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.

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 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.

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’.”