ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Cultural Intervention and Cultural Resistance

The theatre group Jana Natya Manch, which works closely with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allied organisations, "takes" theatre to the working classes and the lower middle classes. Its members are not paid and it does not accept donations from any corporate entity, foreign funding agency or the government. However, this means that its members must have other sources of income. The group runs the risk of the commercialised media proving more attractive to those of its members who are either not politically committed enough or are looking for wider recognition. Though the group has innovated and adapted in its own way since 1973 to take on the dominant media, Left cultural activists and organisations will have to continuously explore newer possibilities of dissent by engaging with challenges, conditions and limitations.

SPECIAL ARTICLE

Cultural Intervention and Cultural Resistance

Arjun Ghosh

The theatre group Jana Natya Manch, which works closely with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allied organisations, “takes” theatre to the working classes and the lower middle classes. Its members are not paid and it does not accept donations from any corporate entity, foreign funding agency or the government. However, this means that its members must have other sources of income. The group runs the risk of the commercialised media proving more attractive to those of its members who are either not politically committed enough or are looking for wider recognition. Though the group has innovated and adapted in its own way since 1973 to take on the dominant media, Left cultural activists and organisations will have to continuously explore newer possibilities of dissent by engaging with challenges, conditions and limitations.

Arjun Ghosh (arjunghosh@gmail.com) is with the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

B
etween 1977 and 1988, the Jana Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Forum; translated as “Janam” for “birth”) performed only street plays. Yet, even in this period, it would have been wrong to label Janam as a “street theatre group”. The Jana Natya Manch has always considered itself to be a theatre group which predominantly performs street theatre. For, its moving away from proscenium performances was never a “rejection” of the proscenium but was guided by its goal of bringing “theatre to the people”. The conditions prevailing during the post-Emergency period caused the group to adopt street theatre as its chief activity but the group always had an intense desire to perform in other forms of theatre as well. In 1988 when Janam felt it had enough resources to put up a proscenium play, it produced Moteram ka Satyagraha (Moteram’s Satyagraha). Since then Janam has continued to produce a proscenium play every two years and has been recognised for its contribution to both street theatre and the proscenium.

Taking Theatre to the People

Being a political theatre group the Jana Natya Manch’s activity in both street theatre and on the proscenium stage is on the basis of a strategy of intervention. It seeks to take theatre to the people – largely the working classes and the lower middle classes of Delhi and its surrounding areas. That is, it takes its theatre to a nontheatre going audience and through its plays consolidates support for the mass organisations which lead struggles on various issues. On the other hand, through its proscenium plays Janam participates in the discourse in the theatre going circles and in the larger field of theatre itself. Yet, at the same time Janam’s mode of functioning and the structure of its organisation are significantly different from other participants in the proscenium circles. In this paper I study this strategy of dual intervention to trace the goals of resistance art and the relationship resistance art and the agents of resistance art share with dominant cultural forms. In the process I also examine the variations between the structures of production of resistance and dominant forms – whether the structure of production of the dominant can be replicated by the resistance without affecting the form itself. Also, whether the resistance form and its production are in conflict with the dominant. I would examine the shapes these challenges take, the strategies which resistance art needs to adopt in the face of these challenges, and indeed the sustainability of resistance art.

Founded in 1973, the Jana Natya Manch has performed all over India. However, the bulk of its work has been in the working class localities, educational institutions and lower middle class neighbourhoods in and around Delhi. The nature of Janam and

SPECIAL ARTICLE

the kind of theatre it has engaged in has been defined by the way the group responded to the conditions prevailing after the political emergency imposed between 1975 and 1977. It was not that Janam had not performed “street plays” before the Emergency – plays like Nixon-Kissinger Dialogue (1972) and Kursi, kursi, kursi (Chair, chair, chair; 1975) were short dramatic pieces which were performed at political rallies and sit-ins. But Janam’s primary activity during this period was proscenium plays which were performed at outdoor locations on makeshift stages. The local host organisations, mostly trade unions and youth organisations made arrangements for the stage, lights and sound. But the attacks on democratic organisations during the Emergency wrecked their ability to put together resources for Janam’s shows. Janam was thus faced with a problem and forced to rethink its strategies. In one of the discussions Safdar Hashmi’s words articulated the choice facing his colleagues, “agar hum bade natak nahin le ja sakte hain janta ke beech mein to hum chhote natak le jayenge (if we can’t take big plays to the people then we will take short ones)” (Hashmi 1997: 58-59). And for this the only way they could overcome the paucity of “short” scripts was to write their own plays. Machine was the first of many collaborative and collective ventures Janam produced. Thus, Janam’s decision to shift to “short” or “small” plays instead of stage plays was essentially a political response to the post-Emergency conditions. For 10 years the group performed only street plays, before returning to the proscenium in 1988 with Moteram ka Satyagraha. Street plays continue to be the mainstay of the group.

