Lalit Vachani

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over ten months

For making a film on the New-Delhi based theatre group, Jan Natya Manch, that will critically explore its history and contemporary practices. Combining archival footage with documentation of contemporary performances, the film will especially focus on Nukkad Natak (street theatre).

Interestingly, this year’s arts research and documentation programme attracted two distinct but related proposals, and at the end of the evaluation process both proposals have been assessed to be worthy of grants. While Jagan Shah will build a comprehensive archive on the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Lalit Vachani will make a documentary film on the theatre group, Janam, that many regard as the only contemporary theatre group in India that could lay claim to IPTA’s legacy. In the three decades of its existence, Janam (an acronym for Jan Natya Manch) has pioneered, and continues to develop, a radically new form of urban street theatre. In 1973, a group of theatre activists belonging to the Students Federation of India, an organisation affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), unhappy with what they perceived to be the lack of political radicalism of IPTA’s Delhi chapter, took over the organisation and renamed it Janam (new birth).

In its early period, Janam staged plays primarily designed for the proscenium, with occasional forays to villages and urban working-class areas for large outdoor performances. The imposition of the Emergency in the mid-70s contributed significantly towards the introduction of new forms for theatre into Janam’s performance repertoire. In the repressive political climate of the time, Safdar Hashmi, a playwright and actor, and one of the founding members of Janam, began using agitprop street theatre to communicate political and social messages. Since then, it is this form of theatre that has given Janam its distinct identity.

Janam’s Nukkad Nataks (street plays) are, Mr Vachani observes, “characterised by tightly choreographed scenes, breathless pacing, high-pitched chanting... (and the acting is) excessively satirical, burlesque, and even slapstick at points… a form that is clearly best suited to the drama of the street, where there is no possibility of a captive audience and where onlookers are a shifting population.” More often than not, on conclusion of the play, spectators are drawn into animated discussions with the actors. Views are traded on the issues portrayed, and indeed on ‘the quality of the performance’.

The most successful productions in Janam’s repertoire include Halla Bol, Rahul Boxer, Machine and Aurat. With this grant, Mr Vachani will produce an hour-long film on Jan Natya Manch and document its brand of politically committed theatre of protest, while also examining its history. In 1989, Safdar Hashmi was murdered by gangsters hired by the local Congress-I politician in the midst of a performance of Halla Bol outside a factory gate in Sahibabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi. This incident was to become a rallying point for political street theatre in India. Janam’s repertoire and activities expanded prodigiously, and theatre workers including Moloyshree Hashmi, Sudhanva Deshpande and Brijesh Shanna worked to ensure a future for Safdar’s legacy.

With over 7,000 performances of more than 58 street plays Janam’s productions have been both numerous and popular. In his film, Mr Vachani also hopes to investigate the reasons for the continued popularity of Janam’s theatre. The Drama of the Street (the working title of the film) will focus on the contemporary theatre practitioners of Jan Natya Manch and will generate an understanding of the attitude and thinking that informs Janam members. And while seeking to appreciate the commitment and professionalism of Janam’s theatre workers, Mr Vachani is also interested in examining the ‘two-way process’ of Janam’s street theatre. One senses that Mr Vachani recognises that street theatre is much more than ‘drama on the street’; it is rather about the values of critical inquiry and struggle. His film, Mr Vachani believes, will be a visual testimony to the fascinating, rich, and complex ways in which art and performance traditions adapt in contemporary public settings.