‘Halla Bol’: A book of modern Indian history

January 6, 2020.

Breathless. I have to put words down as I read else I’ll be left with none by the end of Halla Bol. As I tumble through the first chapter, I feel I am in a film. Somewhere I have read spoilers, I know how this will end. Even so, I am on the edge of my seat praying for a miracle. Every hard detail – new shoes, a green sweater, a cycle rickshaw, bamboo stick broken like twigs, a refrigerated room – seared into my mind’s eye. The cuts are too fast, the angles too crazy. A winter’s day in Delhi, a group of street theatre actors … all seems, well, plausible. Even the car of sloganeers followed by a tempo covered with campaign material could fit well into the scene. Except, they are carrying lathis. But still. Maybe it’s nothing. Safdar speaks to them. They seem to concur and move away. But then, everything believable, all that is logical, sane, good crumbles. On January 2, the POV shifts from Sudhanva to Mala [Moloyashree Hashmi]. Their individual recollections of the day change as per their mapping that day, the surreal disbelief remains. I stop knowing where Halla Bol leaves off and the ABVP WhatsApp messages preceding last night’s attack of JNU teachers and students picks up. The ugliness of the words … ‘Abhi nahi marenge salo ko, to kab marenge’. The same senseless, toxic hate, the same rage against … against what, one wonders? A different worldview? Fear of losing power? What? Political gain? Ideas, education, art, words?

Halla Bol front cover

The release of Halla Bol could not be more prescient. January 1, 2020, is exactly 31 years after the brutal murder of Safdar Hashmi and the random killing of a Nepali migrant worker, Ram Bahadur, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Safdar Hashmi was attacked with iron rods. On January 5, 2020, 50 masked and armed people attacked the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and injured more than 30 students and teachers. They did so with iron rods.

Following Part 1, which ends with the funeral and the heart-rending performance of Halla Bol that Mala insisted on, the author, Sudhanva Deshpande, who is a critical witness to what has occurred, places the ‘life’ of Safdar Hashmi and the work of Jana Natya Manch (Janam) within the larger field of influence and inspiration for young people growing up in India in the ’60s and ’70s. While tracing Safdar’s background and trajectory from Delhi to Aligarh back to Delhi, he pulls out sufficiently so we see other characters and social movements that inform the action. It is this deep focus, the author’s decision to use a large depth of field, that makes Halla Bol a book of modern Indian history, while charting the death and life of one individual soul, one theatre artist.

For me, a nearly 54-year-old, familiar with those times, reading this book is not untouched by pain. The characters who inhabit it are marked by socialist ideals and a consuming love for and curiosity about world literature, cinema. They are on the vanguard of a new and independent India, joining public service, seeking to implement progressive ideas and programmes, breaking with the old regressive ways. Telling our stories, fighting corruption, breaking imperial chains. Delhi University serves as an incubator. The first shows of Janam’s Machine take place. The dramaturgy of Machine finds its way into the book – keep it short, incisive and hilarious. Ensure the audience gets the point. With some difficulty, Machine is performed at the all-India trade union meeting at Talkatora Stadium. The alchemy necessary to forge a link with the trade unions happens here. From henceforth, Jana Natya Manch will be entrenched in the workers’ movement. The Emergency has made the work even more urgent. Generously, the author marks the Samudaya movement in Karnataka in tandem with Janam’s own work, giving a younger reader a glimpse into the politics and motivation of the times. The marked anti-imperial and anti-capitalist sentiment behind street theatre is remarkable when viewed from a post-globalisation standpoint. At one point, writing about the artistic crossroads Janam was at, just before it turned to street theatre as a form, the author writes, ‘… one could say the choice was between amending its vision to continue its mission, or adapting the mission to stay true to its vision. Too many artists, too many NGOs, too many radical activists today do the former – they chase the funding and adapt their work to it. Janam did the opposite. It put politics in command.’

Safdar in Aya Chunao, Haryana, 1980. Photo: Surendra Rajan.

