. It is about what is happening to us today, and about our future. About the sort of country we are in danger of becoming, if we don’t stand up today.

It is true—sometimes, an outsider’s eye helps us see better.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch. An editor with LeftWord Books, he uses the bicycle as his default mode of commuting in Delhi.

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