Performing Solidarity: 50 Years of Jana Natya Manch
This essay is an analysis of the street theatre practice of New Delhi based theatre group, Jana Natya Manch (Janam). Janam’s theatre practice is rooted in an enduring organisational exchange of political labour with a range of allied organisations, such as trade unions, student organisations, farmers unions, to name a few. Underlining Janam’s strategy for efficacy is the need to create performance for the working class, mediated by grassroots organisations that work with these classes, with the aim to enhance long term, collaborative capacity of performance. The essay is based on interviews conducted with performers, activists and organisers about this solidarity relationship and how, when composed in an organisational form, it can contribute to consolidating a political project, and to its cross-temporal sustenance as opposed to transient and fragmentary interventions. The findings about this embedded theatre practice of Janam can point towards ways in which discussion on theatrical aspects like collective production, spectator-participation and, more generally, the objectives, efficacy and parameters of political theatre can be recalibrated.
Keywords: street theatre, Jana Natya Manch, India, political theatre, solidarity
Before I ask: what is a work’s position vis a vis the production relations of its time, I should like to ask: what is its position within them?Benjamin 87
Janan Natya Manch (Janam), one of the most enduring political theatres of the world, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Drawing its legacy from the street performances in 1920s Russia and Germany, and the anti-fascist cultural movement of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) of the early- and mid-twentieth century in India, it has been performing open-air, short, mobile, political plays in the working class industrial or residential spaces in New Delhi.
For half a century, Janam’s theatre practice has stitched the public memory of popular protests and the progressive movement of post-independence India, covering moments and concerns of historical significance such as the rise of Hindu nationalism, communal violence, caste-based atrocities, inhuman labour laws, rights of working women, sexual violence, to list a few.
Janam has consistently developed collaborations with a range of artists, cultural groups, and activist networks in India as well as internationally. This long list includes political theatre groups such as the Red Ladder Theatre (U.K.), the Freedom Theatre (Palestine), Samudaya and Naya Theatre (India).
This article evaluates one of the most distinct and sustained of these collaborative relationships, that with the trade unions and organisations of the political Left, and how this translates into collective devising and audience participation that extends beyond the theatre itself.
The need to collaborate consistently with allied organisations, to foster sustained solidarity networks is one of the most significant foundational principles of Janam’s theatre. Sudhanva Deshpande, writer, publisher, and one of Janam’s long-standing actors and directors, highlights that the theoretical basis for Janam’s theatre “is that cultural activism, on its own, does not bring about change” but must be seen “within the overall framework.” Its function according to him, can more accurately be envisaged as forging “daily and live links with the working class… [T]his link has to be mediated by the organisations that lead these classes” (Deshpande, “Sahmat” 1587).
Making political solidarity the core principle of its practice, Janam’s work may prompt us to explore afresh the needs, role, ethics and impact of political theatre. There has been substantial work on Janam’s formal innovations and analyses of its performances (Ghosh, A History of the Jana Natya Manch; Ghosh, “Performing Change/Changing Performance”; da Costa), but the processes through which its productions evolve and are disseminated within an organised political solidarity network have drawn little scholarly attention and is the subject of my focus in the ensuing discussion.
Janam came into being when a few student activists of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the student front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M) for short, formed a cultural unit in 1971, which sang protest songs from the movement for national independence and performed short plays. Soon, however, they felt the need to go beyond the university, to activate the cultural sphere for the political work of the communist party and its affiliate organisations and engage with their political allies through theatre. In the 1988 interview with Eugène van Erven, Safdar Hashmi, one of the founding members of the group, states that they realised they “could not remain confined to the discipline of SFI . . . [and] needed to work among the working classes, the peasants, the youth, the women, everywhere” (S. Hashmi 27). Thus, in 1973, Janam was formally established.
At the level of form, Janam’s intervention has been path-breaking for modern Indian theatre. Janam was not a street theatre group at its formation. In its early days, it staged “political plays written for the proscenium space on makeshift platforms in non-proscenium locations” (Ghosh, A History of the Jana Natya Manch 6). These “non-proscenium locations” included makeshift stages where there were no arrangements for specialised lighting like dimmers and spots. Occasionally, they used amplifiers and flood lighting for illuminating the performance area (31). In the subsequent years, during Indira Gandhi’s President’s Rule (1975-77), the National Emergency, the freedom of creative and political expression was heavily curtailed, and it became increasingly difficult for theatres to host politically oppositional plays. Many intellectuals and artists from the Left had to go underground and could not function at their full capacities. Severe repression during the Emergency had weakened the allied organisations on whom Janam’s performances had previously depended, while, at the same time, there was a need to revitalise the political opposition these organisations composed.
