Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This illustrated talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, Idea of India, Calcutta.

Jana Natya Manch is based in Delhi. Sometimes we travel but essentially we are a Delhi-based group, an amateur group in the strict sense of the term because we don’t earn from the theatre we do. We are all professionals in various fields—I am a publisher, apart from being an actor. There are students, teachers, other professionals, there is a doctor too, government employees, and, of course, as always, there are people who are unemployed, who are looking for jobs.

Since we are based in Delhi, and that’s really the context in which we create our plays, all the plays are in Hindi.

Two of the most complicated issues we have taken up in our plays—both street and proscenium—are caste, and the communal question. In my view, these are the most complicated issues to deal with in a performance. And this is particularly true of street theatre. In street theatre, we don’t go to auditoria and perform. Sometimes we do perform in halls but, in 99 per cent of the cases, those are not places meant for performance. Those are halls where some trade union is having a meeting, stuff like that. The idea, really, behind street theatre is very simple: in Delhi or Calcutta or most other cities of India, a large majority of people don’t have access to theatre, because theatre is restricted to certain parts of the city. There are cultural, educational, economic barriers to accessing theatre. And distance. In Delhi, for instance, most theatre happens in the Mandi House area or the India Habitat Centre. If you are living in Noida or Dwarka—it’s a long way off. So if people are not going to the theatre for all these reasons, what do we do as theatre people? We take our theatre to the people. The idea is simple: there is an open space (Peter Brook calls it the ‘empty space’) and all you need is human bodies. You need one person, at least, to be performing, and one person, at least, to be watching. If these three conditions are fulfilled—an empty space, a person watching, a person performing—then you have theatre.

But, of course, there are no truly empty spaces.

Now look at this picture of a Janam performance in a basti. The statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar tells you immediately that you are in a Dalit basti. All over North India, all Dalit bastis have some iconographic representation of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Of course, this is not true only of Dalit bastis—it is true of all spaces. There are no spaces that are really empty. All spaces are contested, all spaces are fought for. The lack of access to theatre, it’s not just because of an economic or geographical aspect. There is a cultural aspect too, the feeling that, ‘Oh, will I be welcome? I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what happens in there. There’s a building, but what happens inside?’ For a working-class person, to be able to access theatre or any kind of culture is very hard.

I remember when PVR started in Delhi. There was a government regulation that said that a certain number of seats had to be reserved at a very low price—seven rupees, when a normal ticket was about eighty or a hundred. The first row of every show was reserved at seven rupees. Who were the people who were accessing those seats? Students. I never saw a working-class person, never saw a rickshaw-wala or a thela-wala access them even though it was economically feasible for them to do so. That is what I mean when I say that there is a cultural barrier too.

If you think of spaces as being contested, as being fought over, as having histories, and segmented histories, then what it enjoins upon you as a street-theatre artist or activist is that your radar has to be active all the time, you have to be aware of what these contestations are. You cannot start doing something in a space that would make no sense to the people in that space, nor use language that would be completely opaque to them. By language, I don’t mean only the spoken word. I mean the gestural language, the genre, etc. You also have to be sensitive about the language you speak among yourselves as actors when you go there. Do you speak in Hindi, do you speak in English? It matters, it makes a difference. The street-theatre performance is not just for the duration of the play—the street-theatre performance is everything that precedes and follows the play. The fact of going there, the fact of selecting the space, the interaction with local organizers, comrades, friends, etc., then doing the play, speaking before the play if you do speak before the play, interacting with the audience (there is always some banter that goes on), being aware, sensing, looking, talking to people, finding out what their lives are like, asking for stories. A lot of the research we end up doing is by osmosis, and a lot of that then feeds back into the plays that one performs.

Jana Natya Manch is a fairly old group. We were set up in 1973. Our first street play was Machine, performed in October 1978. Soon after, we did Hatyare, based on the communal violence in Aligargh. There is an excellent fact-finding report on the riot, and that formed the basis of the play. The riot was used by organized companies to try and wipe out the indigenous lock-making cottage industry that thrived in Aligarh. This cottage industry gave employment to vast numbers of artisans, both Hindu and Muslim. A single lock would go through multiple workshops, each specializing in a particular process or component. Economic dependence on one another had led to the creation of a composite and interdependent culture. The communal riots that were engineered were meant to wreck this harmony.

