The Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences was on Saturday host to a highly enlightening lecture on the life and work of noted street theatre artiste Safdar Hashmi.
Dr Riaz A Shaikh, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Education Department at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist), threw light on the manner whereby Hashmi, through the medium of street theatre, brought awakening to the working classes and made them aware of their rights and the exploitation they were subjected to by capitalists.
Dr Shaikh said Hashmi worked for the revival of the theatre in the 1970s and in 1973 formed his street theatre, ‘Janam’, and said that this influenced many known figures of the theatrical world, including Indian movie star Nandita Das. At this juncture, TV clips of Das’ interview were screened wherein she pays handsome tributes to Hashmi and credits him with a genuine desire to usher in a new era of social justice, equality and human rights.
In 1971, Shaikh said, he formed the ‘Group of 12’ and their first street theatre performance was, ‘Kursi, Kursi, Kursi’, a portrayal of Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emergency in 1977. However, after this Hashmi had to go into the academia but on his return to street theatre, he produced two plays, ‘Machine’, and ‘Gaon Sey Shehr Tak’.
The latter play, he said, brought out the way a connect could be found between the three exploited classes; the peasant in the countryside, the exploited labourer in the city, and a person from the middle classes, one who was frantically in search of a job.
Dr Shaikh said that this precisely had been the problem in the case of egalitarian movements in Pakistan. “We had not been able to find a connection between the three. The peasant who left the countryside and came to the city in search of greener pastures and the exploited labourer in the city continued to wallow in their misery at the hands of the capitalist system.”
Hashmi, he said, worked to mitigate communal riots and in this case quoted the communal riots in Allahabad in 1980. When a detailed investigation was conducted into the riots, which had sprung from a lock-making factory, it was found out that they had been engineered by capitalist groups and, on the surface, given a communal colour, he explained.
Dr Shaikh quoted another street play, ‘DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) Ki Dhandli’, which uncovered the totally needless fare increase by the DTC and which the government had to withdraw after the way the play had made the citizens restive over the issue.
He said Hashmi’s tragic end came when on January 1, 1989, he staged a street play, ‘Halla Bol’. This was during the general election and the play was being staged in the workers’ stronghold of Eastern Delhi. According to Sheikh, the street theatre group was attacked by the workers of the Congress Party and Hashmi was killed.
He credited the emergence of theatre groups like Dastak, Ajoka, Saanjh, and playwrights like Imran Aslam and Yasmeen Ismail to the efforts of Hashmi when he visited Pakistan twice in 1987 and 1988.
Dr Shaikh traced the history of the All-India Street Theatre in Bombay in 1941 and the emergence of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936 and said that the birth of the PWA was a direct outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR.
He cited movie actor Balraj Sahni, the late Pakistani journalist Safdar Mir and Kaifi Azmi, as products of this innovative organisation, the street theatre.
He credited Hashmi with having organised a street play against communalism in Ayodhiya, scene of the Babri Masjid tragedy in 1992, wherein Hashmi quoted the case of the 18th century Hindu mystic of the city, Sant Paltu Das, who spoke vociferously against communalism and preached inter-religion love and fellowship.
Dr Shaikh also mentioned the Moscow-Peking ideological rift of the 1960s and said that this movement served as a temporary damper on the movement but Hashmi revived it in 1971.
As a background to his talk, Dr Shaikh quoted Lenin’s quote, “Art is the manifestation of reality in an artistic manner. Art helps people understand politics and culture.”
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