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A History of the Jana Natya Manch: Plays for the People by Arjun Ghosh (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 30, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 245-248 | 10.1353/atj.2013.0011

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In his foreword Marathi writer G. P. Deshpande observes that this is an unusual book because it is a "biography" of a theatre group. It is rare to find the history of a single Indian theatre group being chronicled in such detail. Arjun Ghosh does this rather well in this volume on Jana Natya Manch (People's Theatre Front, hereafter Janam) and captures key moments in the history of the organized Left in India in the process as well.

Ghosh explains that he "developed an interest to studying the possibilities of countering the hegemonic forces" (p. xix) in the face of the rise of Hindutva right-wing politics in the late 1990s. He observes, "By the time the Janam came into existence, the Left movement in India had undergone multiple schisms. There never was any all-India cultural organization of the Left" (p. xx) once the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) lost its foothold, but progressive theatre activity was independently reinitiated in different parts of the country. Instead of studying these diverse strands across the country, Ghosh focused on this single group and its entire history. Janam rose out of the ashes of the Delhi branch of the IPTA in 1973. Because the Left is organizationally weaker in Delhi, studying Janam allowed Ghosh to look at the "strategies of the Left cultural movement under greater degrees of adversity" (p. xx).

The book is divided into two sections. The first half chronicles four decades of Janam's existence, and the second looks at organization, funding, and other issues. The first chapter, "The Early Years (1973-1980)," discusses the formation of Janam from the nascent leftist student political movement across college and university campuses in Delhi. Young enthusiastic students like Safdar Hashmi, Rajen Prasad, and Shehla Hashmi formed a singing group that relied on the expertise of people like Shyamal Mukherjee to compose music and direct stage performances. These students hoped to revive the lost legacy of IPTA, but when expelled from the old IPTA office they created their own group—Jana Natya Manch (called Janam, an acronym translated as "birth")—in April 1973. Despite resource constraints they gave proscenium presentations in makeshift venues in working-class locations, honing performance skills and amalgamating their ideology with art.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unleashed a repressive campaign with the Emergency (1976-1977), which weakened leftist organizations. After this, Janam needed a new aesthetic to connect better with the working-class audience and developed shorter plays to be taken to the people and performed with limited resources. A collective realization that "we would write our own plays" (p. 7) led to Machine (October 1978), their first street theatre performance, and thus began a period of "fervent activism, creative ferment, adopting performance styles to the demands and possibilities of a new space" (p. 17).

The second chapter, "An Eventful Decade (1981-1988)," discusses the consolidation of their street theatre. A formal hierarchical structure headed by a convener was required for the Societies Registration Act, but decisions were always made collectively and members met almost daily "hanging out" if not developing a new play. The first brush with police brutality came when actors N. K. Sharma and Safdar Hashmi were arrested during a performance of DTC ki Dhandhli (The Stratagems of the Delhi Transport Corporation, February 1986). The chapter ends with Janam's decision to continue producing proscenium plays along with street theatre projects.

Chapter 3, "Martyrdom and After (1989-1994)" chronicles the shocking murder of Safdar Hashmi at Jhandapur in Sahibabad, an industrial area in east Delhi, on New Year's Day 1989 while performing Halla Bol! (Attack!) in support of a CPI (M) candidate. The group bravely returned to the same spot on 4 January to complete the interrupted performance. The chapter discusses the solidarity that Janam received from activists, artists, and people from all corners of the country, giving them inspiration to continue creating progressive theatre. The 1990s were a period of political and economic uncertainty with the rise of communalism, the liberalization of the Indian economy, and the fall of the Soviet Union. Ghosh studies Janam's response to this changing political climate as some members Left, others experimented further, and the...

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