‘Awaaz Do’: Legacy & Relevance of Progressive Cultural Movement in India report


‘Awaaz Do’: Legacy & Relevance of
Progressive Cultural Movement in India

From Our Correspondent

THIS wasn’t meant to be a purely academic occasion, though there’s nothing wrong with professional academics, of whatever political hue, discussing the relevance of left-wing cultural and intellectual movements, past, present and future. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) had invited a good number of academics to a three day symposium held in New Delhi on October 13-15, 2011, but the gathering also comprised practising artists and activists, many of them young, and this gave a density and immediacy to the discussion not often found in learned assemblies. Most of the participants, while presenting papers or commenting on them, were moving constantly from the past to the present, discussing in the main what the radical movement, specifically the PWA (Progressive Writers’ Association) and the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), did and how, but probing at the same time the historical imperatives behind the movement’s decline and the possibilities of time present emerging from the promises of time past. There was a good deal of critical introspection and a certain affectionate remembrance of things past, as is only right and proper, but there was a palpable urgency in posing questions of the here and the now. The legacy of the progressive cultural movement was viewed as an active set of principles and values which are germane to the cultural practices of the day, particularly because the crisis in the lives and liberties of the people has continued, and in some respects worsened, in the intervening years. There is a great deal to be done, therefore, to record and re-assess what the progressive movement promised and achieved, and how it set up a model for a representative relationship with the people and their organisations. This is precisely what SAHMAT had stated in its preliminary note, and this theme came up again and again in the discussions over the three days. Sohail Hashmi, on behalf of SAHMAT, welcomed the participants on the 13th morning at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Mahesh Rangarajan, director, NMML, pointed out the importance of studying culture as an integral part of the social sciences and explained the role of NMML as a pioneering institute in the field. Incidentally, NMML was a generous partner of SAHMAT in this enterprise, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the ministry of culture, Government of India provided financial support.
The first session had four senior speakers, a bit ‘star-studded’ as Mihir Bhattacharya commented from the chair. Prabhat Patnaik, in his paper, ‘Politics, Culture and Socialism’, told the story of transition from feudalism to capitalism and the subsequent movement, historically prolonged as the working people consciously struggle for it, from capitalism to socialism. A cultural revolution is logically entailed in the second instance, for the transformation of petty property into collective property leaves open the danger of values and practices of the old community – the caste system, for instance, or the subjection of women – lingering in the new. This is the result of the historical failure of the bourgeoisie to complete the democratic revolution and liberate the individual, as India today illustrates in the juxtaposition of shopping malls and khap panchayats, and the active combinatory of values appropriate for both institutions. The liberation can come only from a worker-peasant alliance which frees itself from the global capitalist order and avoids, through rigorous theoretical practice, the easily handed down baubles often called ‘socialist values’ or ‘socialist culture’. Implicit in the argument is the understanding that the progressive cultural movement in India continues to this day the tradition of this kind of necessary theoretical practice.

K N Panikkar’s paper, ‘What Is Progressive about the Progressive Cultural Movement?’, concentrated precisely on the moment of this theoretical labour in the array of concepts and textual practices of the past and the present. The creative moment is also the political moment in the history of the movement, and this led to heated debates regarding tradition, some advocating a total rejection of the past, others following the logic of Lenin and Namboodiripad towards a retrieval of what is of the people and for the people in bourgeois and even feudal culture. But the primacy of the political often meant the subjugation of cultural work to the exigencies of strategy and tactics, making creativity largely instrumental. The new situation in India today is more complex and more difficult than in the thirties and forties of the last century, due to the rapacious grasp of transnational capital on social life, and this demands a rethink of older ways of fashioning progressive cultural texts. Some new developments in Kerala and Tamilnadu point both to the problems and possibilities of an emerging perspective in both individual and organised cultural work, re-inscribing the incisive insight from the past that cultural interventions must necessarily be interventions in culture.

