‘THE PEOPLE GAVE US SO MUCH ENERGY’: SAFDAR HASHMI

Safdar Hashmi interviewed by Eugene van Erven, May 1988…

After decades of a peripatetic existence, Jana Natya Manch (Janam) now wants to build a theatre space, where it can rehearse, but also a space that can be made available to other cultural groups for rehearsal, workshops and performance. It will be dedicated to encouraging engagements with community groups, to foster a culture of understanding and cooperation, aesthetic excellence and intellectual stimulation. In order to realize this dream, Janam organized a fund raising festival- SARKASH, at Prithvi theatres in December 2010. On the opening day of the festival Sanjna Kapoor read out the following interview. This is an excerpt from an interview of Safdar Hashmi by Eugene Van Ervan. Safdar was one of the co-founders of Janam and was killed by political goons while performing a street play at Sahibabad near Delhi on 1st January 1989 . This interview reflects his ideas of building a shared cultural space which Janam is now all set to actualise.

“I have just finished writing a 24-part television series on rural women. In 1987 I made seven or eight documentaries for the television. They were not lucrative, you know. In fact, I had to spend some money from my own pocket for them. When those documentaries were screened I started receiving many lucrative offers from the Bombay film industry, which, as you know, is one of the largest in the world after Hollywood. In fact, ever since I returned from Kashmir I have been receiving those kinds of offers because I can write. I have not taken any of them. I only decided to write the television serial because I was very much involved in the subject and I was given total freedom to do what I want. I was assured there would be no interference by the bureaucrats. Besides, I also wanted to learn about the ins and outs of the medium. I feel if we do not become active in this new medium which is opening up it will be our own loss. I also worked with some friends on documentaries about nuclear disarmament and on the state of health and disease in our country. Now I am working on another series about the situation in Punjab.

You see, Eugène, we are giving a lot of time to our theatre, but the pressure is beginning to get too much now. Ten years ago when we started none of us was married. Now all of us are married. Many of us have children who are growing up. Our parents have retired. We have become the only earning members in the family. All these domestic pressures are there. We are giving increasingly less time to the group. Physically we are getting older. Right now I am full energy but five years from now I may not be.

We have to find one way or another of becoming professional. In our society there are no avenues. We can’t find sponsors. The Trade Union and the Party have no funds. To set up a theatre institute is not a matter of a few thousands of rupees. It is a matter of hundreds of thousands of rupees. If you create a repertory consisting of ten actors, you have to give them a salary of 2,500 rupees a month, which is the barest minimum to survive eating subzi and roti. For that you require a minimum income of 25,000 rupees a month just to pay the salaries. Then there are so many other expenses in addition. How do you get that kind of money? I have been getting all these offers to write for the commercial cinema and if they are willing to pay me 10,000 rupees for a twenty-minute script and I can write 30 scripts in a year, why shouldn’t I write and produce for myself. With that money I could create a trust and issue a nationwide call for additional funds. With that trust fund I could set up a video production business or something that could generate 40 or 50,000 rupees a month. The idea is that with money we could buy a plot of land in a working-class district of Delhi and erect a simple building there without a fixed stage or anything but where we could have proscenium or theatre in the round or whatever we wanted to and which could also serve as a studio so that it could go on generating money. There we could have a repertory of 10 or 12 professional actors who would do nothing but theatre, training ourselves. You see, we have become rusty. We have been performing so much that we have not been able to learn. Some of us were talented 10 years ago. To some extent we have been able to develop that. But since then theatre has advanced a great deal. We are feeling the need to learn so many things.

Every day at 7 in the morning I am going to learn a kind of tribal dance called Chhau. It comes from Orissa State. Now 34 years is no age to start learning a dance. A guru teaches me one-and-a-half hours in the morning. It is terribly painful, you see. My body is not exercised, you know. He has been teaching me steps for the last twenty days. The first 6 months is nothing but exercise. After that he starts teaching me the dance.

We want to establish that 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 will have an attitude of responsibility towards it. During the day we could train ourselves and do other things beside the agitational-propaganda theatre we’re doing now. Our workers are culturally today starved and marginalized. From the films made in Bombay, which, as you know, are already the worst our mass culture produces, only the very worst reach them. Theatre doesn’t reach them at all. Most of them are illiterate so literature doesn’t reach them. Those who can read consume fifteenth-rate espionage or porn literature. Television is (a) full of blatant government propaganda and (b) in terms of serials only the worst stuff reaches them. I would also like to take the classics of Indian theatre to them. I would like to perform Shakespeare for them as well. I want to perform Gorki, Tolstoy, Chekhov. We can’t do that rehearsing only two hours a night and with the kinds of material resources available to us.

For all those activities an institute is necessary. Looking further into the future, if we want to sow the seeds for a truly people-oriented leftist theatre, we need this kind of a construction. At the same time we have a dream of making this institute a training centre for groups like ours who could come to us from different parts of the country. We could arrange for their board and lodging and organize a fifteen-day workshop. During three months of the year we could also tour the country. But right now it seems a farfetched dream. To start it we would need about two million rupees. The whole thing would cost about 4 million rupees. I don’t know where we are going to get hold of this money but we are going to try. The members of Janam have given me three years to try and raise it. If I can raise half a million rupees through work in cinema and television, even if I have to give up working in theatre for a year-and-a-half, I will still do it. But I’ll do it only if I am confident that the group can run without me. Only then can I devote myself totally to earning money”.

To know more about Jana Natya Manch, log on to www.jananatyamanch.org.

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