Arising out of these political exigencies, Janam’s street theatre aimed “to make plays and perform them at places where people live and work” (M. Hashmi) and presented a radical and vibrant model for political and accessible art. Janam’s first street play, Machine, used poetic prose and condensed the structural contradictions of the capitalist “machine” into a twelve-minute play. Sudhanva Deshpande, writing about Machine says that “this was free theatre—free both in terms of what it cost to mount, and because it was free of external pressures. This was exactly what the trade unions and other left organisations needed” (Deshpande, “Jana Natya Manch”). With Machine, Janam introduced a format of compact public performance, which was “(a) inexpensive, (b) mobile and portable, and (c) effective” (Ghosh, A History of the Jana Natya Manch 38). Deshpande notes that Machine was “a truly Brechtian theatre. It was what he would have called a lehrstück, a learning play (also often called a “didactic play,” but I prefer “learning,” because Brecht was clear that the actors had to learn as much as the spectators). you could identify the characters, but they pointed to social relations, not individual psychological make-up” (Deshpande, “Socialist Cinema to the Rescue” 134).
Janam’s theatre takes place in public spaces, breaks the fourth wall often and resists linear narrative plots in favour of a montage, wherein “the individual episodes have to be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed” (Brecht 201). The plays utilise caricature-characters to avoid empathy and self-identification with the character; they use music, images and text to interrupt the audience from flinging “itself into the story as if it were a river and let itself be carried vaguely hither and thither” (201). Janam’s narratorial strategies often employ a dialectical theatrical approach, often moving in a zig-zag fashion, creating a synthetic unity between opposing forces of historical development. And finally, ever present are the “sister arts of the drama . . . [so] that they lead to mutual alienation” (Brecht 204) including visual art, music and poetry.
The discussion that follows shows the continuity between political organisation and theatre production. There is more to say about how theatre speaks back into that process, or how formal concerns capture the political imagination of the audience. For now, however, I will focus on practical exchanges across Janam’s contemporary practice and the political organisations of the Left, highlighting the processes of collaborative production and dissemination of performance made possible due to these sustained relations, and evaluate the productive insights they may offer into performing political solidarity.
Representation, Collective Production and Audience Participation
In 2016, during my research visit to the group, Janam was working on its cantastoria performance called Hadtaal ka Kathachitra (The Storyboard for Strike!) (2016). Cantastoria is a performance style that utilises storyboards alongside the physical performance of the actors narrating, singing and enacting it. This specific style of cantastoria performance was introduced to Janam following director Komita Dhanda’s eight-week apprenticeship at the Bread and Puppet theatre in Vermont, U.S.A., in 2011. There is more to say in another context about cantastoria as a form, its creative logic for this performance and the way in which it manifests Janam’s active collaborative relations with international cultural community. However, in this instance my focus is on the broader framework of collaborative relationship with political organisations.
The play had been specifically produced for the imminent general trade unions’ strike on September 2, 2016, and was scheduled to tour extensively in all the industrial areas of Delhi and surrounding areas, where it would support the ongoing campaign of the trade unions. The narrative focused on the charter of the demands proposed by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU), which included universal social security cover for all workers, increase in minimum wage, stoppage of contractorisation in permanent perennial work, stoppage of disinvestment from public sector units of production, to list a few (CITU).
On August 7, 2016, Asha Sharma, then the General Secretary of the Delhi State Committee of the All-India Democratic Women’s Organisation (AIDWA) and also one of its eight national secretaries, had delivered a lecture organised by Janam at their community creative space, Studio Safdar, as a part of a series of lectures called the “GPD under 50” talks, named after playwright and public thinker Govind Purushottam Deshpande. A day after this talk, on August 8, 2016, I had the opportunity to observe the rehearsals of the play. Komita Dhanda, the director of the play, could be seen leading the discussion with the rest of the actors to make amendments to the script. The discussion followed some of the points raised by Sharma at the talk the previous evening. The actors, having attended the talk by Sharma, were familiar with where the impetus for editing the performance had come from. The scene being revised shows two women working as unorganised labour from home making small utility products on a piece rate basis; these women struggle to get a legitimate rate for their produce from the contractor. The contractor rejects large chunks of their produce for quality check and harasses them to reduce their wages relentlessly (see figure 3). Asha Sharma, in her talk the previous evening, had highlighted that the contractors such as the one in the scene are not the primary perpetrators of injustice in this context. She had discussed the structural nature of the problem wherein home-based workers, mostly comprising of women working at piece rate basis at home, struggle for recognition within the purview of labour laws. Following this, during the rehearsals, the character of the contractor was revised and stripped of some agency in the exploitation of these workers. He was now presented as a cog in the wheel of structural exploitation of the unorganised working class.
