Art is at the center of any political or social upheaval. This is the assertion with which some of the greatest artists of 20th century did set on their journey. One such artist was Safdar Hashmi.
New Delhi, January 4th 1989:
That winter day witnessed a sea of artists, intellectuals and workers joining hands. What was so on this cold January day that brought them together? It was the incident 3 days back at Jhandapur on the outskirts of Delhi that shook an entire nation. Safdar Hashmi was the conveyor of Janam- a theatre group that performed on streets. From rising inflation to workers plight from American President's visits to police violence- Safdar's plays, some drew inferences from Bretch- were varied and touched a milieu of such crisis. Safdar's endeavor at the heart of it, was to start a cultural awakening. It was a movement which sought to make arts as a means of expression for freedom, economic and social justice.
New Delhi, January 1st 1989:
On a day when Delhi haze had quietly settled over its smoke throwing chimneys, in the Industrial area of Jhandapur, Janam was supposed to perform its street play 'Halla Bol' in support of trade union demands; when their adversary Mukul Sharma- a political thug from ruling Congress(I) confronted Safdar and his comrades. He along with his group of men assaulted the actors. They fled. Over a settling sun Safdar and his troupe ran for their lives, but only till Mukul Sharma found them. Safdar Hashmi was ferociously beaten by hockey sticks and cricket bats. He received many blows on his head. Next day, Safdar, as his comrades called him, succumbed to his injuries in a Delhi hospital.
It stunned everyone. Recounting the incident Javed Akhter says that it wasn't that this was one of the first such brazen attacks on artists, but it is just that we couldn't take it any longer. There had to be an outburst. Enough was enough.
On January 4, over fifteen thousand people gathered to bury Safdar. The funeral procession was nine miles long. Every artist, every intellectual, every worker – it was a sight to behold.
Janam returned to Jhandapur, the same day, 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."
It may be of some interest that Safdar Hashmi taught in Kashmir University in mid 70s, right after he completed his M.A from St. Stephen's Delhi.
In solidarity with the organisers of Gallery One, who put a fight against the system. For art shall prevail.
'Safdar Tu Zinda Hai.'
A documentary ‘Natak Jaari hai’ on this episode and the larger message that Safdar wanted to carry forward, directed by Lalit Vachani can be purchased online on the below URL:
This piece was carried in Greater Kashmir's March 6th 2015 edition.