So that is the framing of the play. The idea that the common people of this country know how to live and work together, know how to live as neighbours, how to be part of each other’s lives, festivals, sorrows and joys and so on . . . and that it’s an outsider who comes and instigates them.

From there, I will jump to 1986, to a play called Apharan Bhaichare Ka which was created at the time of the rise in Punjab of the Sikh separatist forces demanding Khalistan.

So the owner of the Great American Circus comes to India, looking for a deadly animal. An animal called Sam-pro-da-ikta. But there is a figure preventing the owner of the great American Circus from getting to this deadly animal—the figure of Bhaichara (brotherhood). That’s a character in the play, and Safdar [Hashmi] used to play that character. In the end, that character is killed by the three communalists who have been instigated by the American to do so.

The argument of the play is in a sense similar to Hatyare, the idea that the people of this land are essentially secular, able to live with each other in peace and harmony. And it is outside forces that perpetrate violence and hatred among them.

This framework remains constant, even though the details keep changing. In fact, this framework is something we inherited from the Indian People’s Theatre Association plays of the 1940s. The anti-communal plays have always been like this, based on the idea of Hindu–Muslim bhai-bhai (or behen-behen). But this framework becomes increasingly untenable and inadequate by the late 1980s. Recall the events around the Shah Bano case, when a progressive judgment is overturned by a law in Parliament passed to appease the Muslim fundamentalists. Then, when the Hindu Right creates a furore, the locks of the Babri Masjid are opened to appease them. So one after the other, the most retrograde, backward-looking elements are appeased by the same government that, please remember, is the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi.

Through the late 1980s, we see a massive mobilization on the question of Ramjanmabhoomi. Those were terrifying times, times of dread.

In 1988, we did a proscenium play, based on the story by Munshi Premchand, called Satyagrah. It’s a comic story. The Viceroy of India is going to visit Banaras. On the day of his arrival, the Congress declares a general strike. The magistrate is very concerned. So he gets a Hindu and a Muslim notable to confabulate, and they wonder, ‘How do we break the strike?’ They reach out to Pandit Moteram Shastri. This character appears in several Premchand stories. He is a fat Banaras panda. He loves eating. They say to him, ‘You go on a hunger strike and that will sabotage the Congress strike.’ So, there is the magistrate, the Hindu Raja and the Muslim Rai Bahadur, all of them convincing Pandit Moteram Shastri to go on strike. He does so. But, of course, he can’t control his hunger. There is a young Congress worker who goes to him with a bowl of kalakand and keeps it in front of him. The pandit is severely tempted, and eventually eats the kalakand.

The spin that Safdar gave to this story was the idea that religion is fine as long as it is in your private space. That it should remain there. All of us have a right to pray to whatever god we want. But the moment religion and politics start to mix—that’s when the problems start. While political parties, especially Right-wing parties, have always used religion for political mobilization, there was a new, aggressive, and ambitious edge to what unfolded in the 80s. Now, one issue—Babri Masjid/Ram Janambhoomi—became, quite literally, the chariot for the BJP’s push to conquer the Indian political landscape. In a light, funny way, Moteram helped focus on that.

The next play I want to talk about is Hinsa Parmo Dharmah, again based on a Premchand story. This is a play that we made in 1989, right after Safdar was killed. The first half of the play was written by Safdar himself when he was working on Moteram, but he had abandoned it. We took up that fragment and turned it into a street play. The style of the play is that of a musical. There is an orphan boy who is found between a temple and a mosque and he doesn’t know what religion he belongs to. He is picked up and given a name, ‘Jamid’, and he becomes the do-gooder of the village. He is an innocent young boy. He works for the temple; he works for the mosque. But his weakness is that he can’t see anybody being oppressed and that is what leads him to quit the village. He goes to the city. He is first adopted by the temple and then by the mosque, but at both places he finds the poor and the weak being oppressed.

And then, on 6 December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished by the Hindutva stormtroopers. We did a play called Sab Mein Sahib Bharpur Hai Ji, based on the legend of Sant Paltu Das, in an attempt to recover the memory of this lesser-known Sufi/Bhakti poet as a symbol of our syncretic culture. What attracted us to this historical figure is that he lived in Ayodhya, and spoke out equally against Hindu and Muslim clergy.

