Suruchi Gupta

Archive for March, 2012

Interaction with Arjun Ghosh on Jana Natya Manch’s Biography

by on Mar.04, 2012, under Interviews

When we call Mr. Arjun Ghosh, faculty at IIT- Delhi, and say that we have read his work on legendary and critically acclaimed Delhi-based theatre group  Jana Natya Manch (Now on: Janam), he is rather surprised that someone could actually read it – he asks – you read it completely? Surprises of being a first time author are rather pleasant! The work, interestingly, traces the birth of Janam and its working in its entirety to present day from various angles. From knowing that no single person holds supreme power in the group to telling that Safdar Hashmi was just another gifted member of “the group”, the book is a pleasure to read for those interested in finding how a radical theatre group can be carved with a group of willing individuals. Here we go with Q&A with Mr. Ghosh on his work A History of Jana Natya Manch, published by Sage Publications in February 2012:

You have written that you wanted to study a cultural organisation operating under the Left ideology? Was that the starting point?
Yes, as I have mentioned in the Preface or Acknowledgements – I did mention it was a PhD thesis to begin with. The book is a reworking of the thesis. That’s where the research began. I was looking for an area (for research) and what really interested me was that this was at a time in the early part of this century, starting of last decade, when question of culture became a very central issue, political issue in this country. With there being a NDA government in the power, you had various pressures related to history re-writing, what happened in Gujrat in 2002… At that point of time these issues were important. I wanted to look at ways in which politics of the Right could be countered in an organised fashion. That was the beginning point.

At the outset, do you take it that you are a supporter of Left?
You see, in GP Deshpande’s Foreword, he has mentioned it clearly- since the author is not aversive towards the Left. I would keep it at that. I do not write them off. I think a very responsible and liberal Left has a very important role to play in our country. They are historical. Since the time of independence, the Left in India, not a political party – even within the congress movement, the Left has played a very important role – sitting in Calcutta, Subhash Chandra Bose is a very important constituent, the debate he had with Gandhi and all that.  Responsible left has a very important and relevant role to play in our country.

Not getting into debate of whether the Left is doing its role or not, do you think a responsible Left in terms of a political party exists in the country?
Umm… well it’s quite difficult. I don’t think any political party is homogenous. There are extremist elements in all political parties. I am more concerned with the ideological viewpoint. Yes, organisation is important. But as far as a certain political position and articulation is concerned, I think yes, there is a lot of space, there are certain individuals, if not entire parties, that actually work and operate on that kind of a fashion.

When did you started on this Phd?
2001-02.

How did you initiate the process of working on it?
Initially, it was a lot of reading as well as spending a huge amount of time with the group, travelling with them, staying with them, remaining with them through their rehearsals. Recording them from very close quarters. Lots of time spent with them, went through their lives. They have a pretty decent archive of their own works, unlike most other groups in India. Some groups in Kolkata do have very good archives. But across India, many do not. So I had to rummage through all that and work. Lots of reading of street theatre, political theatre, experiences, across the world in the 20th century. That’s the kind of work it entailed.

Since the group was radical, had a political perspective with a violent history attached to it, as a scholar, were you ever threatened or afraid for working?
No. I never felt threatened. There was never any feeling of threat. Yes, Jana Natya Manch had been under attack under certain circumstances, but as a scholar was never threatened. In fact lot of people have supported my work and I had benefited from interaction from a lot of people. It was the last thing on my mind. Really.

In your interaction and observance of last decade and more, any such feeling in the group? Any degree of fear in them?
I think in a group, there is a certain analysis of what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. Certainly the group performs in a north Indian environment where the Left is not very strong. They thus would not like to be very adventurous. Being an organisation, they know their strengths and limitations. They try to strengthen their position staying within their limitation. In fact the one incident which saw the death of Safdar Hashmi was not because the group was adventurous. The group itself was pretty much careful about what kind of theatre they did, but it was a murderous attack. They try to make sure that they are adventurous to the extent that the future performances will be threatened.

Safdar Hashmi, one of the many gifted minds behind Janam’s success

You have made references to how Janam made the resolve to continue with their work, return to the spot, observe martyrdom day post Safdar Hashmi’s death. But what is your opinion on Safdar Hashmi’s death on the world of street theatre in Delhi or India and outside and if this had any positive impact to the world of theatre.
I think it was a big loss to the world of theatre. If an artist like Safdar Hashmi had lived on, the world of theatre would have gained a lot lot more. Certainly talented people are there. But loss of such a personality is an important loss.
Having said that, I think there was a huge amount of reaction, public anger – anger from artistic community, against this kind of killing, against this freedom of expression and that sort of led to consolidation of forces through a lot of young people towards street theatre at a certain point of time. In a sense the incident sort of galvanised the forces to come into this kind of street theatre movement. But nothing compared to what if Safdar Hashmi had lived on and grown as an artiste.

