“Our richest cultural traditions are couched in areas of utmost poverty: the villages," late theatre veteran Habib Tanvir had said. And from villages will come the “worker-performers" who will present acts for the festival Halla Bol: Remembering Safdar Hashmi, from 21-23 February, in Sahibabad’s Jhandapur to commemorate 25 years of Hashmi’s death.

It was while performing a street play, Halla Bol, on 1 January 1989, in Jhandapur, that the Communist playwright-actor-director-activist was fatally attacked by political goons, he died the next day. The play, a reworked version of an earlier play Chakka Jam by Jana Natya Manch (Janam), was based on the November 1988 industrial strike in Delhi led by Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Citu). And it is street plays, or what Safdar called “small theatre", that his group Janam, born out of Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) in 1973, continues to take to the people.

Like Janam, the song squad Parcham was an offspring of Ipta, says music director Kajal Ghosh who set to tune many of the children’s poems penned by Safdar and gave music for Janam’s plays. Ipta, he says, was under the Communist Party of India across the country, only in West Bengal, and perhaps Tripura, it was with the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). So, conflict of interests arose. Festival coordinator, theatre actor-director Sudhanva Deshpande says, “Young people who were radical were thrown out of Ipta". Janam’s journey with street theatre started with Machine (1978)—a play on capitalism where the worker is victorious at the end—which became a roaring hit among the trade unions. “We are a cultural organization engaged in drawing on the trials and tribulations of working (class) people, which forms the larger context of our plays," says Safdar’s wife and Janam’s president Moloyashree.

Safdar Hashmi during a play in 1988.
Safdar Hashmi during a play in 1988.

What’s unique about this festival is that it has been curated by Citu workers, Janam has mainly supported logistically and in planning. “The moment we proposed the idea to them, they jumped with joy. They have taken ownership of the whole idea, figuring out the performers, mostly from their own villages, and the art forms, half of which I’ve never even seen," says Deshpande, who had penned a scene in the 1989 eponymous play.

On Day 1, Gangaram and party will present alha (folk ballad). They are from Hardoi in UP, the village of one of the organizers from Citu, Brijesh Singh, who in a video on the festival’s Facebook page says: “The khet-kisaan (farmers) work hard in the fields during the day and get together by the night to sing and play." This will be followed with dholha songs by Girvar and party, ragini songs by Suresh Pal and party from UP’s Shamli. What’s more is a shaadi ka band (Ashok Band from Ghaziabad, UP) presenting progressive songs like Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Paul Robeson’s Old Man River and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Darbar-e-Watan, and Halla Bol, songs sung in an album released in 2012 by Parcham.

Qawwali singers from Ghaziabad’s Loni (Alauddin and party, and Bazmi and party) will sing their compositions on Safdar on Day 2. UP’s Ballia’s Shambhunath Yadav and party and Sangeeta Sargam will end the evening with birha songs.

An event on 25th Safdar Shahadat Divas on 1 January.

Another organization, Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat)—an artists collective formed in April 1989—has also lined-up commemorative events as it turns 25. Sahmat, formed by photographer Ram Rahman, theatre actor-director M.K. Raina, artist Vivan Sundaram, late theatre veterans Bhisham Sahni, Tanvir and many others (about 100-200 people), has taken the movement on a national scale, says Rahman, adding: “It has sought to be the voice for wider arts community to retain the secular and progressive space and democratizing high art practice by taking it to the masses."

Last year, Sahmat released the book, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989. This year, they conducted an annual memorial with an art and photography exhibition at Vithalbhai Patel House on 1 January. They will be conducting agitprop symposia under their Sahmat Avaaz Do art project; a group art exhibition of 36 artists, Forms of Activism, curated by Sundaram will open at the Lalit Kala Akademi on Monday; and on National Street Theatre Day (Safdar’s birthday, 12 April), they will organize an event for the students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university.

Moloyashree says, “What happened then was not just an attack on freedom of speech, but on the right to survive. Today, alternative thought spaces—intellectual, artistic, and physical—are shrinking. One must fight against this kind of censorship."

Halla Bol is 3pm onwards, every day from 21-23 February (and an 11am show on Sunday), at Pete Seegar Manch, Dr Ambedkar Park, Jhandapur, Sahibabad, UP. Click here for details; Forms of Activism is on from 24 February-1 March at Rabindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi.

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