Soon after, we created Mat Banto Insaan ko, in which there’s a character of a tourist guide called, after the film character, Raju Guide. There’s a structure he identifies as a mosque, and the Hindu fundamentalists attack him, saying: ‘That’s not a mosque, it’s a temple.’ So he says ‘OK, it’s a temple.’ But then the Muslim fundamentalists attack him. At the end of the play, Raju Guide is killed by both.

And then, first in 1996 for 13 days, and then in 1998, the BJP is able to install its own prime minister. In the winter of 1998–99, we did a play called Gadha Puran. An allegorical play, a rollicking farce. There is no reference to any real-life figure. The central character is a king called Gadhadar. He has a guru called Guru Golgangol, a shadowy character who stays in the background and wears an RSS-type cap. The king is always surrounded by five of his ministers. Referring to the coalition that the NDA was. The BJP didn’t have majority.

The king’s problem is simple: his crown is too large for his tiny head. But Guru Golgangol says: ‘It’s not about the size of the head. That doesn’t matter. It’s about what is perceived by the people. That’s what is important. We have to create a perception that you’re a great guy.’ And every time they try that, a poor donkey comes in the way and plays spoilsport. Till, in the end, the donkey is declared ‘anti-national’ and executed. That last sequence, of the hanging, is quite chilling actually, so the farce suddenly turns serious and tragic and hits you in the gut.

It’s quite uncanny. I was reading the play to prepare for this talk, and I was struck by how much of what has come to pass was presaged by the play—the pliant media acting as the handmaiden of the government; the attacks on universities; the crony capitalism; the escalating militancy of the rhetoric, so that every new guy makes the previous one look like a ‘liberal’ (think of the move from Vajpayee to Advani to Modi to Yogi); the branding of all opposition as ‘anti-national’; and so on.

And then, of course, there was 2002. As the pogrom in Gujarat started unfolding, we did another play. I remember the evening of the Godhra train-burning. We were at rehearsal, and all of us had that terrible, dreadful feeling—something terrifying was going to unfold. And we knew that no matter what happened, we wanted to be on the streets with a play. Remember, this was a decade after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and many of us had vivid memories of the bloodletting that followed. It was clear to us that no longer could one do the older type of play that equated the communalists from the two sides, and made a plea for humanity and sanity. What was unfolding in Gujarat, post-Godhra, was not a riot but a pogrom that targeted only one community. And this targeted violence was aided and abetted by the state, in particular by the police. And what was under attack was not one community per se but the very idea of India as a secular, democratic republic. The destruction of the Babri Masjid, as well as the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat, were to be understood as punctual instances in the transformation of India into a fascistic Hindu Rashtra. So the framing of the play had to be not as an anti-communal statement but as an anti-fascist statement. Their Hindu Rashtra has nothing to do with religion. In fact, it’s not even in the interests of the majority of Hindus who are crushed by poverty and oppressed by caste.

So, the play had to say—They want to reconstitute the secular, democratic republic into a fascist state. The question is—How do you communicate this? In particular: How do you communicate this on the street where you cannot regulate the audience? How do you communicate this with strength but with full responsibility? How do you communicate without inciting further violence in a situation that is already tense?

We decided that the play was going to use four different registers of speech. And by speech, I don’t mean only the spoken word. The play begins with silence. In theatre, as you know, silence is also a statement. Actors come in, stand in a straight line, silent, and look at the audience. And then, from behind their backs, they pull out images. Images of the violence in Gujarat. We were careful about the kind of images we wanted to show—not very graphic but also moving. They go to the audience with these images (not too close, though), then one actor comes forward and recites a poem. In the first two or three weeks of the violence, a lot of poetry was written. I read dozens of poems in Hindi, and I am sure there were more. We used three poems in the play—by Vimal Kumar, Mangalesh Dabral and Vishnu Nagar.

The poem ends, and then we have the entry of three buffoons. The first is Guru Golgangol (whom we met earlier in Gadha Puran). In Gadha Puran, he wore saffron. Here, he comes in RSS dress—the ridiculous half pants, a white shirt and black RSS cap. He is flanked by two lieutenants—Buddhibali and Bahubali, the Brainy One and the Brawny One. This scene is totally over the top, satirical, comic, slapstick, crazy. There’s a gag in this scene which is repeated in the play, and the audience loves it: Every time Bahubali says something particularly idiotic, the Guru summons Bahubali who presents his bum. The Guru says ‘Tum gadhe ho!’ (You are an ass!) and kicks his bum. Bahubali accepts the kick gratefully, with a ‘Thank you, Guruji’. But, of course, the joke is on the Guru, because most often all that Bahubali has done is to strip away the spin from reality and said it how it is.