Aijaz Ahmad presented a paper on ‘The Progressive Movement in Its International Setting’, and started off by reminding the audience that internationalism was a fundamental value for the progressive cultural movement. This value is manifest once again in the current radical movements sweeping across the Arab world, and in the wave of protests and demonstrations moving from southern Europe to the northern and crossing the Atlantic to the US; Latin America had started it more than a decade ago. The people have taken on hand the forging of a new politics and a new aesthetic, which incorporates many things and invents many more. The older progressive movement too presented a historical break which worked through the convergence of many strands of thought and practice, even weaving heterodox traditions of many centuries’ standing into the texture of creative work across diverse languages and art-forms. The new cultural forms of that period emerged from the juncture which was marked by the reality of socialism in the Soviet Union, the anti-colonial struggle across continents, and the worldwide democratic movement struggling for emancipation from the bondage of race, class and gender. The commanding heights of ‘high culture’ and ‘higher thought’ cannot be properly described without inscribing the radical moment into the core of its being, just as the new waves of political struggle cannot be explained without assuming the continuity of the people’s will to change things round.

Sashi Kumar’s paper was on ‘The exercise of hegemony in contemporary culture and media and the need for a counter-hegemony initiative’, offering an incisive analysis of the international scene in the ‘mediosphere’. The historical shift from classic capitalism to monopoly to finance capital entails a parallel shift in the media-culture confluence, realism to modernism to post-modernism being grounded on the technological move from the photographic to the cinematic to the electronic. One characteristic of this rapid shift has been a tendency towards ‘flatism’, the world of representation shunning depths and contours, and directing all gazes to surfaces and spectacles. The synchronic organisation of texts yields place to the non-linear. Consequently, the attention becomes habitually flitting and homogenised, parallel to the miscellaneous flow, or rather, the torrent, of images and sounds. The texts become self-reflexive, minimising their referential function, so that nothing outside the closed sensorium of texts disrupts the cosy feel-good quiescence of the great consuming public. But the hidden agenda of finance capital and the conniving state apparatus makes this sensorium a part of the surveillance ever-tightening its grip over the people, denying space to social desire, stifling access to inter-communication. The working of the Internet shows up the trend. The job of disruption and resistance falls therefore to the vanguard of the people who work in the interstices of the system to subvert its ends, and to those who physically come out to be together and tear asunder the magic web of media. The recent upheavals in the Arab world and elsewhere demonstrate the power of the radical tradition which seeks both to understand the world and change it.

The second session on the first day had four speakers, all involved in various sectors of Cultural Studies, with Sashi Kumar in the chair. Samik Bandyopadhyay presented a paper on ‘Defining Progress Culturally: The Aborted Project’, bringing up a particular moment in the 1930s in Bengal, with Rabindranath Tagore at the centre, and a number of other figures around him. There was a progressive wave in Bengal even before the left-wing movement started, and Rabindranath was a major figure who kept pace with the times. His radical humanism had led him to an anti-imperialist position, reaching a profoundly stirring eloquence in The Crisis of Civilisation (1941), and this made him vital to the cause of progress, though there was a crassly doctrinaire position decrying his ‘bourgeois’ leanings. The best of Bengali culture entered the progressive moment, and made it rich and innovative and genuinely representative.

Sadanand Menon’s concern was ‘Art as Resistance’, and his audio-visual presentation focussed on the fascinating figure of Harindranath Chattopadhyay, man of learning, classical singer, radical poet and composer, theatre-person, actor, choreographer, political agitator, member of parliament, spiritual seeker, man about town, and a great deal more. Harindranath wrote and composed in Hindi (Hindustani, more often than not), bringing his natural gifts and acquired expertise to bear on the new set of cultural tasks demanded by his left-wing politics. This was a sign of the times, for classical culture, folk forms and modernist experiments were all being accessed for the cause of the people, and even artists of less rigorous commitment like the young Ravi Shankar joined the ranks. The written word was important, but the visual and the auditory forms took precedence. The theatre and, later on, the cinema became important; music and dance thrived; the visual arts took off in new directions. The cultural scene was hectic with experiments in the thirties and the forties, and there was easy traffic between modernist experiments and the new people’s culture, the latter often aspiring to extend the horizons of the former. Harindranath was a central figure in that endeavour.

