“The play is called Kursi Kursi Kursi and is written by Safdar Hashmi,” said an older actor to me when we were returning from a rehearsal at night. I was still in school and was hearing Hashmi’s name for the first time. This is the apocryphal tale of theatre history in India, at least in Calcutta: an older member in a theatre group narrates a tale at night to a younger member in the local trains which link the city to the sub-urban areas.

With Sudhanva Deshpande’s book, Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi, published by LeftWord Books, the younger member stands a chance to read the tale themselves, and the older member will find an opportunity to cross-check some of the facts. Kursi Kursi Kursi was not written solely by Hashmi.

It is difficult to define the genre of Deshpande’s book – it works well as a memoir, and also as the history of Safdar Hashmi’s incredible life and his tragic, heroic death. Deshpande combines the two genres of history writing and memoir with other forms such as drama criticism (especially in the discussion of the plays which Janam has created over the years) with startling ease. This makes the book different from the usual genre of writing on theatre in India.

Unlike Badal Sircar’s Purono Kasundi (Bygones Aren’t Bygones), it is not purely an autobiography; unlike Arjun Ghosh’s A History of Jana Natya Manch, it is not history in the strict sense of the term. Deshpande’s triumph lies in his ability to merge the two and shift rapidly between these forms.

Memory as archives

Safdar Hashmi was only 34 when he, along with a migrant worker, Ram Bahadur, was killed by Congress goons on 1 January 1989 during a performance of the play Halla Bol at Jhandapur, near Delhi. Even in the most harrowing parts of the book, where he narrates the attack on Hashmi, a quick clause will tell the reader that Deshpande is not sure how a particular moment unfolded because two people remember the attack in different ways.

These interventions stop short of sensationalising the story of Hashmi’s death. They also make the reader aware of the difficulty of, first, surviving the treacherous attack on the Jana Natya Manch (henceforth Janam) in Jhandapur that day in 1989, and then of recounting it in writing. This book is important because it lays the ground for future work on theatre in India, and uncovers the challenges of narrating a past for a form that is always, to use Deshpande words, “ephemeral, momentary, fleeting, transient, a wisp of smoke.”

Indeed, how can a history of such an ephemeral form exist and what kind of history will it be? Speaking about 1 January 1989, Deshpande says he can “play the images in slow-motion”. Transcribing memory to writing is an act that marks a shift in the way the past is constructed. The French historian Pierre Nora, in his classic essay “Between Memory and History”, has said, “We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left.”

He is referring to the modern world’s obsession with physical archives, which now have the foremost authority in reconstructing the past. Given the desultory state of theatre archives in our country, it is perhaps only inevitable that Halla Bol lies in the interstices of memory and history. Deshpande’s writing style is not just a matter of personal preference; for some cultures such as ours, it may be the only compelling way of looking at the past.

Deshpande writes, “This is not a story of death. It is a story of life,” and yet begins his narrative with Hashmi’s death in Part I. It sets the pace of the book; the reader is immediately drawn into the action. Part II spans over two decades: 1970s to 1980s. It begins with biographical information about Safdar but moves on to carefully constructing the social and political context within which Hashmi lived his life. Part III is about Janam’s work in 1988 and has the most rigorous analysis of individual plays and the play-making process.

Deshpande draws on archives and oral history for most of Part II. It begins with the early history of Hashmi’s initiation in theatre; the early years of Janam’s founder members’ work in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Delhi; its eventual separation from IPTA; and the formation of Janam in 1973. This section is important not just for the details about the theatrical process but also for the rich political history of the spaces Hashmi inhabited in his formative years.

Hashmi studied in the English department of St Stephen’s College. Deshpande notes his disappointment with the “elite St Stephens”, but draws up an equally important history of the teachers’ movement in Delhi University which democratised the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA).

History of politics

Apart from presenting an array of figures attached to the arts, Halla Bol is also a history of Delhi and its political life, especially the progressive political life of the city. Figures like Kumaresh Chakravarty, who was instrumental in democratising DUTA, or several trade union leaders, like Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) activists KM Tiwari and Jogendra Sharma, whom Hashmi consulted while co-writing the street theatre classic, Machine, feature prominently in the book.

Hashmi’s organisational power outside of the theatre, such as his work in the Committee for Communal Harmony which was set up following the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi, covers a large section in this book. These, however, are not supplementary details to the theatre work. They are absolutely necessary to see how the form of street theatre developed by Janam was affected by these political movements, and how their theatre affected political movements in turn.

