Jana Natya Manch was founded in 1973 by a group of Delhi's radical theatre amateurs, who sought to take theatre to the people. It was inspired by the spirit of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). Its early plays, though initially designed for the proscenium, were performed on makeshift stages and chaupals in the big and small towns and villages of North India. It also experimented with street skits.
Janam's street theatre journey began in October 1978. The first play Machine with beautiful, stylized dialogues depicted the exploitation of industrial labour. Janam has played a significant role in popularizing street theatre as a form of voicing anger and public opinion. It has done plays on price rise, elections, communalism, economic policy, unemployment, trade union rights, globalization, women's rights, education system, etc. Some of its best-known street plays are Hatyare, Samrath, Aurat, Raja ka Baja, Apaharan Bhaichare Ka, Halla Bol, Mat Banto Insaan Ko, Sangharsh Karenge Jitenge, Andhera Aaftaab Mangega, Jinhe Yakeen Nahin Tha, Aartanaad, Rahul Boxer, Nahin Qabul, Voh Bol Uthi and Yeh Dil Mange More Guruji.
This form of theatre has become a vital cultural tool for workers, revolutionaries and social activists. Street theatre addresses topical events and social phenomenon and takes them straight to peoples' places of work and residence.
On January 2, 1989, the convenor of Janam, Safdar Hashmi, died in a New Delhi hospital following a murderous attack on Janam activists the previous day by anti-social elements patronized by the ruling vested interests. Janam was performing Halla Bol in Jhandapur, Sahibabad, in support of the workers' demands led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). People from all walks of life – workers, political activists, artists and intellectuals – came together spontaneously in a massive, unprecedented protest against this brutal murder. Today, Safdar's name has become synonymous with street theatre and the progressive cultural movement in India.
Safdar, a founder member of Janam, was a brilliant theoretician and practitioner of political theatre, especially street theatre. A versatile personality, he was a playwright, a lyricist' a theatre director, a designer and an organizer He also wrote for children. His film scripts were much acclaimed. He wrote on various aspects of culture and related issues in journals and newspapers. Safdar was a member of the C.P.I. (M). His creativity and ideology were inseparable. In recognition of his contribution to the street theatre movement and to the growth of a democratic culture, the Calcutta University in 1989 conferred on Safdar the degree of D.Litt. posthumously.
Safdar was born to Haneef Hashmi and Qamar Azad on 12 April 1954 in Delhi. He spent his childhood in Aligarh and finished his schooling in Delhi. He did his M.A. in English literature from Delhi University. After short stints of teaching in the universities of Garhwal, Kashmir and Delhi he worked in the Press Institute of India and then joined as the Press Information Officer of the Govt. of West Bengal in Delhi. In 1984 he gave up his job to work full time as a political cultural activist.
Since 1988 Janam has been engaged in both street and proscenium theatre (including Moteram ka Satyagraha, Varun ke Bete, Hum Yahin Rahenge, Ek Aurat Hypatia Bhi Thi). In 1993 it began a bilingual theatre quarterly Nukkad Janam Samvaad and also instituted the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture series. The group also organizes seminars, workshops, exhibitions, film shows, etc. It has often taken the lead in mobilizing the larger intellectual community on vital issues. Janam's work is funded directly by its vast audience. The group does not accept corporate or state funding.
Janam's theatre is consciously political and partisan, and sees itself as a part of, and contributing to, the growing democratic movement in the country. It provides robust entertainment and promotes a democratic, secular and scientific consciousness among the people. Janam performs for and mobilizes support for many socio-political causes. It also conducts joint programmes with other cultural groups on a number of issues.
In 1997 Janam constructed an innovative and dismantleable mobile theatre, Safar (acronym for Safdar Rangmanch), to take proscenium plays to working class areas. Safar is a flexible, innovative structure designed by Janak Mistry. It is set up by the actors of Janam wherever they go to perform their large proscenium plays, and is equipped with lights and a sound system. It can be used for a variety of purposes, and various kinds of spaces can be created in it. It has been used more than 150 times by Janam for its shows over the last 4 years. It can seat about 600-700 people.
Janam's proscenium play was Aazadi Ne Jab Dastak Di (2001), a one hour, forty-five minute long play based on Manini Chatterjee's book Do and Die. It is set in the four years, 1930–34, of the Chittagong Uprising during which a band of committed revolutionaries under the inspired leadership of Master Surya Sen, challenged the might of the British empire. This sharp anti-imperialist action continues to inspire the youth. The Chittagong revolutionaries had a strong base among the local working people of that area. Though Independence came 17 years later, the actions of the Chittagong revolutionaries had a far reaching impact. Those revolutionaries who were in the Andaman Cellular Jail later joined the Left movement.
In January 2004, Janam created Bush ka Matlab Jhadi (Bush is a just a bush!), a multimedia presentation celebrating the anti-imperialist sentiment the world over. The play uses giant masks, video projection, and live music to create a hilarious expose of the US-UK role in Iraq, their ambitions of world conquest, and the people's resistance to it. The play was the outcome of Janam's collaboration with many artists including Surajit Sarkar (video artist), Arunkumar (sculptor), Kriti Arora (artist), Kanishka Prasad (architect), and Ashish Ghosh (music director). This 45-minute play was commissioned by the World Social Forum in Mumbai.
Later in 2004 Janam produced a proscenium play Shambookvadh on the question of caste. This play is scripted by Brijesh, has music by Kaajal Ghosh, and is directed by Sudhanva Deshpande. The play was invited to the National School of Drama's theatre festival in 2006, and to the Prithvi Festival in November 2006.
Among Janam's recent street plays – Yeh Dil Mange More Guruji is on the attempts of the Hindutva brigade to destroy India's secular and democratic framework and foist a fascist Hindu Rashtra on us; Aakhri Juloos is on the right to protest; Yeh Bhi Hinsa Hai is a play against the growing violence on women; Honda ka Gunda is in support of the workers of Gurgaon; Naarey Nahin To Naatak Nahin is on the condition of industrial workers. The latest street plays are Rehri-patri Nahin Hatenge , in support of the hawkers' union and Kafila Ab Chal Pada Hai on the achievements of AIDWA. Currently an interactive play on the contemporary relevance of Bhagat Singh is being performed in schools.
Janam has performed both its street and proscenium plays in festivals orgsanized by Prithvi Theatre (Mumbai), National School of Drama (New Delhi), Sahitya Kala Parishad (New Delhi), Natrang Pratishthan (New Delhi), Sangeet Natk Akaademi (Kerala), Natya Akademi (West Bengal) as well as scores of natya utsavs across the country.
So far this group of self-trainedactors has done over 8,500 performances of nearly 70-odd street plays and 15 proscenium plays in about 140 cities in India.