Ram Rahman’s illustrated presentation was titled ‘The importance of culture in direct political action: P C Joshi’s seminal influence on cultural practitioners through the words and photographs of Sunil Janah’. The detailed analysis of Janah’s path-breaking photographs and a reading of his meticulous notes point to the dynamics of a new visual culture which restores to the working people their central position in history. The versatility of his technique came from the photographer’s ideological position. Janah not only directed the viewer’s gaze to the new subject of history, the working people, but also invented newer technical means to accomplish the task. The cause was prime mover. The artist in Janah trained himself to be with the people and with other artists engaged in the same task. There was no reward, not even much recognition from polite society, but it was a happy ambience of creativity and commitment which made many artists and activists live together in a minimalist material environment. The commune was the preferred abode and working place of both the activist and the artist. P C Joshi, who had trained himself to be an organic intellectual of the working class, provided the leadership to this notable coming together of aesthetics and politics.

Sumangala Damodaran’s presentation titled ‘Singing Resistance: The Musical Tradition of IPTA’, traced the many dimensions of the rich musical repertoire of what she referred to as the ‘IPTA tradition’, comprising the IPTA itself and other organisations like the Kerala People’s Arts Club in Kerala and the Praja Natya Mandali in Andhra, which aligned themselves with the IPTA. Underscoring the fact that there was hardly any collection or analysis of music as a significant part of the progressive cultural movement in the 1940s and 50s, she argued that the actual repertoire demonstrates that protest music as a genre is not stereotyped by limited number of forms or styles, as is usually perceived. The sheer range in the repertoire across the country helps establish the legitimacy of protest music as good and rigorous music on the one hand and also as constituting a very significant element in the aesthetics-politics relationship on the other. She highlighted that in the Indian case as well, like in various other parts of the world, the protest music movement engaged with and threw up serious debates on the relationship between the individual and the collective, the ‘authentic’ and the ‘crafted’ musical form and between the simple and the complex. She also played clips of the IPTA tradition’s songs to illustrate her arguments.
The first session next day, on October 14, was dedicated to a discussion on the progressive movement and its tradition in Hindi and Urdu. While conducting this session, Murli Manohar Prasad Singh presided over it as well.
Presenting an overview of the development of progressive movement in Urdu, Arjumand Ara underlined how the changes in Urdu literature following the Great Uprising of 1857 reached their logical culmination in this movement. At the same time, she pointed out the new questions and issues that have come up in Urdu literature in Pakistan and India after 1947. She particularly drew attention to the process of how the question of Urdu has been reduced in India to a question of Muslims and how Urdu has been discriminated against in independent India.
In her brief overview of the history of progressive literary movement in Hindi, Rekha Awasthi linked it with the struggle between traditional schools and the new creative concerns that was already going on. Her presentation forcefully negated the thesis that the progressive movement was something foreign and an artificial transplantation in India.
Presenting a brief survey of the role of the progressive movement, Manmohan described it as the culmination of the renaissance that was already going on in the Hindi-Urdu region. He stressed, in particular, the role of the movement in placing realism at the centre of the creative process, in making the process of democratisation consistent and complete, forging the secularisation of our society, solving to an extent the question of linguistic nationalities, forging a critical relationship with tradition, forging counter-traditions, and in radicalising the whole atmosphere. At the same time, however, he pointed out how the movement lost its sheen and role in the changed circumstances after the country’s independence, stressing how the multi-class front which the freedom struggle had forged suffered a dissipation and how the progressive movement proved to be incompetent to deal with the new situation. In the end, Manmohan also underlined how the present juncture is different from the heyday of the progressive movement, so that the progressive movement cannot be revived and channelised in the same manner. He also drew attention to the changing situation when the growing discontent against neo-liberalism is creating the possibility for the progressive forces to forcefully intervene in the situation.
Taking Manmohan’s logic forward, Asad Zaidi underlined how the progressive movement was a movement for modernity. But at the same time he drew attention to its contradictions. In this context, he drew attention to the progressive movement’s failure to overcome the separate development paths in Hindi and Urdu after independence, and to the bitter reality that after independence the progressive current in Hindi has increasing moved towards the rightist position on the question of Urdu and its rights.
Anis Azmi presented a brief survey of the growth of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the area of Hindustani, and its role in ensuring for the genre of drama a place of honour in society, as a cultural form, and making it an instrument of socio-cultural awakening. While stressing the achievements of the progressive movement, Chanchal Chauhan also drew attention to how it put the writer and not the writing at the centre of the creative process and how it suffered weaknesses like sectarianism.
In his concluding address, Murli Manohar Prasad Singh underlined how the progressive movement was the biggest socio-cultural churning in this area after the Bhakti movement of the medieval period and what multidimensional changes it did bring about in our society. At the same time, he stressed the necessity of unification of all transformative currents in accordance with the requirements of today.