We learn that Janam’s eventual focus on street theatre as a form arose out of the actual conditions of performance. Street theatre was portable enough for the mass organisations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to organise performances for the working class. It developed its aesthetics keeping this mind. Deshpande’s closing remarks in the section, “The Turn to Street Theatre,” sums up this process:

“The turn to street theatre was not a conscious artistic decision It was not an attempt at experimentation. It was occasioned by something simple – what one would call today a lack of funding. Janam’s large plays were possible to perform because unions, kisan organisations, and student groups spent money for erecting the stage and basic sound and light equipment. When these organisations were themselves impoverished because of the Emergency, they could no longer do so. Janam was at a crossroads. Either it could continue doing its artistic work by seeking alternative audiences, or it could adapt its work to suit the needs and financial capabilities of its working class audience.

In today’s arts management terms, one could say that the choice was between amending its vision to continue with its mission, or adapting the mission to stay true to its vision. Too many artists, too many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), too many radical activists today do the former – they chase the funding and adapt their work to it. Janam did the opposite. It put politics in command.”

The difference in language between the two paragraphs, with the second one resembling the language of grant-writing we see today, is also an indication of the difference in aesthetic choices made by Janam. Deshpande’s criticism of this kind of work that chases grants does not fully make its mark – it’ll probably have a place in another book – but, in a later section, he does criticise the theatre of roots movement and its patronage by multinational organisations like the Ford Foundation. The material conditions which enable performance and the conventions of performing and seeing performance are laid out by these details.

Multiple narrative voices

But, reading this book, I became interested in a more fundamental question. What motivates individuals to work for a “mission” that does not guarantee monetary returns? The answer, in a 2013 book by theatre scholar Nicholas Ridout, Passionate Amateurs, is love:

“These passionate amateurs are those who work together for the production of value for one another (for love, that is, rather than money) in ways that refuse – sometimes rather quietly and perhaps even ineffectually – the division of labour that obtains under capitalism as usual.”

Deshpande’s narrative voice, alternating between those of historian, chronicler, and friend, is a voice of the passionate amateur. Although this may sound too romantic, and indeed, romantic anti-capitalism is one of the concepts Ridout explores in his book, the daily grind of doing this kind of work requires excellent organisational skills, and is, in India, always close to physical violence. Apart from these, it also mandates a new aesthetic imagination for the theatre.

The book is organised in such a way that we get an overall idea of this imagination. It has an English translation of “Halla Bol” and some excellent photographs. (We can see this in the excellent online exhibit “The Street Theatre and its Audience” curated by Joyoti Roy.) The last photograph, in particular, captures this new aesthetic.

The actors who perform “Halla Bol” two days after Hashmi’s murder in the same spot, are performing a circular action and a member of the audience holds a placard that says, “Safdar Died But Not in Vain”. It captures the energy of a street play performance, the sudden transformation of a space meant for other activities, and the nature of solidarity between the audience and the performers.

Safdar Hashmi was aware of the relationship of aesthetics to politics and was critical of what he called “ad-hocism in street theatre”. He was keen to draw up a theory of street theatre. Although Janam’s primary motivation for street theatre was not experimentation, the choice of the form did necessitate experiments in play-making. This is explored to the fullest in Part III of Halla Bol where minute details about the play-making process of “Moteram ki Satyagraha”.

Janam collaborated with Habib Tanvir, who directed the play based on a short story by Premchand. It has crucial discussions on other aspects of theatre. Apart from theories of acting where both Tanvir and Hashmi focus on “‘doing’ rather than ‘feeling’”, the section also extensively discusses the massive 1988 unorganised workers’ strike in Delhi led by CITU which eventually leads us into the events of 1989.

Given the fact that the book is well-told, causal references to some other points undermine the overall rigour of the book. A chance reference to intersectional feminism, for instance, could have been established in a better way with a longer discussion of the play which, for Deshpande, is an early attempt at such politics by Janam. Deshpande also makes some references to internal patriarchy within Janam, but apart from a few references to “seniors” in Janam who are blamed, the real extent of how Janam addressed this remains understated.

Moloyshree Hashmi, whose work in Janam, holds as much importance as Safdar Hashmi’s, does get sufficient attention in the book, but given the extraordinary range of her work, it will be fair to say that Janam’s story can near completion only when a book on her life and work gets written.

The book is an excellent beginning for theatre scholars to work on these connections and draw up a richer history of progressive theatre in India. It is a barren garden now. Only after we have rigorously researched histories of Samudaya, Belchi, Theatre Union – other street theatre groups in India – can we see the flowers bloom. Only then can we claim to have done justice to the life and work of those who have sustained theatre in the Indian soil.

Souradeep Roy is a research scholar in Theatre and Performance Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. His latest work is a part-original, part-translation radio play in verse and prose, A Brief Loss of Sanity,” which came out in the Bengali avant-garde magazine, Kaurab. He is from Calcutta and lives in Delhi and Sonipat.