In line with this, Deshpande discusses the playmaking process in his article “Sculpting a Play.” He talks about an older play about working conditions in factories, Andhera Aftaab Mangega (The Dark will Hail the Dawn) (1996), and writes
Before actual rehearsals began, we invited two of our trade union comrades (from CITU), both of whom have risen from the ranks of workers to positions of leadership. . . . Our questions to our comrades fell into two broad categories. One, there were questions regarding the experience of being a worker—what it means to actually work inside a factory, how employers and supervisors behave with workers, how workers unwind after work, and so on. Two, there were questions about actual instances of struggle – how struggles begin, how unions are actually formed, the kind of role various unions play, what employers do when faced with struggle, and so on . . . all the raw material of the play originally came from here.“Sculpting a Play” 105
This exchange and dialogue continue to be integral to Janam’s process of producing a play. Deshpande adds that this relationship is more organic than formal. In order for Janam to be in conversation with the allied organisations, it does not always need to organise a meeting with them. He states, “routinely when we go out to perform, we are always interested in knowing what the organisations are doing. It is a part of what we are always keen to find out” (Deshpande, Personal interview). The organisations’ activities, he says, are something that the group likes to keep up to date with because “that often gives us the idea for what we can do next.” Certain street plays that Janam has produced emerged straight out of the recommendations that came from trade union leaders and comrades from other organisations, and yet others, such as the cantastoria discussed earlier, emerge in the context of a specific need of the trade union organisations. “Even if you’re working on something quite different,” he adds, “some of the things that you hear, some of the stories that you hear, trigger off some thoughts that go into a play” (Deshpande, Personal interview).
In addition to the conversation with allied organisations before and their productive interventions during the devising of a play, there exists also the practice after the completion of the production, commonly called the “review performances.” Maimoona Mollah is the president of the Delhi State Committee of the AIDWA. She says, “When Janam’s play is ready, before they take it to different areas, they call some of us who work in the areas to preview the play and if possible, give our comments” (Mollah).
Establishing practices that are committed to finetune artistic practices towards a congruence with a broader solidarity project, Janam’s theatre accords its partners and audiences what Wiley and Feiner, in the context of community theatre, have called “representational authority,” a concern for all community-based theatre practices, that is to ask, “who has the power to represent whom, and who has the right to represent whom?” (Wiley and Feiner 122).
The discussion above points towards the political and ideological impetus of Janam’s plays, which does not emerge from the artists alone but from the day to day, focused and local level activism of workers, women and students. In doing so, this form of political theatre has the potential to overcome the dangers of didacticism. It does not claim what Kathleen McCreery of Red Ladder theatre (U.K.), reflecting on the company’s early work in the U.K. in an interview with Kim Wiltshire, sharply calls the “monopoly on knowledge or ideas” (25). It tends not to speak for a community or of it. Instead, the community is capacitated to speak to it and, subsequently, through it, because the content of its practice originates from organic solidarity networks with the said community.
The group produces plays through improvisations, streamlined by a director creating a theatre that is it collectively produced. More crucially, it incorporates in its artistic production other forms of political labour—intellectual and academic, polemical and activist. Janam’s work thus makes room for a political theatre practice, where, to use Susan Haedicke’s words, the “community is not simply a source of inspiration that the artist takes away and manipulates, but rather they play a key role in the aesthetic dialogue . . . art is the community art-making process and the community performing itself” (153). “Community” here does not imply only those workers who are members the CPI(M). It refers instead to the political community of workers within a factory or working-class communities in residential areas who are associated with local level unions in varying capacities, forming a community of political communal struggle.