You must have been to Jhandapur yourself. What is the space like there? Can you share that? Is the space marked or something?
It’s a normal life. The place where he was killed is outside a tea-stall in a sort of a busy street corner. That particular place is as it is. He was dragged out – as I have written in the book – of the CITU office. The office itself is there, one can see that place. There are families living there. It’s a normal lived space now. But nearby, the CITU built a Safdar Hashmi Smarak Sthal, where from time to time there are several activities, but nothing great or remarkable. They become important on those important days that people remember. But if you go there, you won’t be able to make out its martyr’s spot. Certainly it is not a state memorial. The state hasn’t done anything great about remembering Safdar Hashmi. Whatever is happening at level of workers. It’s a small piece of ground, few hundred yards. There is a little column there which is a memorial. Important point is to carry on and not the space as such as space has other connotations. If the government took over this responsibility it would have been a bigger thing. But the people come together. Most important thing is that every year on January 1 (day on which Hashmi was killed in 1989) there are thousands of workers and children who come to that particular ground which is now called Ambedkar ground – by and large everything in Uttar Pradesh has become Ambedkar ground these days – and watch the performance.

Though the group has maintained that it’s a collective effort, post his death, the National Street Theatre Day, a lecture on his name , things like these have been instituted. Are they homage?
Even when I spoke, when one is talking about a collective, there is no attempt at all – and it would be wrong – to belittle the contribution of an exceptionally talented and committed individual. It goes without saying that collectives are also built out of individuals. Certain individuals can contribute much more to it than others. Safdar Hashmi is an example. Taking his name as such does not misplace or reduce the importance of the collective.
Having said that there had been some attempts and misconceived notions in certain sections, Safdar’s supporters, quarters of media, to sort of highlight him beyond things – he wasn’t responsible for. For example, if someone says that all the plays of the group were written by Safdar Hashmi. That would not be correct. So, at that level, this tension is there. But naming days after him or other things are fitting homage, remembrance rather, of his commitment to art and artiste that he was… Fact should be stated correctly.

There are three incidents you have mentioned in the book, one being Nandigram, where there was no response from Janam, while it did respond to most other political incidents  of national and international importance – including Iraq War, World Trade Centre attack, etc. Why? Did you find out – you have not mentioned the reason in the book?
Another one is the Mandal Commission report, as I immediately recollect. I will answer on Nandigram first. Had Janam been based in Bengal, certainly they would have responded on it. Nandigram, to the immediate audience of Janam in Delhi, wasn’t so much of an issue. When a play is created, they are by and large created on the issues that are taken up by the trade unions and organisations likes DYFI, AIDWA and others. The CITU and AIDWA were not launching any campaign on Nandigram. Had that happened, Janam must have responded with a play as a collective.
Having said that, individuals from the group contributed at their own level to the campaigning in trying to defend the issues of the Left Front government, issues this government was trying to highlight at that time. A couple of members participated in making of a film made in Nandigram – as to what was happening inside there. This is also on YouTube. Nandigram Ek Naye Aasmaan Ki Talash Mein. Some members wrote on blogs here and there.
Mandal Commission, for me as a researcher, is more serious. Caste is a very important issue Left should have paid attention to. Possibly not having a reaction to their report shows a certain level of unpreparedness on the part of CPIM towards response to caste.
But having said that, beyond 1990, Janam has contributed historically in Indian theatre by creating two important plays: though not street: Satyashodhak: talking about Mahatma Phule’s life as a crusader against the caste system as well as more recently in 2004-05 Sambukvadh – a little known story in which low caste scholar is beheaded by Ram. It was made in a play with a sharp analysis. Certainly, Janam has responded to cast in more recent years.
Right now what is happening in Haryana – honour killings by Khap Panchayats… very recently Janam created a play around it and have played it many times- Jab Chale Khaap Ki Laath. So, the deficiency which was seen during 1990s, time of Mandal Commission, the group as well as the movement, has tried to overcome to a certain extent. I don’t know if it is completely. But attempt to address the issue creatively is there.

With a film on Nandigram on why and what government did, is the approach pro-government?
The film itself, which you must watch it yourself, was not pro-government or anything. They went into Nandigram and tried to suggest that the kind of atmosphere prevailing within Nandigram which was at that time being called ‘liberated Nandigram’ was not liberation for people as it was a rein of terror for people and on points of Krish Bachao Andolan for the people. The film focused on that and the terror within liberated Nandigram. It was an attempt to counter the anti-government propaganda that was unleashed. You can say it is pro-Left Front in a certain way. But the very fact that this group did not do it as a group, would show that they did not condone the killings of farmers, which people have condemned, that will be defending the indefensible.