Linkages Outside the Group

Street plays form the primary link between Janam and the larger democratic movement in Delhi and the rest of the country. The group works in close association with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and its various allied organisations. First, it is through street play performances that it comes in contact with its audiences, that section of the population that the democratic movement seeks to mobilise. The street play form provides an intimacy with audiences which has a major influence on the content and themes of Janam’s plays. Second, most of Janam’s performances are hosted by various mass organisations of the CPI(M), like trade unions, and organisations of youth, students and women. Very often Janam responds to a campaign call given by one of these organisations with a play on the issue of the moment. It may be noted at this point, however, that both these linkages are true even for Janam’s proscenium productions which are taken to non-proscenium audience by using the group’s mobile theatre. The distinction that I seek to draw here is between traditional proscenium spaces and non-proscenium spaces, the former lacking the linkages with audiences and supporting organisations which the latter provides.

Janam’s contact with its audiences is also one of the sources of its membership. Many of Janam’s current or former actors have been attracted to the group in this manner. For a political theatre group like the Jana Natya Manch, its membership and its actors are the mainstay of survival and independence. A successful and effective Janam actor also needs to be politically trained since clarity on ideological issues lends to the sharpness of his/her contribution to the collective play-making process. Other than political training, artistic and creative training is also honed within an actor. Once an actor gains experience (s)he is in a position to help newer members develop themselves both artistically and politically. The more senior actors can then concentrate on other tasks like organisation building. Thus a cycle of renewal of skills and commitment is set into motion. But a high turnover rate induced by the pressures of the pecuniary existence hinders the growth of the organisation both in its aesthetic and political dimensions, as well as in terms of increasing the sphere of its activitie s. At the same time, newer members may never have had any acquaintance with Janam’s politics resulting in the overall political consciousness of the organisation remaining low. This can have multiple effects on Janam’s activities. It can affect the commitment of a member or the improvisation sessions which demand a certain political understanding from the actors.

The history of the Jana Natya Manch bears witness to a large turnover of actors. Many of the new members want to utilise Janam as a take-off point, to brush off the rust, in the quest for a space in the limelight of television serials and films. Needless to say, for them the grind of performing in dusty, noisy lanes of working class slums in the outskirts of the city proves too much after a while. Given that the Jana Natya Manch is a voluntary political cultural organisation which does not pay its actors for their performances, it becomes imperative for the actors to have other sources of livelihood. Janam’s actors are, thus, only parttime actors. Some actors are professionals and yet others seek to further a career in the performing arts. We have seen that over the last few years, several of Janam’s actors who had gathered experience of three to 10 years quit in order to further their careers in the dominant media. There are other actors who are intermittently offered work in television serials or telefilms, work which fetches them some financial respite. There is thus a possibility that repeated association with sources of remuneration outside the fold of Janam may open up possibilities of a career in the lucrative electronic media. Artists committed to their art have an inherent desire to present their art before larger audiences, and a desire for fame and glory. The artist, therefore, seeks to constantly broaden the distribution of his/ her art. The scope of distribution offered by an organisation is proportional to its sphere of influence and organisational strength. The dominant media has an advantage over Jana Natya Manch on these counts.

The reason Janam does not pay its actors is because it is a nonprofit organisation which does not accept funds from any corporate entity or the government. This is part of a conscious political choice to prevent any direct or indirect control over its work by entities whose operations are in contradiction to Janam’s political position. Janam is a non-profit group, which means it does not perform commercially organised shows. It tries to prevent its theatre from taking the shape of a commodity to be sold in the market, thus escaping the forces of market censorship. Funding from agencies like the Ford Foundation and Oxfam or from the government, apparently without any riders or censorship over

june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

SPECIAL ARTICLE

the content of the recipient’s work, have had a history of crippling the radical edge of radical groups. If nothing else, the sheer dependence on funding has forced recipient groups into exercises in self-censorship. Instead of large corpus of funds, Janam operates within a much smaller budget which is funded primarily by its audiences. The bulk of Janam’s finances are sourced from postperformance collections, donations from mass organisations and voluntary donations from individuals. After each show, the actors move among the audience appealing for contributions. Unlike ticketed shows, post-performance collections do not bind the actors and spectators in a commercial relationship. While appealing for contributions the actors ask the spectators to contribute “as much as they can” if they feel that “the play should be performed at other locations”. Thus, the spectators’ contribution is a political consent, a participation in the dissemination of the play.

