As I took the rickshaw to biyaasi number from Shadipur Metro, I was filled with curiosity – I had seen photos of Studio Safdar and Mayday Cafe, read about the events that took place there and knew this was a place that I would definitely visit on my next trip to Delhi. And here I was, not just to see, but to be a part of it – in however temporary a manner. As the rickshaw found its way through the traffic and myriad stalls, I suddenly spotted it – a sign in hindi and below it a white stencil on the red shutter – the unmistakable frame of Safdar Hashmi.
Safdar Hashmi's cut-out on the shutter door of Studio Safdar done by the artist Pravin K.
There was something very warm and inviting about Mayday Cafe – within minutes of my walking in, I had a cup of excellent filter coffee, courtesy Nikku and was browsing through their fantastic collection of books, ruing the fact that my luggage would be a lot heavier when I leave. Through the day, I met other members of Janam – some like Moloyashree, Sudhanva and Komita who I had met earlier and some others like Aparna with whom I would share several conversations over the next few days. The other participants also came in – Vaishakh from Budhan Theatre, Manjunath from Ninasam and Shubham from India Foundation for the Arts.
Loading Mobile Theatre on the truck with Janam
There was no such thing as a typical day during the study tour! On Day 1, Dr. Ajay Joshi, the coordinator for this tour briefed us about the various sessions and the general flow of events for the time we would spend together. The schedule ahead of us was a packed one and we were already looking forward to it. While Komita took us for a tour of the space, one couldn't escape noticing how seamlessly the Mayday cafe merged into Safdar Studio and the Janam office but naturally led to the terrace which is used by the members for rehearsal. As we stood on the terrace, it was fascinating to learn about the various communities in that area, the gate that was erected after 1984, the border, the bazaar - and I wished I had been here during the Neighbourhood Museum exhibition last year. It is really inspiring to see the extent to which Janam has reached out to the local people – so much so that often the rickshaw driver, Salim and his 'department' members come to Sudhanva with their queries- be it about google earth or to know how high an aeroplane flies.
The evening brought in many more people – they were Janam members who had come to help with the loading of the mobile theatre – before we knew it, we were also a part of the chain – and soon all the poles, the stands and the banners had been loaded onto the tempo. This activity on 31st Dec evening has been a ritual for the last few years – not that these kids didn't have new year's eve plans – but this came first.
Next day, early morning, we were all off to Jhandapur – the site where Safdar had been attacked exactly 25 years ago. While the others were busy setting up the mobile theatre at Ambedkar Park, the study tour participants along with Moloyashree went to join Smita Vats of Itihaas who led us on a walk around the Jhandapur Industrial Area. Along the way, we met members of CITU and heard several stories – stories of labour laws violation, bonded labour, unfair wages. We saw factories – some defunct, some semi-shut, some thriving – and amidst them, Pacific Mall, standing tall, shining in its consumerist glory while we heard Tiwari ji tell us how the surrounding areas where the factory workers live, is still the same as it had been years before.
With members of CITU at Studio Safdar
By the time we got back to the park, the memorial programme was just about to begin. There was a huge crowd of men, women and children who had all gathered to watch the programme which included speeches, songs, a skit by children from the neighbourhood and Janam's latest play, Samjho to jaane – which, without naming names, was about a mass murderer who wants to become the leader of a nation. Shubham and I keenly looked out for Manjunath and Vaisakh who were the latest addition to the cast.
Later in the day, we went to attend the memorial series of concerts organised by Sahmat, in Safdar's memory. I bumped into people who I knew when I used to work in Delhi ages ago and I felt a pang of regret for not having come in close contact with Jana Natya Manch during those days. Maybe I would never have left Delhi then.
Over the next three days at various sessions, we learnt a lot more about Janam – the history, the structure, the challenges, the functioning, their space. We saw photographs of their plays, the masks they had used – every mask, every picture brought with it a memory, an anecdote - which Moloyashree, Sudhanva, Joyoti and the others lovingly shared with us. We also got to know Safdar Hashmi a lot more than we did when we arrived here. We heard his friends read out his poems, sing his songs and share their memories of him. We read his writings and heard about his plays and the impact they had created. We watched a film by Safdar, and two others that were about him The first, made twenty five years ago, while the last was made just a few days ago.
A striking point about this study tour was that though it was centred around Janam, there were also sessions which spoke about issues at a larger level. It was a treat to hear about the IPTA and PWA from someone as senior as Javed Malick saab. At another such interaction, we got a chance to meet Anurag ji, Ranjana ji and Tiwari ji – who have all worked closely with workers and trade unions. They spoke about the role of culture in people's movements, the problems they have faced, the solutions they have found and the need to reach out to people using new media in the changing times. Yet another session was led by Sudhanva who talked about different kinds of political theatre happening around the world. We were also lucky to hear from Ben Rivers about the Freedom Bus initiative and the wonderful work that is being done in Palestine, using playback theatre.
On the last day, we got to witness another play by Janam. This was as a part of a standing dharna organised by Delhi University Teacher's Association (DUTA) in protest of the Delhi University Vice Chancellor's decision to remove chairs and tables kept for the security guards. The atmosphere here was very different from what we saw in Jhandapur, two days back – and so was the audience – but the play was equally engrossing. It kept people in splits with slapstick humour while very clearly highlighting the inequalities in our workplace.
At the very last session, we interacted with members of Janam – spoke about the work we do and our experience during this study tour. Each of us had been visibly moved – it had been an intense 5 days - humbling, inspiring and memorable.
Homeward bound, I looked forward to sharing my experiences with my children and teaching them a new song : tu zinda hai toh zindagi ki jeet mein yakin kar, agar kahin hai swarg toh, utaar la zameen par !
Industrial Heritage Walk at Jhandapur on 1st January organized in collaboration with ITIHAAS
Photographs by Ajay Joshi