The fourth session was chaired by Basudeb Chatterjee and had four speakers. Mihir Bhattacharya presented a paper on ‘Moment and Movement’, in which he proposed that a political movement of the people introduces a moment in culture which acts as something like a singularity, altering the configuration of its dynamics, and though the movement dies out, the moment stays, and works often as a manifest power in the construction and reconstruction of texts, and sometimes as an immanent force which enters into a relationship with other forces. The progressive culture in Bengal was such a singularity which found cognate forces in both the traditions of enlightenment, particularly the radical enlightenment, and the streams of people’s culture which continuously revitalise the elite culture and the mass culture. Rabindranath Tagore was an exemplar of what the enlightenment could contribute to the process. Someone like Manik Bandyopadhyay, on the other hand, took off from classic realism and brought his radical politics to bear upon his art, thus creating a cultural break and bringing into the scene a new kind of fiction. But the historical moment of the break goes deeper and spreads wider. Satyajit Ray was a beneficiary of both the enlightenment and the radical moment of the thirties and forties; Pather Panchali of 1955, work for which started a few years earlier, is unthinkable without the latter, just as the creativity of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, who had a more direct involvement in the movement, bears more manifest traces of a new political aesthetic.

Anuradha Roy spoke on ‘Music as a Mass Movement: Bengal in the 1940s’, describing the innovative music of Jyotirindra Maitra, Salil Chowdhury and others, and holding that this had entered the political landscape in a limited fashion, rousing the elite among the activists to greater fervour but failing to reach the masses in general. The Communist Party had presumably faltered in declassing its cultural apparatus and politicising its supporters. The people in the countryside, in the main, were still immersed in ‘folk’ culture, which had an element of radical thought embedded in it. The creativity of the radical elite was hobbled by city-based techniques and traditions; that is the factor which allegedly inhibited the production of a play like Nabanna outside the limits of the city.

Subodh More read a paper on ‘Progressive Movement in Maharashtra in the 1940s and 1950s’. He traced the beginnings and development of the cultural movement in the context of two developments: the growth of the Ambedkarite movement from the 1930s and the links between it and the early Communist movement, and the growth of the trade union movement in the city of Bombay. In a richly textured presentation, he talked about the creation of progressive consciousness among the peasantry and working class and the growth of the literary movement alongside the cultural movement. He particularly focussed on the creative work of two doyens, Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh, who played a major role in the transformation of the cultural consciousness, in defining new, yet rooted cultural forms in Maharashtra.

Sunil P Elayidom’s paper was titled ‘Imagination and the Making of the Real: a critical reading of the progressive cultural practices of twentieth-century Kerala’. Progressive cultural practice in Kerala during the middle decades of the twentieth century was one of the finest examples of culture acting as a constitutive element of the real. It was a historic juncture where the domain of culture evidently attained the status of a determinant of the real, rather merely representing or reflecting the conflicts and contradictions of social life. Through explicit interventions in the making of the real, imagination established its own materiality, overthrowing the modern understanding of the function of art and ideas. The first part of the presentation located the materiality of the imaginary against the modern understanding of it, drawing from contemporary Marxist notions of the function of art. The second part summarised the history of progressive cultural practice in twentieth-century Kerala with an emphasis on the paradigm shifts that occurred in the domain of sensibility. The third and final part explained the challenges of the present and pointed to the urgency of developing a new perspective for progressive cultural practice, to address the emerging societal reality and to intervene in it.
The fifth session on October 15, was in two parts. The first part was chaired by Geeta Kapur, who started with comments of her own on the artistic breaks which punctuate the history of radical art. The relationship of the visual to the visible is mediated by the means of artistic representation which have to be re-fashioned for the juncture. Chittaprosad and Somnath Hore brought in the austerity of an involved gaze to transcend mere pity and terror which often aid the pornography of the visual. This part of the session had a paper entitled ‘Articulating Suffering, Voicing Protest: visual art in solidarity with the “people”’ from Sanjoy Mallik, which took people through Chittaprosad’s reportage for the Party on the man-made famine of 1943, culminating in a publication titled Hungry Bengal. The copies of the book were confiscated and destroyed by the British as it was critical of the policies that led to the famine. Showing pages of the book on the visual projection, the presentation discussed the propagandist nature of Chittaprosad’s satirical posters and gave a critical overview of the imagery therein. Mallik’s presentation also dealt with Somnath Hore’s engagement with similar issues through his early sketches, drawings, portraits of peasants, pulp prints, lithographs, and his book Tebhaga: An Artist's Diary and sketchbook. Akansha Rastogi, who first presented Mallik’s paper (since he could not attend the symposium), then added her own comments on Chittaprosad. She sought a different approach to discuss the artist, presenting six different drawings done by him on one day (January 7, 1945) in Titvala, Maharashtra, during the CPI's first Kisan Sabha conference. From a large panoramic view of the session in progress, the artist moves on to sketch a group of women attending the conference and then portraits of the headman and local peasant leaders.