Closely aligning itself in this way, with a host of solidarity organisations, Janam’s work demonstrates collective production in a broader sense, occurring not just amongst the artists but at an additional level of artist-activist collaboration. Political commentator Vijay Prashad similarly notes:
the collective ethos is not only within Janam, but also in its close association with the trade unions, the student organisations, the neighbourhood associations, and so on. They “commission” the plays, and sometimes their members offer expert advice on the issue.646
A related discussion in Bill McDonnell’s article in Drama and Social Intervention distinguishes organic theatre from facilitated theatre, where organic theatres are those that “arise spontaneously” while facilitated theatres “are interventions from outside” and are “self-conscious attempts to influence political reality” (2). The critical difference between organic and facilitated theatre, he concludes, is not defined by aesthetics but by social and political relations that define the theatre process. For McDonnell, “the gap that exists between insiders and outsiders, between those who have direct experience of oppression, and those whose experience is always indirect” is the defining factor (10).
Despite being a self-conscious attempt at influencing political reality, Janam’s theatre, on account of being consistently organised alongside the “insider” political organisations, is able to bridge the gap between the “insiders” and “outsiders.” It is possible that the artists have different class backgrounds. They consist of government schoolteachers, students and individuals from lower-middle class families who work on volunteer basis with the group. One may concur with Jodi Dean who suggests that “the socialist party is not identical with the working class” and just as much as “workers are not all socialists, socialists are not all workers” (181). This very “non-identity,” however, according to her opens a “gap” and” “produces something new” (181). Dean’s “gap,” in the context of Janam, is bridged by the consistent fostering of associations across sectors, co-dependencies and exchange which enable, what McDonnell calls an “authenticity of the voice—of a community determining its own representation” through sharing of experience and knowledge (5). Emphasising collaboration and the value of partnerships between artists and “communities,” Susan Haedicke states that:
The collaborative process itself is the creative act of cultural intervention, an aesthetic experience that challenges conventional perceptions and assumptions about art and art-making, interrogates the spaces of and for art, and questions both the dialogues that result in a kind of connected and contextual aesthetic knowledge and even the nature and worth of such a collaboration.Haedicke 152
With the process of production closely organised alongside political labour of the trade unions and allied organisations, this form of political theatre underlines that its interaction with the working-class movement, although of vital importance, is not a substitute for the insights offered by the movement itself. As political theatre that is founded on sustained conversations between the working class and artists, it creates durational solidarity associations, making way for politically engaged theatre that is, in the words of White and Ypi, “not confined to training the masses to reflect on their own condition” but committed to build lasting solidarities with political action groups, such that episodic political action can converge into a concerted wide-based political project (177).
The physical presence of Janam’s audiences has, to a significant extent, been pre-constituted for them around each other, on account of the socio-economic conditions accrued to their lives. Janam largely performs in working-class neighbourhoods and industrial areas. Its street performances usually last no longer than 20 minutes because of the limits circumscribed by working-class routines, such as breaks between shifts, women’s difficulty to wrest themselves away from their domestic labour and similar constraints. This changes the relationship it has with its audience to a one marked by constraints and exigency, even in the course of creative recreation.
There’s yet another way in which these audiences are pre-constituted. Maimoona Mollah states that the minimum prerequisite for the performance event to take place is that the organisation must have some presence in the area in question. She says, “we can’t go to an area where we are not [organisationally] there at all. . . . We should have some activists, some people who can be told to come and organise the play” (Mollah). Mollah adds, “we have to do some kind of groundwork before the group comes. We tell our activist women [sic] and they talk about it in their committees and with other women who are their members.” Similarly, Secretary of the CPI (M), Delhi State Committee, K. M. Tiwari, himself an erstwhile worker and trade union leader, narrates,
Before we begin the play, we advertise that there is a group coming. We decide on volunteers who will be there when the group arrives and performs the play. After the play the same people also seek responses it gets which are fed back to the group for any necessary changes that may be required.
Mollah and Tiwari’s accounts suggest that the organisations undertake activities like informing their local members who’d network in the community and advertise the upcoming performances. This groundwork ensures that the audience, to varying degrees, perhaps as members, supporters or as campaignees, is familiar with the organisers, who are often also members of the same community. They are usually local residents in a working-class neighbourhood or workers in a factory in the industrial area. Equally, then, the organisers too are familiar with the composition, inclination, interest and challenges of the said audience. The local nature of each organised performance implies that the audiences, comprising of people who may work together in a factory or live in the same neighbourhood, share a prior sense of community with each other.
The pre-performance and post-performance activities, consisting of door-to-door campaign in residential areas or pamphleteering and posters in factories and educational institutions, indicate a continuum of political labour within which the theatre is integrated. If political theatre is understood as an integral but equal participant in an ongoing continuum of political intervention, allying with other collaborative organisations, then audience participation could be seen as initiating both before, during and after a performance.
