Giving Old Theatre Memories a Second Life

Theatre enthusiasts and the curious turned out in large numbers when Delhi’s radical street theatre group Jana Natya Manch opened its decades-old trunks.

Janam members from different generations spent hours sorting through props and costumes and reminiscing four decades of social protest plays.

Janam members from different generations spent hours sorting through props and costumes and reminiscing four decades of social protest plays. Credit: Mallory Moench/The Wire

When you hear a theatre is selling things off, you picture closed doors, dark stages and maybe even a clampdown of some sort. These days, it is rare for a theatre auction to do as well as that of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line did in 1990 (even parts of the stage were sold). Many celebrated theatre props often languish in warehouses or end up in the trash.

The members of Delhi street theatre group Jana Natya Manch, or Janam, were faced with a dilemma when they realised they are running out of storage space for their decades-old costumes and props. “‘Where should we keep the trunks?’ we wondered. That’s how the idea of a wardrobe cleaning came up. If we haven’t used the costumes in so many years, it’s highly unlikely we will use them again. So why not just give them away to theatre groups that might need it for their plays,” said Moloyashree Hashmi, wife of Janam’s founder Safdar Hashmi and secretary of the Studio Safdar trust. The group then decided to hold a ‘wardrobe cleaning’ on July 12 and 13 to share their costumes and props with other groups and artists who may need them.

Studio Safdar, a space for arts and activism founded by Janam, is tucked in a nondescript corner of a busy marketplace in Shadi Khampur, a dusty neighbourhood with buildings fighting each other for elbow room. On the day of the wardrobe cleaning, the place was packed with enthusiasts, some keen to pick up an item with a story, others for more practical reasons. “Our budget is a little tight and we want to collect things that will help our theatre in any way,” a member of a college theatre group said. Many others simply came to take home a part of India’s theatre history.

Named after Safdar, the late communist playwright and director, the theatre studio blends in perfectly with its working class surroundings – precisely the kind of audience Janam aims to address. The small building, with Janam’s distinctive red and black logo, which was designed by artist Orijit Sen and based on the Indian People’s Theatre Association slogan ‘People’s theatre stars the people,’ also serves as a regular discussion space for the local community of Shadi Khanpur.

Convened in April 1973 by Safdar, Janam pioneered street theatre in the country after the Emergency. Its depictions of social issues brought Janam recognition – both in the democratic movement and in the Indian theatre scenario.

While Janam’s historic street plays like Machine (1978), which depicted the exploitation of industrial labour, involved the use of minimal costumes and theatrical properties, its proscenium plays – performed on makeshift stages and chaupals (a community building or space in the rural areas) – were replete with songs, dances and devices.

A brown holster, used to hold the gun of a soldier in the play Aazadi Ne Jab Dastak Di (The first call of freedom, 2001) got picked up first. Directed by Sudhanva Deshpande, an actor and director with Janam, and based on journalist Manini Chatterjee’s book Do & Die, the proscenium play narrated the events of the Chittagong Arms Robbery Case of 1929 during which a band of committed revolutionaries, under the inspired leadership of Master Surya Sen, challenged the might of the British empire. The character of Surya Sen, who plotted and executed the uprising, played by Vijendra Kumar, wore a long shirt with curved sleeves. The shirt will probably play a different character now.

“We wanted to talk about the youth who fought for the country’s freedom and after long hours of brainstorming, decided to enact Manini’s book. The play was performed on our mobile theatre in lower-middle class areas of Delhi like Narela, Wazirpur Industrial area, Badarpur etc. I remember the audience had loved the play. It was full of songs of those times,” Moloyashree recalled.

At the stroke of 2 pm on July 12, Moloyashree and her team greeted the crowd with instructions and this caveat: “Some of the things are in a not so perfect condition”. By 2:30 pm, all props were gone. The costumes disappeared a little while later.

“I am a little surprised. There was a headgear, made for a particular play that was so specific and looked ancient. Why would anybody take that? Unless someone is doing a play set in ancient times, it won’t work,” Moloyashree said.

Visitors to the sale also found it hard to miss the several black and white photographs that adorned the walls of the studio. Most gazes turned to one photograph in particular from January 4, 1989. “It is very difficult to talk about the memory of that day,” Moloyashree said.

In support of a seven-day strike of industrial workers, on January 1 that year, Janam performed Halla Bol at Jhandapur in Sahibabad, an industrial township on the outskirts of Delhi, when they were attacked by a group of political goons. Safdar was killed in the attack. Over 15,000 people attended his funeral. On January 4, Janam went back to Jhandapur to finish the performance.

While most Janam props sold will only be brought out when a performance demands it, other materials will likely soon have second life. The blue jackets and trousers from Mai Divas ki Kahani (The Story of May Day, 1986) will probably be used the most frequently. Based on workers’ struggles, the play was performed as a docudrama. “When we were making the play, we saw the Gedore Tools Union workers wearing the blue clothes. We thought they would be perfect for the play and asked them to give us a set of eight. They gave us ten!,” Moloyashree said.

“I wish there was a theatre archive that preserved material pertaining to Indian theatre but sadly, there isn’t,” Deshpande said. “But I love the idea of a giveaway. Every theatre group should do this,” he added. Someone had earlier suggested they hold an exhibition of the costumes. “But some of these things here are hardly exhibition material. They are hugely ordinary,” Moloyashree exclaimed.

By 5 pm on July 12, it was all gone – even one of Janam’s broken trunks. Nothing was left to be given away the next day.

Already plans for another wardrobe cleaning are underway. After all, sharing goes well with the socialist theatre group’s ideology and how the costumes and props can be given a new lease of life.