Structure and Creativity

The Jana Natya Manch follows a democratic and hierarchical structure of functioning. Every year all the members sit together for an annual general body meeting (AGBM). Other than reviewing the work of the year gone by, the goals of the organisation for the upcoming year and the statement of account, the AGBM also elects an executive committee (EC). The EC, in turn, elects the president, the secretary and the treasurer. Though the day-to-day functioning of the organisation is coordinated by the secretary, the EC meets frequently to deliberate on future programmes. In situations where a full meeting is not possible, the secretary consults all members over the telephone or through email before taking any decision. All along the members are kept informed about decisions and asked for their opinion on the group’s activities. The creative process, however, does not follow the organisational hierarchy. Once the group decides to produce a play on a particular theme, all the active members discuss the theme and various ideas are exchanged. The improvisation sessions also allow all participants to express their opinion in the playmaking process. It is at a later stage that the director asserts greater control in order to shape the play, but at all stages the play is open to criticism from the rest of the group, from mass organisations’ representatives and from the spectators. At various stages of the playmaking process Janam invites academicians, experts and activists to share their perspectives on the theme and the play, with the group.

On the count of finance and the structure of its organisation, Janam’s functioning differs fundamentally from commercialised dominant cultural forms. There are two points which I would draw from this – one, that the difference in the sources of finance and the organisational structure stems from the difference in the political perspectives of the two set-ups – the resistance and the reactionary or the status quoist; and two, the dominant, by virtue of being the dominant poses a threat of appropriating or engulfing the resistance. But, before I elaborate upon these issues I would like to present an illustration of the conflict between the two streams of art.

It would seem that there are fundamental differences between dominant cultural forms and forms of resistance, among other

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

things in terms of their finance and distribution. The dominant forms have greater influence over individual artists. But as I would like to demonstrate it is not formal differences which should be our main concern in searching for ways to counter dominant forms. I would like to discuss the alternative forms of street theatre, which differ from each other in one primary element – that of politics. Though street theatre is seen by most people as associated with the left, the left is not by any means the sole practitioner of street theatre. In fact, we may note here the astonishing fact that though the Congress Party and its goons were responsible for the murder of Safdar Hashmi in 1989, as early as 1991 it was the Congress Party which employed street theatre groups to campaign for its candidates. Today almost all establishment, political parties use street theatre to campaign during elections. There is, however, a vast difference between Janam’s style of campaigning and them. These parties use the structure which has been put in place for the use of street theatre to carry out public awareness campaigns under the aegis of government agencies like the song and drama division. They hire artists on contract to carry out public information campaigns on topics like “save oil” and “family planning”. The approach of such agencies to street theatre is revealed from an advertisement which was published by the Department of Family Welfare, Mini stry of Health which invited “sealed quotations from reputed parties in the profession, for organising street plays during the India International Trade Fair” (Deshpande 1997: 3). Gone are the illusions of “social messages”, street theatre has been reduced to advertisement, a commodity which is available in the market. This approach has given rise to a circle of theatre contracting in Delhi where young men and (sometimes) women look to make “some money” out of such campaigns.

When Janam takes up a campaign it follows a democratic process through which the theme is decided and the play is prepared through a combination of improvisation and scripting. Thus, all actors get an opportunity to contribute in the playmaking process, with the more experienced and talented members contributing the most. But almost never does the playmaking process reache a conclusion. For, as the play is performed by those who have created it they are at liberty to alter it. Also, since the group itself is motivated by politics, the political party it is campaigning for need not act as a censor over the performances to ensure adherence to the political line of the party. Thus, in the middle of a campaign the group can make suitable alterations to suit the peculiar needs of a particular locale or to incorporate a response to some recent happening. In the case of the establishment parties and the government agencies, however, such liberty cannot be granted. The script of the campaign play is centrally prepared and approved by the party’s campaign managers. As the primary motive for these actors is money and they were never a part of the playmaking process, they cannot be trusted to alter the play, for this may result in a wrong projection of the party’s political position. The result is that the performances remain the same for all localities and the play cannot be updated during the campaign. It is, thus, an extremely top-down structure.

