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The Challenges of Staging Communalism in These Times - Komita Dhanda


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This talk was delivered at The Idea of India, Bangalore, 2017, at the Vidyashilp Academy.

Jana Natya Manch (Janam) was formed in 1973 in Delhi by some radical theatre amateurs, Safdar Hashmi one among them. For the first five years, Janam did only proscenium plays. Then, in 1978, it went to the streets with its first street play, Machine. Using lyrical language, stylized movements and sound, the play foregrounded the exploitation of industrial workers by the capitalists and the police. Since then, Janam has performed over a hundred street plays on the issues ranging from labour rights to communalism to caste to violence against women.

We perform throughout the year. We perform in slums, in working-class areas where people live and work, in schools, colleges and in middle-class residential colonies. Always taking a partisan position for the people on the periphery, Janam has done performances in and outside Delhi and, on some occasions, outside the country as well. Our group works on the idea of volunteerism. Some of the group members are employed, unemployed, students or retired from service.

One of the major moments in the history of Janam is the murder of the group’s co-founder and then convener, Safdar Hashmi, in 1989. On 1 January 1989, Janam was attacked by local goons backed by the political party during the performance of our play Halla Bol in Jhandapur, Ghaziabad, near Delhi. Safdar was brutally beaten up and died the next day in hospital. We received an overwhelming wave of solidarity and support from political activists, artists and people from all sections of society. On 4 January 1989, we went back to the same site and finished our interrupted performance. That moment inspired several new activist theatre groups to emerge across the country. As a result, on 12 April 1989 (Safdar’s birth anniversary), thousands of street plays were performed by known and unknown theatre groups all over India. Since then, Janam has continued to take its theatre to the people.

Today I’m going to discuss the aesthetics of Jana Natya Manch plays with a special focus on the challenges of staging communalism in these times. The idea is to talk about the performance texts in which we have used different dramatic techniques, devices, language, props, costumes and stories of ordinary people in order to foreground the narratives of the marginalized.

The emphasis of our talk will be on our plays based on the theme of communalism, and how Janam responded to the political changes in the country through the aesthetics of its plays. I will not follow a linear timeline of our repertoire—I will not begin from the beginning.

Year 2002: Responding to the Virulence

The first play I am going to discuss is Ye Dil Maange More, Guruji which we prepared as a response to the violence in Gujarat in 2002. Like several other artists, poets, writers and intellectuals, we were troubled with the one-sided violence inflicted on the Muslim minorities in Gujarat. We needed to respond to the virulence that we could feel in the sociopolitical atmosphere. The Gujarat riots did not happen all of a sudden—there had been a build up for several years. The curriculum and the textbooks were one of the few sites where the saffronization of young minds had been taking place much before 2002. History was replaced by the dogma of faith. However, like textbooks and literature, theatre is also a site for memory and a site for multiple histories.

Ye Dil Maange More, Guruji attempted to analyse and demolish the idea of the Hindu rashtra pushed by the RSS and the BJP. Structurally, the play has three parts: placards; poetry; and farcical scenes between the rightwing ideologue, Guruji, and his two disciples, Budhibali and Bahubali. The play opens with actors entering in silence, holding placards with statistics related to the loss of property and destruction in the riots. After few moments they break into a poem. (The poems used in the play were written by Hindi poets Vimal Kumar, Manglesh Dabral and Vishnu Nagar while the carnage in Gujarat was still going on.) The three poems present the aftermath of the riots, solicit the memory of the dead and sarcastically pity the efforts of building a Hindu rashtra at the same time as they sharply critique the idea of the Hindutva politics. Here is an excerpt from the first poem:

The second part had a set of images—disturbing photographs of the post-riot situation which were publicized by the media at that time. The images, followed by another poem, a first-hand account of the dead, represent the multitude of violence and the human capability for brutality.

The third part had two farcical scenes based on dialogues between the Guruji and his Bahubali and Budhibali. While Bahubali represented the ‘aggressive’ face of Hindutva politics, Budhibali represented the ‘moderate’ face. In these two scenes, on their mission to create Hindu rashtra, the trio is hatching a plan to demolish the idea of a secular nation. In their dream of Hindu rashtra, there is no place for dissent or any discourse around human rights.

The textual and visual material juxtaposed the idea of ‘India Shining’ with the violence unleashed on the streets of Gujarat.

But how do you create a performance which is responsible and which won’t instigate further violence? These situations often lead to challenging aesthetic questions. Sometimes the answer lies within the structure and form of the play. For instance, in this play, we had three devices—placards, poems, and farcical scenes. Dramatically, the poems appear as bullet points and the imagery in them present the dangers of Hindu-rashtra theory. While the guru and his chelas are planning the future, the poems and the placards foreground the present and the past.

Placards, poems, farce and intermittent silences are some of the devices that are often used in Janam plays. For an activist theatre group like ours, how and where are we going to do a play and what devices we will use are aesthetic and political choices. As historian E. H. Carr says: the historian has to choose. I would say that as theatre activists attempting to tell alternative histories, we also have to choose—the language as well as the side that we take.

