2nd January 1989: Safdar Hashmi, theatre activist, died

Safdar Hashmi, a theatre activist, writer and co-founder of the Jana Natya Manch (called Janam in short), was born on April 12, 1954. A brilliant, multifaceted life was brutally cut short when Hashmi was assaulted while performing a street play in Ghaziabad on January 1, 1989. He died of his injuries on January 2.

After finishing his school education Hashmi graduated in English Literature fromDelhi’s prestigious St. Stephen’s College, and followed it up with a Master’s from Delhi University. In Delhi he got involved with the student wing of the CPI-M, and later with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He worked on several plays with the IPTA. He would remain associated with the Communist Party throughout his life. Janam, of which he was a founding member, had its roots in the IPTA.

Hashmi produced a popular street play ‘Kursi, Kursi, Kursi’ that was performed during the time Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was embroiled in a controversy over rigging of elections. Janam’s activities had to take a backseat during the Emergency, and Hashmi taught English literature at various universities for a while.

After Emergency he was involved in several street plays with Janam, including ‘Machine’, ‘Gaon Se Shahar Tak’, ‘Teen Crore’ and ‘Aurat’. The subjects varied from the difficulties faced by marginal farmers to violence against women and employment.

Janam performed hundreds of street plays during Hashmi’s lifetime. He also worked in Television, which though state-controlled was evolving as a promising new medium in the form of Doordarshan.

He married theatre actress and activist Moloyshree in 1979. 

He also worked as a journalist in the 1980s, even holding the post of Press Information Officer of the West Bengal government, before returning to theatre and political activism.  

Besides theatre Hashmi wrote for children and was a keen observer ofWest Bengal’s social and intellectual climate. In a thought-provoking essay on how critics had failed to appreciate the true value of the great Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, Hashmi wrote in 1981: “The story of the physical suppression of his [Ghatak’s] work is too long and painful to be recited here. Much more alarming and dangerous, is the reaction of the cinema columnists, gloriously called reviewers, to present Ritwik Ghatak as a supreme structuralist and as an enigmatic and contradictory personality. Such views are cleverly designed to distort Ritwik’s work…The critic’s effort has been to look at his work merely in terms of its contribution to the grammar of cinema…”

Besides writing for newspapers and television, Hashmi was considering writing scripts for commercial films as well — as he hoped that would give him enough money to realize his dream of promoting his kind of theatre. But it was left to his colleagues and admirers to take his work forward.

On January 1, 1989, Hashmi was in a labour colony of Jhandapur in Sahibabad (Ghaziabad) to stage a play ‘Halla Bol!’. He was also supporting a local CPM candidate for elections to the Ghaziabad City Board. Minutes after the Janam play began goons linked to a rival political party brutally assaulted Hashmi and his group with rods and firearms. Hashmi died the next day. He was 34 years old.

At the time of his death Hashmi was actively thinking of ways to make it possible for theatre to reach the masses. In an interview to Eugene van Erven, a theatre and arts researcher and scholar, in May 1988, he said: “We want to establish…[the] institute and the repertory in an area where about 200,000 workers live. We would like to perform two or three days a week in the institute itself rather than going into the area. We would like to make it a regular event where we perform for a nominal charge of 10 or 15 paise so that they [the workers] will have an attitude of responsibility towards it…Our workers are culturally today starved and marginalized. From the films made in Bombay…only the very worst reach them. Theatre doesn’t reach them at all. Most of them are illiterate so literature doesn’t reach them. Television is…full of blatant government propaganda…I would also like to take the classics of Indian theatre to them [the workers]. I would like to perform Shakespeare for them as well. I want to perform Gorki, Tolstoy, Chekhov.”  

Also on this day:

1957 — Amanchi Subrahmanyam, Telugu actor, was born

1959 — Kirti Azad, Indian cricketer, was born  

1960 — Raman Lamba, Indian cricketer, was born  

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