As we can see, though the form remains the same, the difference in the ultimate impact of the two styles of performance lies

SPECIAL ARTICLE

in the structure of the performing organisations. While the Jana Natya Manch follows a democratic set-up, the performances of the establishment replicate the undemocratic top-down model of the electronic media and the capitalist production system. The two structures represent, precisely, two different politics. The question, thus, is not whether street theatre is a democratic form while television and cinema are undemocratic forms. The question is not whether the establishment shall appropriate the forms of resistance or whether the resistance shall intervene and alter the dominant modes of cultural production and dissemination. The question to be asked is: What is the politics on the basis of which a particular cultural production is based – does it empower its producers and recipients or does it empower its owners?; who are the owners of the means of production of art – are they media tycoons, the sponsors, funding agencies like the Ford Foundation or is it the actors and the audiences who fund the theatre themselves? For the politics which an art form propagates also determines its organisational structure. If a group like the Jana Natya Manch wishes to campaign for a democratic society through its theatre it must preserve the democratic environment within its own folds.

Growth Constraints

The Jana Natya Manch remains a group of 20 to 30 individuals operating in the city of Delhi. In contrast there are other peoples’ theatre groups in India that operate in a much wider network. The West Bengal wing of the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) has almost 350 branches all over the state, in both urban and rural centres. The branches are locality-based with their members residing within a small radius. Most of their performances are also within their base area. Each group performs an average of 50 shows in a year. The Praja Natya Mandali of Andhra Pradesh is an organisation with a primarily rural base with most of its members being agricultural workers and dalits. It has over 1,100 branches and over 22,000 members. Being composed of agricultural workers the work of most of the groups is seasonal. In case of state-wide campaigns, alternative teams are used so that no group is overworked. On the other hand, the Jana Natya Manch has a phenomenal record of 200-300 performances in a year. If rehearsals and organisational meetings are included it translates to almost a 365-day routine for some of its members. Despite such involvement, I dare say, Janam is unable to make a mark in Delhi, similar to what the IPTA can achieve in most parts of Bengal. Both the IPTA and the PNM are able to spare greater time and resources for the tasks of organisation building. The regular turnover of Janam’s membership severely cripples the organisation’s ability to grow. It is true that the steady influx of new members is positive for Janam as it leads to induction of fresh ideas and energy, but the inability to retain a larger fraction of these inductions leads to stunting of the growth potential of the organisation. One of the manifestations of this is the inability of Janam to distribute its theatrical output in the scales achieved by the West Bengal IPTA or the PNM in Andhra Pradesh. In the past the Jana Natya Manch has made various attempts to increase its influence and activity. In the 1980s, Janam members, especially Safdar Hashmi, conducted theatre workshops in various institutions in Delhi. Since the mid-1990s, Janam members have frequently conducted theatre workshops with an aim to develop other groups in Delhi. In 1997-98, as part of its 25th year celebrations, Janam organised a workshop for children of working class slums in Kusumpur in south Delhi. There was a concrete attempt to establish a cultural centre at Jhandapur in east Delhi, but the plan did not materialise. It would be wrong to place the entire responsibility of the failure of these efforts on Janam. The weakness of the left movement in Delhi in its totality was responsible for this failure. However, for purposes of analysis we can deduce that the specific weakness on Janam’s part in such efforts has been the inability to spare senior and experienced actors for prolonged periods – actors who could take off from the group’s performance commitments. The turnover of actors has limited Janam’s ability to enhance its organisational influence.

An avenue open before Janam, as also other groups facing similar situations is to turn to the market or to the funding agencies. But doing so carries with it the danger of succumbing to a politics antithetical to Janam’s own. This fear is based on the experience of many groups who have tried this avenue. In 1995 a theatre group from Delhi accepted the offer made by the department of family welfare. This was a reputed group which had been performing proscenium theatre of some quality in Delhi for several years. It was also a group which had been battling severe financial difficulties and needed money desperately. The group chose to perform Aurat (Woman) at the trade fair. The play, which was first performed by the Jana Natya Manch in 1979, analysed women’s exploitation in a patriarchal society from the angle of class politics and made the radical suggestion that women should join the organised movement. When the chosen group performed Aura t at the trade fair, it decided to make alterations to the play. These alterations, however, were not of the kind which are required to adapt a play to the local context. The alterations were to delete the radical content of the play. It was not that the group made these deletions out of any official guideline or dictate. It was an exercise in self-censorship which anticipated an official directive (Deshpande 1997: 3).