1978 to 1989: The Humanist Approach

We often make plays that directly respond to specific incidents and the sociopolitical situations in the country at a given moment. For instance, Machine, Janam’s first street play, was based on an incident that happened in Harig India factory in Sahibabad. That is the kind of material that we often draw upon while making a play.

Janam’s first play on communalism was Hatyare, prepared in December 1978, after the riots in Aligarh. Hatyare talks about Hindu–Muslim brotherhood and about people living in harmony but its approach is different from Yeh Dil Maange More, Guruji. Let me start by reading out an excerpt from Hatyare—the opening monologue by the Sutradhar that establishes the location as well as the idea of the secular in the everyday life.

As the narrative proceeds, the play talks about the industrialists’ strategy of divide and rule by instigating violence with the help of the police, local goons and political leaders.

Another play, Apaharan Bhaichare Ka (1984), was created after the Sikh riots in Delhi. In the play, the concept of bhaichara or brotherhood was brought in as a character who gets kidnapped.

In both these plays, Hatyare and Apaharan Bhaichare Ka, the characters were not named. They were given generic titles such as Neta and Mantri and so on. Our play Hinsa Parmodharm (1989) was based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. We often pick up stories from literature and adapt them. Stories already have metaphors, well-rounded characters, and, in a Munshi Premchand story, politics as well.

  Mat Baanto Insaan Ko (1989), another play on communalism, showed how two communities should live together in unity. The play ends with:

Most of our earlier plays took a humanist approach to representing the problem of Hindu–Muslim religious fundamentalism. We showed that people were not bad, they were not communal but that they get instigated by outside forces such as capitalists, goons and ministers. They were a pragmatic analysis of the problem of communalism that existed in the country at that time. Today, the nature of communal ideas and its proliferation in the society has changed. It is this changed nature of Hindutva propaganda and the role of mainstream media spreading the hatred that requires a different analysis and a new way of telling history and reading contesting histories.

Marathi playwright and scholar G. P. Deshpande points out in an interview (2002) that it is time for street theatre to handle communalism at the ideological level, and create an understanding about how a given ideology creates the kind of audience that it does in a society. At this juncture, reading and retelling the history of communalism and religious propaganda has to be handled ideologically, as we discussed yesterday in the context of relationship between history and ideology in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. History cannot be separated from the ideology.

1992 to 2002: Towards the Hindu Rashtra

On 6 December 1992, Janam was performing Mat Baanto Insaan Ko at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi when the news about demolition of Babri Masjid came in. That incident transformed the shape, colour and texture of the secular fabric in post-Independent India for ever. It was a breaking point. We could see the idea of Hindu rashtra slowly seeping into everyday life. It also changed the way we represented the issues of communalism in our earlier plays.

Janam created a play Sab Mein Sahib Bharpoor Hai Jee (1992). It was based on the writings of eighteenth-century saint Sant Kavi Paltu from Ayodhya. The aggressive contestation between two types of collective consciousness was being played out in the country in 1992. Public knowledge about the ownership of the site of the mosque was disputed. How does one make a play without compromising the content in order to prevent more violence being triggered off? Sab Mein Sahib . . . was the play in which, for the first time, we foregrounded the idea of Hindu religious fundamentalism. We kept performing Sab Mein Sahib . . . till 1998. Then in 1998, with the BJP forming the government at the centre, the political atmosphere of the country changed again. Now we had a rightwing government backed by the fascist RSS staring in our face. The situation was even more dangerous.

We produced Gadhaa Puraan (1998). The script of the play emerged out of improvisations. The play brought forward the idea of one nation and a singular language and culture. The narrative revolves around an undisputed king whose crown is bigger than his head! The protagonist of the play is a donkey (gadha). It focuses on a prototype of a king—how a king is and how he should be—showing a slight shift towards a certain kind of expected personality. The play used masks, curtains, photos, images, colourful costumes and music to leave a visual and aural impact. The form of the play lay between a street and proscenium performance.

2014 and after

Samjho to Jaane was a play we created before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and we brought back Guruji in the picture after a very long time. The worst nightmare of a secular country was going to come true—Bahubali was all set to rule the country. And this time he did not come alone—he was backed by mainstream media and top-notch PR agencies. Building a brand image was as important as building the Hindu rashtra. It was completely personality-driven election campaign in which Bahubali was projected as the most suitable candidate. In fact, in Yeh Dil Mange More, Guruji, Guruji says to Bahubali that the next time he will be made the ruler. And that’s exactly what happened in 2014. Our play showed the brand-building and emergence of ‘Vikas Purush’. We drew our material from what was shown in the media, public speeches and campaigns during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. We shifted our focus from the larger idea of the communalism to a particular kind of personality politics that was being played out in the public sphere. The play showed how the protagonist—Shambhar (parody on Gabbar)—was being promoted by corporate money and media. The play opens with:

The media did not appear in our earlier plays. But today it is unthinkable to do a play on communal politics without showing mainstream media’s role in it. Unfortunately, what we see is the media aggressively trying to rewrite the narrative through fake news and blatant lies. They are explicitly refuting the history of secularism and multiculturalism in our country. The media performs the political, therefore in a play on communalism today, the media can be used as an interesting dramatic device. Samjho to Jaane urged the audience to make the right choice in favour of democracy, secularism and constitutional rights.