So the play uses four registers of speech: silence; visuals; poetry; slapstick. The play works because it juxtaposes all these. None of them becomes overpowering. Had we done a satirical play, I believe it wouldn’t have worked—in fact, it might have been counterproductive. Friends have often asked—Haven’t you been attacked for this play? And the answer, happily, is—No. We’ve had many instances where someone in the audience got very angry and called us all kinds of names, but it never descended to violence. (I should add that there is an element of luck here—who knows what might have happened if a RSS shakhapramukh or someone like that had seen the play! Fortunately, this was in the age before smartphones and social media, which also probably saved us.)

And now, of course, the one who helmed Gujarat in 2002 helms the nation. So, as soon as Modi was elected, we made a play called Natak Chappan Chhati Ka. In this play, the actor puts a placard inside his shirt that says 56 in big numbers. So what the audience sees is a big, inflated chest. This character always comes with the media and the corporates backing him. This was in 2014–15.

Our most recent play is called Chor Machaye Shor. This is a play that we started making once the lynchings of Muslims and dalits began. Making a play takes a lot of time. By the time you understand what’s happening, you see a trend, you try and investigate that, you try and learn more about it, you do research, etc., etc. One thing that is different between the 80s and early 90s and now, is that in the 80s and 90s, the RSS-led Hindutva forces took up one big issue and used it to whip up hatred. Babri Masjid/Ram Janambhoomi remained an issue for a very long time and many of us from very different fields, historians, journalists, artists, writers, scientists, etc., responded to that one big issue in various ways. Today, what do you find? You have Ghar Wapasi, it stays in the news for a while, then, inexplicably, suddenly it dies down; then you have Love Jihad, then suddenly that dies down; then there are lynchings; then beef; then language; renaming of a station; renaming of streets, etc.

I think it is a deliberate strategy to keep assaulting people with these short bursts and to not stick to any one issue for long. So the problem for us playmakers is that by the time we respond to an issue and make a play, it is gone from people’s minds. So, how do you respond to this? One of the things we have started working with is making plays out of a series of short scenes. Each scene is about 3 to 5 minutes long—no more. So you don’t get into too much historical detail, not too much complexity. But each scene talks about one particular aspect of what’s unfolding around us. It need not only be a communal issue—it could be something else. A month so or ago, there was a report in the paper about some idiot minister saying that even cows should have an Aadhar card. Now, that’s perfect for us. It’s readymade for theatre. We don’t even have to do anything. We just land up and say this, and people start laughing. You don’t need to make a scene around it—it’s funny by itself.

But lynchings are not funny. When Akhlak is killed, when Junaid is killed, when Pehlu Khan is killed, that’s not funny. You need to respond, you need to do something that expresses how you feel about it. So we are trying to work with a form that is more flexible, in which scenes are interchangeable, i.e. you can take out one scene and insert something else in its place if need be, yet the rest of the play is not affected. Our most recent play is in this format. This format has no script because it is constantly being improvised.

I think one of the things that has changed from the 80s is that now you can unleash mobs at any time. We have, of course, been attacked multiple times. Safdar’s killing was the most horrific attack but there have been others over the years. Some of them could have been quite serious. For the first time now, we are asking: ‘How do we say this? How do we name things?’ This has never been an issue so far. I have not heard of a single instance where somebody watched the play and then physically attacked the actors. They might come to you, they might argue with you, they might shout at you. They might even call you all sorts of names. But people who watch a play typically don’t attack you physically. The ones who do, they don’t actually watch the play.

One reason why street theatre is more relevant than ever is that it trains the audience in democracy. Democracy is not only about casting a vote once in five years. It is about the spirit of debate and enquiry, the capacity to live together despite and with differences, the right to hold minority opinions. In other words, democracy is something we have to forge every day, on the streets, in schools and colleges and workplaces, in the home, and, within the home, in the kitchen and the bedroom as well. Street theatre, in that sense, is a rehearsal for democracy.