In addition to the moments in which the strict binary of actor and non-actor or the fourth wall is broken down during the performance, participation could now include the constituency’s participation in activities organised by the local leaders, discussions and dialogue about the issues that are topical, dissemination of information and mobilisation for an upcoming day of political action. Participation of the audience extended to a myriad activities, including reading of a pamphlet distributed by the local leaders before the play or after; follow-up meetings and dialogue, in the immediate or near future; participation in strike action, sit-in or protest demonstration in the intermediate future; and being an activist with the organisation in the long-term future.
For politically committed practices that seek to generate a cumulative, lasting impact, sustaining mobilisations and connections over time would indicate increased capacity for political projects to influence political conditions they seek to address. The limitations arising out of the tendency of the theatre audiences to be ephemeral communities can be addressed for political theatre to some extent by constituting the audience consistently through the local contact maintained by allied organisations before and beyond the theatre event, making it possible to access audiences that is continuous as opposed to momentary.
Finally, Janam’s audiences are conceived not as theatre audiences alone. They are also workers who actively or potentially participate in the trade union movement, women who organise themselves as women’s organisations raising questions of gender within the class struggle, students taking up issues within the university and beyond. Janam’s theatre, then, is set apart by its aspiration to not conceive the role of the audience as audience alone. On the contrary, it is expected and desirable that this audience does not continue to partake in political theatre only as an audience in the future but may overtime transform to being an organiser of the performances or an advisor on the content and reception of the theatre. A distinct relationship emerges between the performance and its audience which transforms the theatre into, in the words of Althusser, “the production of a new spectator, an actor who starts where the performance ends, who only starts so as to complete it, but in life” (151).
Janam’s organic and organisational relationship with those that it represents theatrically enables theatrical and political participation to amalgamate in such a way that collective creative production or spectator participation in the context of political theatre can be reimagined and extended beyond the performance event.
The need for consolidating collective practices, building political associations with coherent programmes and emphasising their ability to endure over time, and harmonising past experiences with future objectives, is a concern that has emerged in recent scholarship in political theory and can be productively extended to discussing political theatre (Dean; White and Ypi). In the context of political art, Grant Kester has emphasised the need for a paradigm shift in our understanding of a work of art and has suggested the need to direct art’s effects towards “cumulative process of exchange and dialogue, rather than a single, instantaneous shock of insight” (79).
In conjoining its labour with that of other political actors and organisations in a consistent manner and contributing to an ongoing durational political project, Janam’s theatre offers what Walter Benjamin calls, “an improved apparatus” (98). Benjamin states it is crucial that a writer’s production must have the character of a model. It must be able to place an “improved apparatus at their disposal such that more readers and spectators turn into collaborators” (98).
One may not expect this apparatus to effect “change” but to contribute consistently and to the solidarities that define its work, acknowledging that ideological transactions comprise multiple agents, as well as that theatre is not alone in attempting to elicit this shift—that a multiplicity of political actors influence pulls on political institutions and their ideological manifestations. Nonetheless, it points in directions that may empower political theatre to endure overtime, and create an effective “momentum, duration, and capacity for political memory” (Dean 71), besides offering us broader ways to think about collective production, representation and participation.
Supporting practices that sustain and suffuse wider political solidarities holds the potential to address the urgent need to overcome inchoate episodic nature of contemporary movements and reconsider the importance of practicing political solidarity. Such coalitions, connections and organisations can profitably contribute to an “incremental elaboration of political interventions” and support practices that are strategically oriented towards political transformation (Mahiyaria 317). In a recent article celebrating Janam’s half-a-century-long politically committed theatre, Sudhanva Deshpande writes about the urgent need to support and expand theatre practices like Janam’s, which remind “of the simultaneous fragility and vitality of India’s democratic ethos and traditions—an ethos under serious threat” (Deshpande, “Jana Natya Manch”).
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*Aparna Mahiyaria is Lecturer in Drama at the Department of Communications, Drama and Film, University of Exeter. She completed her PhD on The Role of Organisation in Political Theatre: A Study of Street Theatre in New Delhi, India from the University of Exeter (2020) and has worked with the Indian Cultural Forum, a New Delhi-based organisation that platforms local and international debates on politics and culture. Her current research covers sonic histories of public-political performance and performance documentation.
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