​It is business as usual at a bazaar that could be on any Indian street: a havildar, or constable, is busy bullying vendors, now grabbing a tomato for free, now letting his lathi land on a hapless back, all in the name of chowkidari (vigilance). A small boy saunters in, picking tempting stuff off the carts. “Chor chor,” the cry goes after the thief.

The havaldar, ever the protector of people’s life and property, lets loose some choice cuss words as he pushes the boy around. But wait, isn’t he the son of the commissioner, someone asks, and the abuse stops instantly. But no, he can’t be if he is on the streets, says someone else. And the thrashing resumes.

The commissioner arrives. Indeed, it is his son, and the havaldar who called him ‘chor ka bacha’ (son of a thief) gets suspension orders. Once again, it is business as usual at the bazaar.

This play – Girgit written by Safdar Hashmi for children – has been touring Delhi’s government schools in April as part of events around National Street Theatre Day. Staged during class or recess, in the assembly ground or school hall, it has had children in splits with its hilarious, poignant take on power play in Indian life. The play has had about 20 showings in a fortnight and is set for another 25.

A staging of 'Girgit'. Photo credit: Malini Nair.

No sermons

At a dusty, broken-down park in east Delhi’s Shadi Khampur, the play has been running two shows a week for the children of the slum. Afsha, 8, has come for every single showing and knows every twist in the story. “Ab ye royega,” she shouts out before the boy in the play bursts into tears. And she knows the lines of the ditty, Bazaar hai, bazaar hai.

Hashmi, the theatre activist who was murdered by political thugs in 1989 in Ghaziabad midway through a street play, is known mostly for his seminal works such as Machine and Aurat, which raised questions on human labour and women’s rights. But he also left behind a relatively lesser-known collection of fine writings for children – five plays and 20 poems.

There is no heavy-handed messaging in these works, no sermonising and no stuffing of morals down the throat. They are pure fun, with great emphasis on wordplay, rhythm and the colours of the world around children.

“The problem with what is written for children is that it is moralistic in tone which means the artistic experience is lost,” said Moloyshree Hashmi, the secretary of Jana Natya Manch (Janam), the theatre troupe set up by Safdar Hashmi and his associates in the 1970s. “Even when Girgit is performed in schools, teachers tend to ask: ‘Toh kya seekha?’ (‘What did you learn?’). But children get the point without any moral science lessons. It is about brute force, toadyism, how the powerful get away – everything they see around them.”

A staging of 'Girgit'. Photo credit: Malini Nair.

Scripts on demand

This year, Janam decided to mark Hashmi’s birth anniversary, April 12, with children’s works. Yeh Hain Neta, scripted and played by the children of Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya in Jhilmil Colony, would have certainly won Hashmi’s approval. Here is the clownish neta – “jalebi pe mohar dena” (“vote for jalebi”) – conning the aam aadmi, or common man, with promises he never means to keep.

Interestingly, Hashmi’s works for children, all written in the 1980s, had come about by chance. Moloyshree Hashmi, who was teaching at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi and dealing with constant demands for poems and plays for children, asked her husband, Safdar Hashmi, to chip in.

“The earliest thing he wrote for us was Kitabein, a poem on the wonder of books,” she said. “Then colleagues asked for more and he would do these on-demand poem-cum-plays. I remember one on colours, Yeh Duniya Rangeen, for the little kids in the early ’80s. Then a teacher wanted to use abhinaya [dramatic action or expression] and narrative in a poem so he wrote Duniya Sabki, a freewheeling conversation between Akbar and Birbal.”

Girgit, one of his most-performed children’s plays and a favourite of street theatre groups, was written for Class VII students. It did three shows initially and then went on to become a school favourite and finally when published, it gained popularity in street theatre circuits.

Another play, Gopi Gavaiya Bagha Bajaye, is based on Hashmi’s favourite Satyajit Ray film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Ashish Ghosh, who works in theatre for the young, composed the music for the play when it was first performed in 1995. The team kept Ray’s music but adapted the play to street theatre format.

The play, Ghosh said, has travelled to at least 60 venues in Delhi: “I will never forget the first show at Mandi House on January 1. The fantasy had to be played out in full view of the audiences, so unlike the film. We kept all the props on the streets but still when the characters shape-shifted it was magical for the children who were always in the front row of every play we did.” Ghosh also re-visualised Kitabein, one of Hashmi’s poems, for the stage.

A still from 'Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne'.

Understated commentary

While there is no overt effort in Hashmi’s children’s works – many of them were written for his nieces and nephews – to push any cause, his worldview comes through clearly if creatively. In Duniya Sabki, Birbal, who is disguised as a sadhu, starts off a lyrical dialogue with Akbar on ownership of nature. The emperor kicks at the sadhu sleeping in a corner of his fort: “Jis angan mein leta hai tu/yeh aangan mera hai/is ghaas ka har patta/har tinka mera hai.” “This courtyard is mine/this land is mine/every leaf, blade of grass mine.”

The sadhu retorts – who owned this palace before you, and before him, and before that? “Kaun the veh jo maalik the is sab se pehle/aur agar maalik the to kyon nahin le gaye saath/duniya mein kyon chhod gaye yeh mahal aur yeh baghat?” “If they owned the palace and the garden before you, why couldn’t they take it all with them?”

And Akbar understands that the best and most beautiful things in the world are never owned by anyone.

Bansuriwala, a poem based on the popular children’s tale The Pied Piper of Hamlyn, is an understated commentary on why the common man is the biggest player in a democracy, and children its biggest wealth. And in Samar Singh ki Saalgirah, everyone looks wildly different in a little boy’s family – fat, thin, round, straight, dark and fair.

“It was his way of saying that everyone has the right to exist in the world,” said Moloyshree Hashmi.

But not everything he wrote for kids was anchored by a big idea. For instance, Shivvi ki Angutha is about a little child’s injured thumb that just aches and aches. And Sardi is about the cussed cold of Delhi’s winter that clings to everything, everywhere. What is wonderful about these poems and plays is the wordplay, such as that of Hindi names for rare colours in Holi – nimbui (lemony), kathhayi (orange), saletti (grey) and unnabi (magenta).

Educator and Janam regular Ashok Kumar, who is coordinating Girgit’s tour of schools, said about the play, “There can’t be a better way of learning without learning.”