 After the 2014 election results, we prepared Chhappan Chhati. This was not a term that we coined—it could be found in speeches and news reports. We elaborated on the idea of personality-driven politics. The artificially constructed discourse around mandir–masjid has been expanded since then. The cracks have become deeper, ‘normalized’ and ‘legitimatized’. Today the daily life of ordinary citizens and public culture is deeply affected by communal politics and an unashamedly communal media.

Our play Achche Din (2016) explores how the socio-economic interests of the populace get choked in the mantle of religious fundamentalism. The play has references to the mob-lynching incidents in northern India and the killing of public intellectuals like Dabholkar and Kalburgi and Pansare. The ideas of dissent, multiculturalism and constitutional rights are shown to be under attack. The aggression by the Hindutva bhakts is unleashed on the streets every day. We are constantly told what do we need to write, read, eat, and wear. Achche Din begins with:

As theatre activists, we feel we need to find new entry points to reclaim the history that is being appropriated and distorted by the Hindutva elements in the country.

We have been looking for new forms, something that our group has not explored. We are looking for new materials that can be adapted into a play. In The Last Letter, we tried to connect the idea of caste oppression and communalism in India. This short reading performance was created as a response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide (institutional murder) at the University of Hyderabad in January 2016. Rohith’s suicide note forms the core of the performance text. Three actors intersperse the text of his letter with poetry in Hindi, to create a moving experience. The performance also takes up some other letters, such as those targeting Rohith as ‘anti-national’.

We need to use new devices to bring out complex layers of relationship between the Hindutva, personality politics and the role of mainstream media’s communalization of issues. The political atmosphere is volatile. Incidents of street violence against minorities, Dalits, intellectuals and artists by Hindutva outfits, state coercion, anti-people policies, rigging during elections—these are all part of the everyday. There is an attempt towards normalization of violence.

The new challenge for us is to showcase the novelty of absurdities that we are facing everyday. Every day there is something new, something more absurd, something more grotesque than the previous day’s news. How do we respond to that quickly?

Our most recent play, Chor Machaye Shor, is an effort to respond to the reckless implementation of the Hindutva agenda. We are trying out a structure to respond as swiftly as possible. We are drawing our material from media stories. Every scene in the play has three-parts: What is incident/ story? What is the role of the government and the media? What is our response? The idea is to decrease the verboseness and make a visually active scene. The challenge, however, is how to deliver the subtext within the swiftness of the performance text.

In the current times, language and words are stripped of meaning. Words that have histories of hundreds of years are losing out to the idea of ‘one nation’. Our collective vocabulary for describing diversity, tolerance and human rights has been formed after several years of struggle. The Right is distorting or appropriating these words. For instance, ‘secular’ is now called ‘sickular’. In this atmosphere of the fear of vigilantism, could we think of performing a play like Ye Dil Maange More, Guruji? How do we negotiate our performance space that is in direct contestation with the Right? Our audiences have always supported us. The performance space comes alive with the presence of actors as well as spectators. We are aware that theatre is not the only force that influences the spectators’ minds. Nonetheless, it does help raise some questions about the very material condition of those who are watching the play. As Safdar once said, ‘The purpose and function of agit-prop theatre is to agitate the people and to mobilise them behind fighting organizations.’ We have started to wonder if, in the given atmosphere, our spectators will remain our allies if we are attacked again during a performance. With all these questions in front of us, we need to reclaim the streets, nukkads, factory gates, to counter the Right’s destructive narratives. The sites of political contestation cannot be left vacant for them. We have to build a discourse around how cohesive communities of rightwing believers have formed through the cultural fusion of texts, myths, symbols, religion and rituals.

Eminent historian Hartoj Oberoi argues that religious identity has to be understood not as a category in itself but also as a historical process. It does not get formed in one day. Cultural activists like us need to find out new ways of foregrounding these ideas in simple and robust entertaining ways. G. P. Deshpande reasons, ‘The new forms of theatre or arts, in the present, will be determined by the new politics around us.’ In the end, I would like to suggest that theatre is a site for recollection, site of memory, site where language is preserved, site where various histories are preserved. And in the process of preserving these, theatre cannot remain a mere site for presentation. It has to become a site of analysis and interpretation. This is what Janam has attempted to do for the last so many years—making theatre the site for contesting the idea of India.


Komita Dhanda is a street-theatre practitioner and has been working as an actor, director, writer and organizer with Jana Natya Manch since 2004. She is currently pursuing research in theatre and performance studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has also been guest faculty in the Department of Development Communication and Extension, Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi.


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