Other than the threat of market censorship dictating and deradicalising the agenda of the group, the crucial question before a group like Janam is the availability of capital to enter the market. Though it is true that it is the people who continue to fund Janam’s theatre, such funding can never be large enough to fund a team of full-time actors who can earn their living from Janam’s theatre.1 Janam cannot resort to commercial ventures without sacrificing politics for two reasons – one, the group itself lacks the capital to fund such ventures; two, Janam’s audiences cannot purchase the access charges to such productions.

There is a third set of options before the group to deal with the dual hurdles of a high turnover of members on one side and financial limitations on the other. First, the group has to rigorously link itself to the larger democratic movement and the movement in turn has to sustain and support the group. I have already noted the links between Janam and various mass organisations of the CPI(M). While Janam takes up campaigns for the CPI(M) and the mass organisations, they in turn organise

june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

SPECIAL ARTICLE

the logistics for Janam’s performances and arrange for a stable rehearsal space for the group. Second, the group has to constantly renew and strengthen the political ideological resolve of its own members. This would enable the members to sustain their personal and professional lives. I am not suggesting that Janam should not ideolo gically train its members or that it is inadequate, for that is an assessment which the group has to make for itself. I may only add that Janam’s strength or weakness should not be viewed in isolation from the strength of the CPI(M) in particular and organisations of the left in general in the political capital of the country. Delhi remains a city in which political protest and resistance are relegated to the farthest margins. With the onset of the neo-liberal globalisation these margins have shrunk further.

Old and Unresolved Debates

Neither the debate between individualist tendencies and political commitment nor that between participation in the dominant cultural forms and resistance to appropriation is new for the left cultural movement. If we turn to the history of the Indian media we find it was, for a very long period after Independence, remarkably influenced by ideas of socialism. Continuing from the Indian Peoples’ Theatre (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) the assertion of socialist and democratic ideals were recognisable through the work of Prithviraj Kapoor, K L Saigal, Bimal Roy, Pankaj Mullick, Balraj Sahni, K A Abbas, Sachin Dev Burman, Utpal Dutt, Habib Tanvir, Ritwik Ghatak, and Majrooh Sultanpuri. The break-up and the ultimate dissolution of the IPTA in the post-Independence period, due to differences on certain ideological questions regarding the relationship between the Communist Party and the cultural organisation, weakened the organised left cultural movement in the country. It is my argument that even though the stalwarts furthered socialist and democratic ideals in society, had their efforts been mediated through IPTA or the PWA, not only would the effects have been more farreaching, they would also have been more long-lasting. By losing out on their contribution the left cultural organisations lost out on the best human resources available – an organisation which hopes to grow in strength and influence must attract the best minds and talent to its folds. The media of the ruling classes is extremely organised and cannot be countered effectively without an organise d cultural movement.

The nature of the involvement of the aforementioned stalwarts and the possibility of the artists of the Jana Natya Manch intervening in the dominant media are distinct in their parameters. For the stalwarts the dominant media was their primary field of activity, whereas for the members of Janam it is Janam itself. Responding to a question on the possibility of Janam’s actors working in the dominant media Safdar Hashmi said:

You see...we are giving a lot of time to our theatre, but the pressure is beginning to get too much now.... domestic pressures are there. Take Manish (Manoja). He is one of our finest actors. Both his parents are over 75. His wife is always ill. He has two children. He is running a small printing press which is not doing well. He is surrounded by 1,001 problems. He wants to give time to Janam but he can’t and there is this constant sense of guilt, you know. The three most senior members of our group are thus no longer able to give all the time that is necessary.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

Teagi [sic Subhash Tyagi] is certainly one of the finest actors in the city. If he wants to get into cinema he only needs to spread the word that he is available. He doesn’t want to do it. The same goes for Manish and me. Last year, my wife [Moloyashree Hashmi] was asked to play the lead in the film that won the national award for the best film of the year. It would have meant a great deal for her. But we have not taken those opportunities (Hashmi 1989: 176).