You have mentioned that media – especially electronic – is taking away political action from people as politicians choosing are choosing it for campaigning, debates, which gets lapped up by channels due to pro-business concerns. Is this your view or Janam’s?
That’s my analysis. What is the role of various media? With street theatre as an alternative media, at least in the time period I am dealing with in the book.

At one chapter’s conclusion, you have written “Janam’s work in Delhi and elsewhere has proved that street theatre does not mobilize political results and vote banks.” In another place, you have mentioned that the group’s work has been valued by the working class and cultural activists. What is the group’s credibility if there is no end result?
There is a certain limitation to cultural activism as such. That limitation is of the Left movement in Delhi and north India and largely in India also. That is something I have stated repeatedly in the book. Cultural activism cannot bring about revolution. It requires activism on many fronts. By saying cultural activism, one means only artistic movements, not other facets of culture, family, issues of morality, how we live out daily lives. Those are necessarily different. A street play is for 45 mins say. The remaining hours, months, in which a particular audience member lives his life, is untouched by the point of view of the Left. There is a point where other ideologies have acted on him. But within the limitation, people have recognised that Janam has been able to achieve a lot more than other groups in the field of culture and theatre, from within the Left or outside.

What do you think has been the best phase of the group so far?
I was pretty excited about the phase immediately after 1978 when their first play was created. That was a phase which is difficult to emulate. Because that was a completely young group, experimenting with a new form, creating new things. Late 70s to early 80s was exciting, for me as a researcher to look at it.
Then the phase between 1996-2000-02, when the group created a lot many interesting pieces of work – two phases I have mentioned in my book.
But currently too, the group is going through a phase of which anything can come out. After having conducted a stringent fund mobilisation campaign, they have finally managed to find a space of their own, and now trying to create a theatre centre in Delhi. Creating an alternative space for theatre and possibly work towards community based theatre concept. This is a new facet of the group’s work, which is coming up.

Were you critical of anything as a group? You mentioned they did not have membership, space, etc. but anything else?
I think beyond a point of time the group was not ambitious in its organisational growth. I think, and have written as much, that the group needs to be ambitious about its creative growth, experimenting constantly with creative aspects of its work, but it did not try to build an organisation beyond itself. Lots of examples in India and outside, such organisations have had many branches, moved out, spread out geographically, which has not happened. But question is, here who can be blamed – Janam or the party and the larger movement too should take the blame for it? It’s a collective failure I think as a movement as a whole. Being part of the movement, Janam is also responsible.
But having said that, I think, another important part of the book is, that in this book, I am attempting a different kind of a biography of Indian theatre, which has not been paid attention to. If you look at work on Indian theatre, they have generally centred around individuals, specific great stalwarts. Whereas here is a biography about a collective, where though there are individuals, who shine at various points of time, who become pillars at various points of time, but certainly without the group, they did not exist. And that is very important. Theatre is a collective art. If you talk of novels, poetry or even films, where an individual can create something on his own, but theatre at each and every performance is an entire cast and others, has to come together. It cannot be created by single individual. Individuals can play a very important role in it. That is the kind of biography I am attempting in this book, which I don’t see any Indian theatre scholars have attempted.

What is the best part of the journey of writing this biography?
I think the years of this research itself, when I spent lot of time with group, I learnt a lot myself. That has been the best part. If I can add as a personal note, then, as a student, I lived in Delhi for several years before starting this research. I had seen a completely different image of Delhi, big roads, traffic, very organised. But the moment I took up my research of Janam I realised that Delhi doesn’t reside in its big lanes and government offices and all that. It resides in its little slums and shanties. These were like hidden behind flashy neighbourhoods. Normally a casual visitor to Delhi will not see this at all. The things I learnt, things hidden away from eyes normally, that mattered to me.

Did you ever play a role in any of Janam’s plays while researching them?
Not really. If an actor fell sick I will go and cop a bit on a particular scene or something like do some make-up like holding something. Say a little dialogue or something. But that was rare and far between as I never had time to attend rehearsals on a committed basis. I was also teaching. I never had any ambition for acting ever! So may be as a stop-gap, incidentally, said something, but nothing really big!

Do you have any Kolkata connection?
I was in Kolkata till I graduated from St Xavier’s College…

Is Safdar Hashmi’s association with Janam till today placed undue credit on, an image you have tried to break – that he was not the be-all there.
Yes. It is, because there is a reason. I have mentioned that. if you look the world around  us, if theatre, politics, anything, its not about the way media covers and projects it, they see who is going to be the next Prime Minister, rather than which party is going to win. Personalities are important ways of looking at things. For everything people look for a personality. Whether it is a historically correct thing or not is a different thing altogether. Generally when people, and particularly media, analyses the things, they analyse on the point of view of personality. They zero in on somebody always and in this particular case it has been on Safdar Hashmi.

Copyright@ HT Media Ltd. The above has been published in a narrative format on the publication on March 4, 2012.

Image sourced from Google

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