Safdar Hashmi

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Safdar Hashmi
Comrade Safdar.
Safdar Hashmi
Born (1954-04-12)12 April 1954
Delhi, India
Died 2 January 1989(1989-01-02) (aged 34)
Ghaziabad, India
Occupation Author, Street theatre, Activist
Period 1973–1989

Safdar Hashmi (12 April 1954 – 2 January 1989) was a Communist playwright, actor, director, lyricist, and theorist, chiefly associated with street theatre in India, and is still considered an important voice in political theatre in India.[1]

He was a founding member of Jana Natya Manch (People's Theatre Front; Janam for short) in 1973, which grew out of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). He was brutally murdered in Jhandapur (near Delhi) while performing a street play, Halla Bol.[2]

Personal life[edit]

Safdar Hashmi was born on 12 April 1954 in Delhi to Haneef and Qamar Azad Hashmi. He spent early part of his life in Aligarh and Delhi, where he grew up in a liberal Marxist environment, and went on to complete his schooling in Delhi.

Hashmi graduated from St. Stephen's College, Delhi in English Literature, and did M.A. English from Delhi University. It was here that he became associated with the cultural unit of the Student Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI-M, and eventually with IPTA. In the years before and after his graduation, he worked on several plays with IPTA, such as Kimlesh, presented at the Kisan Sabha (Peasant's Union) All India conference, and Dekhte Lena.[3]

Career and activism[edit]

The issue is not where the play is performed (and street theatre is only a mode of ensuring that art is available to the people), but the principle issue is the 'definite and unresolvable contradiction between the bourgeois individualist view of art and the people's collectivist view of art'.
- Safdar Hashmi, The Enchanted Arch, Or the Individual and Collective Views of Art (April 1983), The Right to Perform, pp. 28–29[4]

Hashmi co-founded Jana Natya Manch (People's Theatre Front), with the acronym JANAM (birth), in 1973. Janam grew out of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA)[5] and was associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist), with which he was actively involved in the 1970s.[4] When Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was accused of rigging the elections,[3] he produced a street play, Kursi, Kursi, Kursi (Chair, Chair, Chair).[6] In this play, when a king tries to leave his throne in favour of an elected public representative, the throne lifts along with him. The play was performed every day for a week, at the Boat Club Lawns in New Delhi, then a hub of political activity, and proved to be a turning point for Janam.[3]

Until 1975, Janam performed open-air proscenium and street plays for mass audiences. Then, during the Emergency years (1975–77), Hashmi worked as a lecturer in English literature in universities in Garhwal, Kashmir and Delhi.

Post-Emergency he returned to political activism, and in 1978, Janam took to street theatre in a big way with Machine, which was performed for a trade union meeting of over 200,000 workers on 20 November 1978.[4] This was followed by plays on the distress of small peasants (Gaon Se Shahar Tak), on clerical fascism (Hatyare & Apharan Bhaichare Ke), on unemployment (Teen Crore), on violence against women (Aurat) and on inflation (DTC ki Dhandhli). Hashmi also produced several documentaries and a TV serial for Doordarshan, including Khilti Kaliyan (Flowers in Bloom) on rural empowerment. He also wrote books for children[7] and criticism of the Indian stage.[4]

Hashmi was the de facto director of Janam, and until his death, Janam gave about 4,000 performances of 24 street plays, performed mostly in working-class neighbourhoods, factories and workshops.[8]

Hashmi was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist),[9] the largest communist party in India. In 1979, he married his comrade and theatre actress, Moloyshree. Later he worked for the Press Trust of India (PTI) and The Economic Times as a journalist and then became Press Information Officer of the Government of West Bengal in Delhi.[10] In 1984, he gave up his job and devoted himself full-time to political activism.[11]

Hashmi’s output includes two proscenium plays – an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies (1983) and Moteram ka Satyagraha (with Habib Tanvir, 1988) – many songs, a television series script, poems and plays for children, and documentary films. While committed to radical, popular, left-wing art, Hashmi refrained from clichéd portrayals and was not afraid of formal experimentation.