Hashmi had actually worked as a script writer for a television series on the state-run television, but that was for very little money. When there were more lucrative offers from the Mumbai film industry he refused all of them. At that time the choice of entering the electronic media was available not only to the members of Janam in their individual capacity but also to the group. It needed money to fund its project to set up a cultural institute in order to advance the movement. Hashmi proposed to use his talents as a script writer to earn the necessary money for Janam. But he realised the danger involved in such a proposition. His proposal, therefore, included a safeguard:

[A] trust will be set up even before a penny comes in. No money will come in my name but only in the name of the trust... I will become a member of the trust and will receive a salary... I come from a very poor background. I had a very tough life as a child. So this danger is there, I have never seen money. If I see 200,000 rupees, I may just lose my balance (Hashmi 1989: 178).

Hashmi’s acute awareness of the danger of appropriation by the dominant media is indicative of his submission to the process of constant rectification which an artist or an activist must submit herself to. The point is illustrated through the words of Liu Shaoqi when he laid down the principles of becoming a good communist:

The Communist Party did not drop from heaven but was born out of Chinese society. Every member of the Communist Party has come from this society, is living in it today and is constantly exposed to its seamy side. It is not surprising then that Communists, whether they are of proletarian or non-proletarian origin and whether they are old or new members of the Party, should carry with them to a greater or lesser extent the thinking and habits of the old society. In order to preserve our purity as vanguard fighters of the proletariat and to enhance our revolutionary quality and working ability, it is essential for every Communist to work hard to temper and cultivate himself in every respect.... For us (communists) it is most important never to divorce ourselves from the current revolutionary struggle of the masses, but to identify ourselves with it, in order to study, sum up and apply the revolutionary experience of the past.... the method of self-cultivation for us Communists ...is entirely different from those methods of self-cultivation which are idealistic and divorced from the revolutionary practices of the masses (Shaoqi 1984: 112-19).

This rectification would help the individual and the organisation work steadfastly towards achievement of their goals. The task of a left cultural organisation as we have seen in the case of Janam, is to take theatre to non-theatrical audiences as well as to intervene in the dominant cultural field. Revolutionary theatre and art should look to democratise the distribution of art and theatre. Theatre should rigorously ally itself with the people, and be responsive to the masses – and to do so it must abandon the proscenium space which maintains an incognito between the performers and the spectators; it must travel to the people, to the suburbs, the slums, and the remote hinterland. It is this

SPECIAL ARTICLE

attitude of reaching out to an audience which has never been exposed to theatre and other art forms, which differentiates the “revolutionary” from the “anti-establishment” or avant-garde art. While “revolutionary” theatre seeks change by addressing those who have most to gain from it, “anti-establishment” theatre expresses its rage among those audiences that have a lot to lose if change occurs. In its attempt to reach out to larger sections of the exploited people radical art forms must make use of the latest technology, for technology like science, the classics and the five senses is the property of the majority which has been used by the minorit y to perpetuate its class rule. As Brecht wrote, “technology is international” (Brecht 1979: 69). In his Yenan lectures on “Literature and Art”, Mao Zedong argued that in the revolutionary condition, the popularisation of art was a pressing task, as this would ensure that more and more people are freed from the clutches of a culture imposed by the enemy, a culture which binds them to regressive rituals and superstitions (Zedong 2006) – and in the present context to consumerist and individualist values. The newly enlightened masses demand works of literature and art which assist them in absorbing the realities of their struggle for freedom. Such masses may not be in a position to lead the revolution, nor may they yet be thoroughly committed to the revolutionary cause. But not addressing their demand would mean exposing them to the enemy. All people hunger for art and literature for an interpretation of their reality. If progressive art is not available to satisfy that hunger, reactionary forces would do so only more readily.

But in situations where the forces of change are weak the desirabl e levels of popularisation are not a reality. The progressive cultural movement, therefore, needs to adopt certain alternative strategies to intervene within the dominant cultural forms. I need not go into any details to press home the advantages of scale which the electronic media and the entire entertainment industry hold over resistance forms like street theatre. The ability to penetrate every household remains unmatched by any alternative cultural effort other than in certain pockets. The hegemony which the entertainment and news industry asserts over the cultural life of the people of our today cannot be overestimated. Hashmi expressed his disgust at the substandard cultural fare to which the dominant media subject the vast sections of the people: “Television is (a) full of blatant government propaganda and (b) in terms of serials only the worst stuff reaches them”.2 Safdar felt that “if we do not become active in this new medium which is opening up it will be our own loss” (Hashmi 1989: 176-77). But, as we have seen such a strategy poses the dual danger of appropriation of dissent and deradicalisation of the cultural movement.

