Are street-based theatre performances,one of the most mobile and least governable forms of protest,increasingly leaving its actors open to attacks
Gitanjali Dang | TNN
In May last year,two members of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) Deepak Dengle and Siddharth Bhonsle were arrested by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorist Squad for being pro-Maoist under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA),1967.While Dengle and Bhonsle are still in prison,other members of the group,including Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe,have gone underground.
India has a long history of muzzling street-based protest performances.If its not the government,then its political hoodlums.KKM,incidentally,is a group of Dalit protest singers and poets from Pune who convey their socio-political critique through songs and street plays.
Shahir Sambhaji Bhagat,a radical poet and political activist who has been singing songs of change for 30 years mentored KKM.Members of KKM were hurt by the Gujarat genocide.They approached me.Impressed by their dedication and intelligence,I agreed to help them.As KKM is Pune-based and I live in Mumbai,I visited them during weekends.I shared my thoughts on revolutionary and peoples art with them.I cant comment on their political affiliations but I know that they are like my kids.Several of them are gold medalists and they make better music than the likes of AR Rahman.
The most dastardly attack on street performances was on January 2,1989,when Safdar Hashmi,Communist playwright and founding member of Jana Natya Manch (Peoples Theatre Front),was brutally murdered while he was performing a play,Halla Bol,in a village in Ghaziabad.The Ghaziabad municipal elections were on at the time and the play was in support of the workers demands presented by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
In March the same year,M F Husain commemorated the leftist ideologue in his painting Tribute to Hashmi at an exhibition in Mumbais Victoria Terminus Railway Station (now Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus).Ironically,by 2006,Husain himself had to flee India as several cases were filed against him for his allegedly obscene paintings of Indian goddesses.
Although,contemporary Indian art,like in Husains case,has increasingly faced fascist reactions from the state,the ante of repression is perennially being upped for street performers.Earlier this month,Bureau Publik,Denmark a space aimed at understanding the new forms of resistance that have emerged in the US,the Middle East,North Africa and Europe opened a project titled,Revolution Happened Because Everybody Refused to Go Home.This telling title can be easily related to the perennial crisis faced by Indian street theatre artistes,poets and singers.The revolution,as it were,requires people to not go home but to stay on the streets.
Explaining the potency of street theatre,playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan says,Unencumbered by technology,the theatrical event needs only actors,a script and an audience.It is one of the most mobile and hence,least governable,of the performing arts.It can perform,move on,and perform again,concealing its whereabouts and activities. He takes the example of Telugu balladeer and activist Gaddar.He was supposed to perform in a crowded chowk in Nagpur.There was a siege situation.The police were out to arrest a man they perceived to be a threat to national security.When he finally appeared,he hollered a statement from atop a police van.This act could be called guerilla theatre and it actively opposes the governments war on impoverished farmers and farm hands.Such theatre sounded the first clarion call of opposition,long before other media.Gaddars theatre made it more mobile and less controllable than other performing arts.
Ramanathan is also a member of the KKM Defence Committee.It was initiated in May this year.Ironically,the committee came into being when prominent documentary Anand Patwardhan set aside the Rs 51,000 he was awarded by Maharashtra government for winning a National Award for his documentary Jai Bhim Comrade,2012.It took 14 years to make and follows the poetry and music of Dalits.
The project was set into motion,in part,by the 1997 death of Dalit balladeer Vilas Ghogre.In 1997,a statue of Dr B R Ambedkar was desecrated with footwear in Mumbais Ramabai colony.Police opened fire on the protesting Dalits,killing 10.Vilas Ghogre,a Dalit balladeer hung himself in protest.Appropriately,Patwardhans mediation on this subaltern tradition,ends with a segment on KKM.
The street as a performance arena predominantly belongs to Dalit and Left movements and the fort is held by contemporary groups such as Republican Panthers,Ambedkari Mission and Bharat Bachav Andolan.That said,journalist Javed Iqbal,whose been writing on peoples movements in India,believes that such movements are found wherever there are disenfranchised citizens, be it Mumbai s l u m s o r Chhattisgarh villages.