Question and Answer Session

Gulan Kripalani. When you started talking about the play that you did based on the violence in Aligarh, you said that the focus was that the outsider comes and creates violence and then, of course, it takes on a life of its own. Now you are saying we don’t need a particular person to come, it is almost an organic violence that is happening. So my question to you is: With your experience of working so closely with people, what are the RSS and BJP tapping in to in order to have created this fundamental shift? Earlier we would say, and we still do, that we essentially live together, essentially we are bhai-bhai,and other people come and create the mayhem. Now there is a clear change, now we don’t need other people to come and do it. It’s become a part of who we are. What do you think the fundamentalists forces tapped in to, to create this almost chemical change in the environment? What have they tapped in to, to have created this?

Sudhanva. I can only speak of what I see around me in Delhi. I live near and work in an area called Shadipur. It is a very lower-middle-class, working-class area. One sees all kinds of anxieties and tensions in the daily lives of the people. To do with the nature of jobs, the kind of precarious employment, etc. There are caste issues, gender issues, and so on. Now, I don’t want to sound as if the battle is lost, as if the Indian people as a whole have become communal. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I also don’t want to pretend as if nothing has happened. I feel that a lot of the anxiety, the tension, the fear comes from people having to deal with the degradations of their daily lives. The nature of our capitalism, which is particularly predatory and brutish, exaggerates all these insecurities. Cities have also become very unfriendly in many ways. Public spaces inside cities have shrunk. There are great disparities in access to services, etc. There are parts of the city that have grown crazily rich, there are parts that have sunk more and more into squalor. And people see it, they resent it. Then there’s the media—you turn on your television and it is like a class study in consumption. You’re being told consume, consume, consume, even though you don’t have the means to consume. These resentments, these anxieties, are bound to find expression. If you have a strong Left, it goes in the direction of people’s struggles—for example, look at the farmers’ struggles in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. But if you don’t, then fascism fills the vacuum.

Audience Member. Hearing you speak was an honour, seeing you perform also. Suppose we want to show any of your street plays to our students as a resource when we are teaching a particular topic in the class, are they available on YouTube? Because students of the city don’t get to see the street plays. They get to see movie clips, but making them go back to the roots where the poetry is, to reading between the lines, that’s really wonderful! Our students really don’t know any of this. They are so attached to Bollywood. But this is what real world is. I am from Pune. So where can I show them?

Sudhanva. Uploading links to YouTube is a complicated business for two reasons. One, I have never been happy with anything that’s been shot. I just believe that it loses its energy completely. There is another aspect, which is that we live in a Republic of Hurt Sentiments. And we are incorrigible. We make fun of a lot of things. So I am genuinely of the view that some things should not go on YouTube. At least for the sake of the safety of actors!

Audience Member. Have you addressed rural issues?

Sudhanva. Not as much, because we are Delhi-based. Ninety per cent of our work happens in Delhi itself. When we go to villages, our plays sometime fall flat. First, you need to know the language. By language, I don’t mean Hindi, Marathi, Telugu. There’s also the language of the lilt, the cadence, the metaphor, the gesture. There is a language of the form itself. Now, in our plays, we can very easily take off on Bollywood songs or rap, etc. That doesn’t necessarily work in rural areas. And then the duration. Our plays are typically 30 minutes or thereabouts. In villages, they expect much longer shows. So, no, we don’t do much work in rural areas.

Stuti Pachisia. Performances work in terms of audience. In that, there might be one play which you are performing for various kinds of audience. So like, in the moment of performing the play, how do you adapt to what the audience requires of you? How do you negotiate with that kind of disparity in your response?

Sudhanva. You have to have your antennas tuned. You have to know what kind of jokes work with what kinds of audiences. Sometimes you change a word or two, because you know that word will resonate more with that day’s audience. I should also say that this is something that requires training. Actors need to be well trained in order to improvise. It is not easy. And how do we train ourselves? We train ourselves by doing it a million times. And it helps to be a jester, a clown, a maskhara. You can make people laugh, then slip in something serious. You can use innuendo—when you say chhapan chhati, you don’t need to say Modi. A little smile comes on people’s lips and they know. That’s the beauty of performance.

Sudhanva Deshpande joined Jana Natya Manch in 1987, motivated and inspired by Safdar Hashmi. Over the past three decades, he has been involved in the creation and direction of dozens of street, proscenium and other performances. As an actor, he has over 2,000 performances to his credit. He has led workshops all across India, Palestine, South Africa and several countries of Europe and North America. He has co-directed two films on Habib Tanvir and Naya Theatre, and edited two volumes of essays on theatre and politics. He is involved in the running of Studio Safdar and the May Day Bookstore in New Delhi, and works as editor at LeftWord Books.

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