Democratisation of Production and Distribution

The task before the progressive cultural movement, along with democratisation of the distribution of art, is to democratise the production of art. While intervening and participating in the field of the dominant media, resistance artists and cultural groups cannot accept the relations of production of dominant art. To do so would be suicidal. Groups like the Jana Natya Manch need to intervene politically in the larger field of theatre, to democratise it. The evolution of theatre in ancient Greece from the choral song is evidence of the formation of class distinctions. At the beginning theatre was in the chorus, the mass, who were the true protagonists. But with the differentiation between the protagonist, the antagonist and the chorus the theatre was “aristocratised”. Similar discriminatory distribution of privilege recurs in the relationship between the author and the actors, or between the performers and the spectators. The resistance in the field of theatre needs to challenge and change the theatre apparatus. The existing theatre apparatus exhibits a revulsion towards any attempt to change it, or any innovation which is far-reaching by nature. But the experience of various left theatrical practitioners has shown that their innovations have always led them to bring about alterations in the fundamental relations of production in theatre. In Soviet Russia in 1930-31 efforts were made to write plays collectively. The effort included a practice in which the worker-authors read and discussed their manuscripts with other members of the literary circle. Not only plays but a large number of novels (though unpublished) were also produced in the process (Borland 1950: 67).

The German dramaturg Erwin Piscator looked upon theatre as a Parliament and the audience as a legislative body. In Piscator’s theatre, all the playwrights worked together on a single play, and their work was reviewed by a team of experts who were mostly historians, economists and statisticians (Brecht 1979: 130-31). However, not all attempts at mass participation in the creation of art were successful. In revolutionary China the mass participation in creative work under state control resulted in a decline in artistic standards (Pickowicz 1981: 250). Nevertheless, the moot point is the identification of the apparatus of artistic production as an object of change. The central control of the ruling elite under the capitalist order exercises a hegemonistic control through the power/knowledge relationship. A mass culture which is mass produced but without the participation of the masses as the producers has a dual fallout – it prevents resistance to the class rule of the bourgeoisie by containing the laughter and other disruptive emotions; and it reduces culture to a commodity. The effects of the relations of production on art are similar to that of science, where the greatest inventions and discoveries of humankind have been used to further consolidate relations of domination. Thus, “increases in production lead to increases in misery; only a minority gain from the exploitation of nature, and they only do so because they exploit men” (Brecht 1979: 184). The greatest products of human art are treated as symbols of ruling class superiority and are inaccessible to interpretation and reworking for generations of the human majority. Reversing this relation is an essential task of the proletarian cultural revolution.

A Few Innovations

One of the ways in which a cultural group democratises its intervention is by establishing democratic structures and practices within the group first. Successful intervention also requires resorting to innovations. Here I will discuss two such innovations from the experience of the Jana Natya Manch – Janam’s mobile theatre and the production of Bush ka Matlab Jhadi

june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

SPECIAL ARTICLE

(Bush Is a Bush) at the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004.

In 1988 when Janam decided to return to the proscenium stage at regular intervals, one of the major challenges before the group was that of the comparatively greater cost of such productions. These included the costs of hiring an auditorium for its shows and arranging for publicity. Needless to say, access to these shows had to be paid for. Together with the charges and the distance of the auditoria in Delhi from working class localities, these plays became inaccessible to the working classes. They were performed mostly before middle class audiences. The members of Janam were concerned on two counts – the rising costs could force them to abandon the proscenium once more; and they were unable to take the proscenium plays to a vaster section of the people. In 1998 as part of its 25th year celebrations, Janam decided to set up a mobile theatre. Appeals for donations for the project were made to Janam’s well wishers and audiences. The result was “Safar” (Journey) – a light structure of steel pipes and cloth which could be dismantled. It can be set up in a few hours on flat ground. When set up it has provisions for green rooms, wings, the stage, curtains, lights and sound. It has a seating capacity of 500-600 spectators. In the dismantled state it can be transported on a light commercial vehicle. With the use of its mobile theatre, Janam had been able to take its proscenium plays to various locations in Delhi. The mobile theatre has been used for other programmes as well. So Janam’s proscenium productions are now viable both financially and in terms of a democratic distribution of theatre. Simultaneously, it has received accolades from the established centres of theatre. Its proscenium play – Shambhuk Vadh (The Killing of Shambhuk; 2004) – was invited to the theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama in January 2006.

