art and politics

From Babri Masjid to Gujarat riots: Sahmat posters are an archive of political and cultural history

The cultural group founded in the memory of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi marks his birth anniversary every year with the release of a poster.

In 1989, a simple poster with a black and white illustration of a street theatre performance declared April 12 as National Street Theatre Day. Released by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or Sahmat, the poster mentioned another date – January 2, 1989, the day on which Hashmi had been killed.

The communist playwright and theatre artist and his troupe, Jana Natya Manch, also called Janam, had been fatally attacked by goons allegedly linked to the Indian National Congress on January 1 during a performance in Ghaziabad. He succumbed to his injuries the next day. Within a few weeks of his passing, writers, artists, poets, photographers and activists formed Sahmat to preserve the pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression. To honour his memory and the ideals he stood for, April 12 – Hashmi’s birthday – was chosen as a day dedicated to street theatre and free speech.

Sahmat marked National Street Theatre Day this year with an exhibition of archival posters and performances by three street theatre troupes – Bigul, Ankur and Abhivyakti – at its office on Feroze Shah Road in Delhi.

The first poster released by Sahmat in 1989.
The first poster released by Sahmat in 1989.

Powerful medium

According to photographer and historian Ram Rahman, a founding member of Sahmat, the annual National Street Theatre Day poster soon became a “means of progressive social communication… Since Sahmat was a collective of the creative community, art in all its aspects was our means of expression. The art in the posters was a means of getting creative work out into a larger audience and the poster was ideal for that.”

In a video created on Sahmat by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, Rahman explains the philosophy with which they approached the posters and their evolution.

“We came up with this idea of making one poster that could be sent to all the hundreds or thousands of street theatre groups across India, but we also felt that the poster could have a greater meaning, so it evolved into a thematic poster,” said Rahman.

Every year, through collective discussions, a theme is chosen and it might be inspired by issues related to freedom of expression or perhaps a political event such as the attacks on artist MF Husain in 1998 or the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. “In all these posters an area would be left blank for the local groups to either print the information of their local performances or hand write them or paste them on to the poster,” added Rahman. “The posters, used across India by groups performing every year on April 12, are a means of linking each other conceptually and in solidarity with the ideals of Hashmi.”

The designers of the posters were artists and designers from Sahmat – Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Parthiv Shah, Rajinder Arora, and Rahman, among many others.

The 2018 poster highlights the marches that took place in various states of India in February by farmers demanding loan waivers and higher minimum support prices for their crops from the central government. True to Sahmat’s style, it also provides context of earlier cultural responses to farmers’ crises. Designed by Rahman, the poster is a collage of images, including illustrations by political artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, photographs by Sunil Janah of the Bengal famine of 1943, posters of films like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, and graphics by Orijit Sen.

Incredible archive

About the first poster he designed for the trust, Rahman said, “It was made soon after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. It contained a lot of text and visuals and was designed to raise questions and talk about issues related to that demolition and was more a broadside for people to respond to.”

The 1992 poster about the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, designed by Ram Rahman.
The 1992 poster about the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, designed by Ram Rahman.

The Sahmat posters have since become more verbose and informative. “In the Ayodhya poster, we had engaged with various histories of the national movement and cultural responses to those moments,” said Rahman. “We felt that capsule texts and information presented in a graphic format was engaging, especially to a student audience.”

Each year, the posters – most of which are in Hindi, some in English and occasionally in both – cover a variety of topics ranging from the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, to women’s rights. They also commemorate the birth and death centenaries of philosophers and thinkers who had influenced Hashmi and continue to inspire the Sahmat community.

Sahmat poster, 2017.
Sahmat poster, 2017.

An example of this is the 1998 poster, which highlighted the birth centenary of German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. A fairly simple depiction of stick figures in a street performance formation, it carries a poignant quote by the playwright printed in English and Hindi – “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.”

MF Husain, who designed the poster in 2010, dedicated it to Pakistani Leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The theme of the poster is exile – an ode to a poet who had lived in self-imposed exile by an artist who was forced to do the same to himself. Both its artwork and its approach to the subject are striking – Husain placed words by the American scholar and literary critic Edward Said alongside his own paintings of theatre masks. The text is excerpted from an essay titled Reflections on Exile in which Said recalls an evening he spent with Faiz and Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad:

“To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity. Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest contemporary Urdu poet. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut…The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation. It was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say ‘Zia, we are here’.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.


Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Livogen and not by the Scroll editorial team.