On 1 January 1989, while performing a street play, Halla Bol (Attack!), during Ghaziabad municipal elections, in Sahibabad's Jhandapur village (near Delhi), the Janam troupe was attacked by political hoodlums of the Indian National Congress.[12] Hashmi was fatally injured and died the following day. On 4 January 1989, two days after his death, his wife Moloyshree Hashmi went to the same spot again with the Janam troupe, and defiantly completed the play.[13]

Fourteen years after the incident, a Ghaziabad court convicted ten people,[14] including Congress Party member Mukesh Sharma, for the murder.[15]


Hashmi has become a symbol of cultural resistance against authoritarianism for the Indian left. Janam continues its theatre work, and on 12 April 2012, Hashmi's birthday, the group inaugurated Studio Safdar, a performance and workshop space located in Shadi Khampur, near Patel Nagar in West Delhi. The space is next door to a left-wing cafe and bookstore, May Day.[16]

Safdar Hashmi on a Sahmat's Banner. 1 January 2011, New Delhi.

The writer Bhisham Sahni, along with many other artists, founded the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) in February 1989,[17] as an open platform for politically and socially conscious artists. Hashmi's writings were later collected in The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi (New Delhi, 1989). Today, each year on 1 January, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Day is observed as a "Day of Resolve" by SAHMAT, and a daylong cultural congregation, "Jashn-e-Daura", is organised in New Delhi.[18] The day is also commemorated by Jan Natya Manch, the theatre group Hashmi co-founded in 1973, by organising street plays at Jhandapur village, in Sahibabad, where he was killed.[19][20][21]

Classical Singer Vidya Shah is Performing for Sahmat. 1 January 2011, New-Delhi.

In 1998, Safdar Hashmi Natyasangham was formed in Kozhikode, Kerala, which provides free training to economically backward students.[22]

The 2008 film Halla Bol, made by Rajkumar Santoshi, was inspired by his life, and also depicts a scene, where a street theatre activist is shown being beaten by political goons, but this turns into a catalyst for public uprising.[23]

In 1989 the painter M.F. Husain had a painting "Tribute to Hashmi" sold at auction for over $1 million, the first time a painting by an Indian artist reached this valuation.[citation needed]

The Institute for Research and Documentation in Social Sciences (IRDS), a non-governmental organisation from Lucknow, has been awarding the Safdar Hashmi Award for Human Rights in reverence to his contributions to the cause of human rights.[24]


Further reading[edit]

  • The Right to Perform: Selected Writings of Safdar Hashmi, Delhi, SAHMAT, 1989.
  • Paanchwa Chiraag, Qamar Azad Hashmi, (Hindi). 1995.
  • Qamar Azad Hashmi, The Fifth Flame: The Story of Safdar Hashmi. (Translation) Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 0-670-87596-1.
  • Official website of Jana Natya Manch.
  • Theatre of the Streets: The Jana Natya Manch Experience, edited by Sudhanva Deshpande, Delhi: Janam, 2007.
  • Sudhanva Deshpande, "Voice of the Streets", Frontline, 25: 9, 26 April – 9 May 2008.
  • Vijay Prashad, Safdar Hashmi Amar Rahe.
  • Eugene van Erven, Plays, Applause and Bullets: Safdar Hashmi's Street Theatre.
  • Vellikkeel Raghavan, Cross-Continental Subversive Strategies: Thematic and Methodological Affinities in the Plays of Dario Fo and Safdar Hashmi. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Calicut. 2007.
  • Vellikkeel Raghavan. Halla Bol. Translation of Safdar Hashmi's Hindi play Halla Bol (1989) into English. Indian Literature. Sahitya Academy, New Delhi, India. Vol. LV No. I, Issue No. 263 May/June 2011, pp. 115–137.
  • Vellikkeel Raghavan. Machine. Translation of Safdar Hashmi's Hindi play Macheen (1978) into English. Indian Literature. Sahitya Academy, New Delhi, India. Vol. LV No. I, Issue No. 261 Jan/Feb 2011, pp. 165–173.
  • Vellikkeel Raghavan. "Safdar Hashmi's Machine:A Metaphor of Post-Independence Indian Industriabist Apparatus." Indian Literature. Sahitya Academy, New Delhi, India. Vol. LVI, Iuuse No. 271 Sept/Oct 2012, pp. 219–232.

External links[edit]