At World Social Forum

The invitation to perform in one of the commissioned shows at the World Social Forum (WSF) provided the Jana Natya Manch with an opportunity to engage in a unique experiment. Stage Faiz, where Janam was invited to perform had enormous dimensions and to perform successfully on such a stage Janam had to suitably alter its presentation. It required a bigger cast. The play Bush ka Matlab Jhadi3 which was a celebration of the resistance to the imperialist designs of the US-led “war on terror” also used live, on-stage music and video footage. Specially edited footage supplemented the actors. Since the play had been commissioned by the WSF Organising Committee, a large part of the expenditure on the play, primarily the video editing and the video projection, was reimbursed. Bush ka Matlab Jhadi was a departure from the group’s usual activities. Though Janam constantly innovates seldom has it used such cost-intensive technology for its performance. To take on the dominant media the left needs to think beyond the prevalent modes of operation. It must change the rules. It need not be bothered beyond a point about costs, for technological advance – in the form of digital video recorders and storage, transmission equipment, FM radio services and broadband services – have now brought the erstwhile unreachable techno logies within reach. But if according to Brecht all “technology is international” or universal and, therefore, not untouchable it is also true that technology itself is not political. It takes on the shape of the politics which wears it. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is bringing about a tremendous change in entire Latin America. It seeks to counter the stranglehold of American-produced Spanish language programmes which are transmitted from Miami and Atlanta to Latin America; at present 97% of all television viewing in Latin America is produced in the US!

The Venezuelan government along with the governments of Argentina, Uruguay and Cuba has set up a new pan-Latin America channel – Telesur. The most interesting part of this project is the effort to involve communities or barrios in the task of producing programming. Venezuela already had a vibrant community TV movement – notably Catia TV – which took off from the public outcry against the media generated coup which temporarily removed Chavez from office in 2002. Catia TV whose slogan is “Don’t watch television. Make it” allows communities to submit and transmit their own programming. The domination of the dominant media is never “total”. The left cultural activists and organisations will have to continuously explore newer possibilities of dissent by engaging with challenges, conditions and limitations. In the process they have to wage a relentless ideological struggle against ruling class values. Newer innovations have to form the basis for intervention, and the agent of intervention must strive to democratise the process of artistic production. No art can be truly popular if it is not controlled by the people. It is the people who will sustain resistance art. In the context of the imminence of fascism in Europe Bertolt Brecht wrote: “There is only one ally against the growth of barbarism: the people on whom it imposes these sufferings” (quoted in Drain 1995: 188). Resistance art must repeatedly address itself to the working classes and other oppressed sections of the population.

Notes 2 Speaking in 1988 Safdar Hashmi was speaking of Drain, Richard (1995): Twentieth-Century Theatre: A the state-run Doordarshan, the only television Sourcebook (London: Routledge).

1 Here I would like to clarify that the concept of a channel in the country at the time. Hashmi, Moloyashree (1997). “Drama has to Be Created“full timer” is different for the commercial sector and Crafted, Even on the Streets”, interview to3 “Jhadi” is the Hindi word for “bush”.

or the professional theatre the group “employs”

Anju m Katyal, Seagull Theatre Quarterly, No 16,

an actor and pays him or her a living wage – a

Decem ber 57-71. wage which may not be comparable to salaries in

Hashmi, Safdar (1989): Right to Perform: Selected Writ-

References

corporate houses or business. Such professional ings of Safdar Hashmi (New Delhi: SAHMAT). actors may decide to shift from one theatre group Borland, Harriet (1950): Soviet Literary Theory and Mao Zedong (2006): “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Art

to another in search for a raise in wages, just as a Practice during the First Five-Year Plan, 1928-32 and Literature”, (http://www.etext.org/Politics/ professional would move from one firm to (New York: King’s Crown Press). MIM/classics/mao/sw3/mswv3_08.html). another. But in a Left organisation a “full timer” is Brecht, Bertolt (1979): Brecht on Theatre, John Willet Pickowicz, Paul G (1981). Marxist Literary Thought in

paid a subsistence wage which is substantially trans (New Delhi: Radha Krishna Prakashan). China: The Influence of Chu Chiu Pai (California:

less than that earned by theatre professionals. Deshpande, Sudhanva (1997): “The ‘Inexhaustible University of California Press). The decision of an individual to join an organisa-Work of Criticism in Action’: Street Theatre of Shaoqi, Liu (1984): “How To Be a Good Communist” tion as a “full timer” is a political one and the task the Left”, Seagull Theatre Quarterly, No 16, in Selected Works of Liu Shaoqi (Beijing: Foreign of a “full timer” is primarily organisational. 3-22. Languages Press).

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24 75

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top