Most interestingly, he has included notes from Safdar’s theory of street theatre. From the perspective of any student of theatre in India, this is the mother lode. Very few practitioners theorise their work, but as early as 1978, here was an artist viewing his practice through a critical lens, analysing its salient features and framing it with broad strokes that placed it within a larger continuum of 20th-century work. I love that he ripped street theatre away from other open air traditional and folk genres and named it firmly as being a by-product of the workers’ and anti-capitalist movements. Thus, its moorings are modern democratic thought, cutting the apron strings off of old feudal hierarchies quite firmly. This brings to mind my own engagement with street theatre in the early ’80s. I was a young actor, training and working with Gnatak, a group of left-leaning college students in Bangalore. Isaac Samuel, who was studying at St. John’s Medical College had responded to the capitation fee scandal unleashed by the Gundu Rao government, by writing a script called Lakhs in Black. I played Indira Gandhi and we performed scores of shows at local colleges and trade union offices. Reading Halla Bol, helped place this within a pan-Indian framework.

There are many more depths to plumb … A perspective on the difference between the work of Badal Sircar and Safdar Hashmi. Having lost my acting cherry to an early performance of Badal Sircar’s Baaki Itihaas, I leapt on this morsel like a starving animal. Halla Bol is also rich with names familiar to Indian artists. I am averse to idolatry and, fortunately, so is the ethos of the book. Therefore it views them, with a democratic gaze, as a galaxy of players, of workers held together by common hopes and dreams, prevalent in those socialist days. Then there is the honest recollection of the fallow years for Janam, when it was hard to be motivated or creative. When actors didn’t want to perform for the working class. When participatory processes were undervalued. What happens next is a testament to persistence and should be read rather than described.

The book ends where it began. The death. Its aftermath. The size and scale of the protests cannot be overstated. Sure, on an institutional level, this was an enormous blow to the CPI(M), to CITU, AIDWA and the Students’ Federation of India, but there was something more poignant in that we were even able to feel such vast pain. Sudhanva says it best when he writes: ‘… it was that moment of liminality in the history of our republic, when we went from a certain naive innocence at the idea of an artist being killed on the streets, to a hardening of the arteries of our humanity, leaving us inured to rapes and lynchings of Dalits and Muslims.’ I mean, how long has it been since Gauri Lankesh, M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare were murdered? Any hope of redressal?

By this point, Halla Bol has generated plenty of conversation in our home. Konarak remembers first meeting Mala, Safdar’s partner, at Neel Bagh in Madanpalle with David and Doreen Horsburgh. Neel Bagh and Mala’s time with David find mention in the book. Our friend Amukta Apparao was also at Neel Bagh, as were Sandra and Priya Machado. Serendipitously, Amukta calls and asks us over as both Mala and Sandra are in town. ‘I’m reading Halla Bol at this very moment,’ I tell her. Every evening since January 5, 2020, young students all over the country are protesting oppressive and divisive policies and actions. The country seems so small when there is more sympatico and less divisiveness. Maybe the tide is turning?

Finally, I see five solid reasons for all theatre artists to order this seminal book immediately, besides to learn about the extraordinary life and work of Safdar Hashmi:

  1. It is a love story between artists and that is a glorious thing to witness.
  2. It draws a vivid picture of the intersectional, symbiotic nature of theatre-making in India.
  3. It is available in both Hindi and English and each contains a script of Halla Bol (the play).
  4. It will push you to ask that all-important question – why do I make plays?
  5. It was written and published by a fellow artist and we well know, if we don’t support our own, no one will.

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Kirtana Kumar is an actor, director, dramaturge, theatre pedagogue and film-maker from Bangalore.

An edited version of this book review has been published by the Mumbai Theatre Guide.

Hall Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande is available at Mayday Bookstore and online.

Featured image: Performance of Halla Bol, January 4, 1989, Jhandapur, Sahibabad. Mala Hashmi on the extreme right. From the Janam archives.