Review: Halla Bol – The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande – books reviews

257 p.m. / Rupee. 495; Left word

When I read Sudhanwa Deshpand’s dipping book about her fellow street theatre activist and cult artist Safdare Hashmi, I wondered – why did we wait so long for a book about the missing artist? It is known that Safdar Hashmi was brutally killed in broad daylight by political thugs who obstructed Hull Bols’ performance and attacked him with iron bars. Safdar did not survive to tell his story, but Sudhanwa Deshpande was present on that fateful day together with other comrades of Yana Natia Munch or Yanama, as he is known among the people, and his book begins with a poignant memory of the events of the First World War January 1989, who left Safdar to give in to his wounds the next day in Delhi. Despand’s story begins by asking fundamental questions: why should an artist die for his art? Are artists the most vulnerable and least protected group? Is it a crime to be a political artist in India?

Street theatre is politics. It began as a labor movement against capitalism. As a means of representation, it facilitates conversation or direct confrontation with the audience or spectators, questioning the boundaries and delicacy of the space. It also undermines the hierarchy of artists and the public. Street theatre is democratic and Safdar Hashmi believed in a secular vision of art that is human-centred. He also believes in an art that defends social justice. It is therefore impossible, or perhaps unforgivable, to think of Safdar without its policies. His involvement in left-wing politics, especially his membership of the ICC(M), is particularly remarkable in the book because it contributes to the understanding of the belief systems that have shaped his work. For readers like me it is an advantage that Halla Bol is the death and life of Safdar Hashmi, written by Sudhanva Deshpande, an old colleague and friend of Safdar. The book contains ideas that only a friend and an employee can know. Biographies can be included in archives and libraries, but street theatre comes to life on the street and who better to capture this history than other travellers? Despande does this with nuance, compassion, sincerity and therefore prefers stories about the artist, where history books can be lacking.

Sudhanwa Deshpande
Left word

Halla Bol is not a traditional biography. He draws on personal and collective memories, interviews, Safdar’s diaries, Janam’s archive and other sources to create the artist’s portrait. And I think it’s a remarkable achievement. Safdar would have appreciated it, too. In this way, the artist immortalizes himself in the memory through the source he has found most nourishing – his lifelong interest in people, which also determines his artistic credo. Deshpand’s memories of his friend and mentor are complemented by the stories of many like-minded actors and Yanam, political activists, trade unionists, scientists and some others who knew Safdar. The details of the artist’s personal life are minimal. It briefly discusses childhood, higher education and the meeting with Moloyashri Roy of Malaya, who later became his wife and working colleague. The book contains an artist among his works, which serve to understand his practice and the life he leads. Safdar has always avoided personal fame and recognition and has always put the team idea first. Despande supports this spirit in his story. He also writes a lot about Safdar’s plays, rehearsals, actor training, problems that have arisen, Sakhmat education, organizing performances, youth involvement in the movement, Safdar works for children and other events. There’s a whole section on Safdar’s collaboration with another great theatre, Habib Tanveer, and the play they made from Premchand’s stories. The book is also a social-historical document about the country’s capital in the 1970s and 1980s and about left-wing movements led by the party in the streets, including a seven-day strike in 1988 in which Jana Natja Munch played the Halla Bol.

In harmony with the general taste for stories, the book has the most expressive cover I have seen in a long time The exhibition includes a black and white photo by Safdar. His face is blurry, but you know it has to be a man. Maybe that’s what Safdar wanted to remember – his work and his actions.

Kunal Ray teaches literature and cultural studies at the University of Flames in Puna.

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