The Street Speaks: People, Stories & Janam

By Devi Dang

At the festival in December 2020, Thespo had the honour of presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award to Jana Natya Manch (JANAM) of Delhi, for the organisation’s tireless dedication towards taking theatre to the people. We use the award as a means for us to introduce young people to the work of the people before us, creating in the future generation a sense of responsibility and context towards what they are inheriting. The following article by Devi Dang talks about JANAM's journey and how the organisation relentlessly works to combine craft and social consciousness in its street theatre productions for the people. 

As the curtain rises on the stage, the audience expects the drama to unfold. But, more often than not, the drama lies behind the curtains - in hallways and staircases, in closed rooms and public halls, in shops and factories, at chai tapris, chaupals, and on the streets. The drama lies in the stories of the people. Carrying forth this spirit of the theatre, a group of young theatre-makers took to the streets in the early 1970s to perform plays that were about the issues and concerns of the people. This collaboration among Delhi’s radical theatre amateurs gave way to the formation of the Jana Natya Manch (Janam).

Last December, at the Thespo 22 Digital Youth Theatre Festival, Thespo presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Janam, recognising and celebrating this active and inspiring theatre organisation for the work they do. At the festival, I had the honor of having a conversation with Moloyashree Hashmi, the current president of Janam, and Priyanka, a young and emerging leader of the group

It was one of the most enriching experiences I have had as a young theatre artist because the conversation brought about so many interesting insights on performance, audience and impact. We not only spoke about the form of street theatre in relation to space and access but also talked about the craft of storytelling and how it can manifest to bring about social change. Through the conversation, the two theatre-makers shared their experiences of performing on the streets, which allowed me to learn from them and opened up my horizon to what theatre can be. 

Janam started off with performing plays on makeshift stages in the towns and villages of North India, while also experimenting with skits for the streets. However, post the Emergency, Janam found that the people and the trade unions were not able to afford the cost of even one performance. Safdar Hashmi, a founding member of Janam, noted that the unions needed their theatre to re-organise after the Emergency period, but they didn’t have the funds to do so. This is when Janam started looking for a form of theatre that would be inexpensive, mobile and yet, effective. From this need emerged Janam’s first street play, Machine, which depicted the exploitation of industrial labor. With this, Janam found its way into street theatre.

Janam’s engagement with the people reflected the ensemble spirit of street theatre, where everyone stands equal and together. With this spirit, Janam was performing their play, Halla Bol, in Jhandapur on 2 January 1989, in support of the workers’ demands led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). But, voicing this outlook of equality and justice brought a group of anti-social goons to cause a murderous attack during the performance, in which a local labourer, Ram Bahadur, and Janam’s core member, Safdar Hashmi, lost their lives. 

In such times, Janam showcased its true spirit of standing with each other as an ensemble just like they do in every street play they perform. The group stayed together and decided to complete the performance at the same site a few days later. That performance, led by Moloyashree Hashmi, one of the core members of Janam, became a symbol of resilience. The group embodied the spirit of street theatre as it continued to voice the stories of the people on the streets. When talking to Hashmi about this during the conversation at the festival, she suggested that it was the sheer instinct of a theatre artist to finish a play they started. To them, it was the obvious next-step that the play should be finished because nothing and no one can stop the creation and performance of theatre. It was the only answer to what had happened. As a young theatre maker, this was a comment that stuck by me because it reminded me to always stay true to the art I choose to practice every day, no matter what the circumstances.

Janam believes in creating theatre that is responsive to its surroundings rather than isolated or static. In an era when young people rely on the Internet for their research, Janam’s approach involves engaging with the people - they constantly interact with the workers at the mills, factories and unions, listening to their ideas and experiences, which often remain unheard in the mainstream narrative. Janam also conducts previews of its plays followed by feedback sessions that are sometimes integrated into the performance, to reflect on the effectiveness of the play with the audience. By creating this constant feedback loop between the performers and the people, Janam continues to stay responsive and relevant.

Over the years, Janam has expanded and grown through their innovation with their ideas and the form. Through its plays, it has engaged in voicing several issues that concern the people, such as elections, inflation, unemployment, women’s rights, education and trade union rights. From creating a mobile proscenium theatre, Safar, that took the proscenium to the working-classes, to establishing their own theatre space, Studio Safdar, for creating and rehearsing the stories the people want to tell; Janam serves as an example of the kind of opportunities that innovation in the theatre space can lead to. The group also played with the theatre form as it incorporated multi-media in its performance of Bush Ka Matlab Jhaadi. Through their experiments with the form, Janam not only stays relevant in the stories it tells but also young in the treatment of how they tell those stories.

Over the years, Janam has expanded and grown through their innovation with their ideas and the form. Through its plays, it has engaged in voicing several issues that concern the people, such as elections, inflation, unemployment, women’s rights, education and trade union rights. From creating a mobile proscenium theatre, Safar, that took the proscenium to the working-classes, to establishing their own theatre space, Studio Safdar, for creating and rehearsing the stories the people want to tell; Janam serves as an example of the kind of opportunities that innovation in the theatre space can lead to. The group also played with the theatre form as it incorporated multi-media in its performance of Bush Ka Matlab Jhaadi. Through their experiments with the form, Janam not only stays relevant in the stories it tells but also young in the treatment of how they tell those stories.

Today, Janam has done over 8,500 performances of about 70 street plays and 15 proscenium plays in around 140 cities all across the country. More than 45 years later, as Janam continues to voice the streets with its performances, it stays young, resilient and relevant, still rooted within the spirit of the people with which it began. It stands as a source of inspiration for all of us young theatre-makers as it shows us what a group of young people can create and sustain. Janam inspires us to engage with the spirit of street theatre which lies in the people, and also to treat it as a theatre form that carries opportunities for exploration and innovation. 

 

बोल के लब आज़ाद हैं तेरे 

बोल ज़बाँ अब तक तेरी है 

तेरा सुत्वाँ जिस्म है तेरा 

बोल की जाँ अब तक तेरी है 

~ फ़ैज़ अहमद फ़ैज़ 

Bol ke lab azad hain tere

Bol zaban ab tak teri hai

Tera sutvan jism hai tera

Bol ki jaan ab tak teri hai

~ Faiz Ahmad Faiz

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