The second paper of this part of the session was by Santhosh S on ‘Ramkinkar Baij: A Chronicle of Redemption Foretold’. Ramkinkar was an adivasi who had risen in the ranks of Santiniketan artists through sheer talent, but he never forsook his roots. The work that he did there, for instance, the large cement sculptures in the Kala Bhavan complex, points to the uprooting of the indigenous people from their habitat and to the defiance which the sinewy and graceful bodies articulate. He moved thoughtfully away from the graces of the Bengal School, not disowning the masters like Abanindranath and Nandalal and Benode Bihari, but placing a separate agenda for art next to their visionary invocation of India. In this effort he was right next to Rabindranath himself, who was delving into the dark recesses of a modernist psyche in his enigmatic and teratological universe. But Ramkinkar’s was a more historicised world, ravaged by time and torn by conflict, in which the everyday labour of women and men and their bonding through the graces of common life stand out in their dynamic plasticity.

The second part of the fifth session was chaired by Malini Bhattacharya. Moloyashree Hashmi made a presentation on ‘The Jana Natya Manch experience’, narrating the genesis and explaining the rationale of this particular street theatre movement founded by Safdar Hashmi and others. The aim was to reach out to the working people, and this was an overt and deliberate strategy to politicise the theatre movement in a particular direction. The technical transformation of the performance text and the over-all dramaturgy followed from this avowed political aim. The result had been a series of ‘entertainment’ events in the Brechtian sense, not just some political preaching with a bit of clowning added on, since Safdar’s – and Janam’s – enterprise was to reach that point in the working people’s consciousness which looked critically at the world. Janam has continued its work with a considerable degree of success, part of the serious left movement in India but not a mere appendage to electoral campaigns.

The second speaker, Lata Singh, spoke on ‘“Transgression” of Boundaries: Women of IPTA’. She narrated the point of departure for the women who joined left-wing movements in general and the IPTA in particular, defying familial and social taboos in place in all parts of India. The practical problems were well-nigh insurmountable, given the stigma that was attached to genteel women’s public role in general and appearance on the stage in particular. Sheela Bhatia, Dina Gandhi, Reba Roychoudhury and Rekha Jain, among others, went through both the agony of the wrenching of bonds and the ecstasy of liberation. But, significantly, though the women of the IPTA were held precious and greatly respected, their creative possibilities did not really find enough of an outlet in the organisation. They remained largely at the level of performers. The net gain was, however, in setting up a model for transgression, moving to a different gender culture and overcoming class boundaries.

Malini Bhattacharya made a brief presentation, pointing out that IPTA productions were not merely insertions in the continuing history of the Bengali theatre or music with a bit of leftism added, but attempts to disrupt the mainstream in terms of both aesthetic construction of texts and organisation of cultural events. A theatrical text like Nabanna (1944) brought in new stage techniques in the interest of a realist representation of the life of the peasant, but its authenticity flowed from its politics, which also demanded creating a new audience for the new drama, reaching out to the people in settings of large political gatherings in city as well as country. Nabanna was by no means confined to Kolkata; it went on tours as well, just as other cultural events moved with the squads from town to country. She referred to forms of performance of and by the rural poor, and the IPTA’s efforts to open up communication with these as a legacy that needs to be renewed.

Session Six was chaired by Saeed Mirza and Sadanand Menon. Kalpana Sahni spoke on the two brothers, Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, who had both disappointed their father by forsaking the family business in Lahore and joining up the IPTA movement in Bombay. Their families were involved, just as others were, for the IPTA of the thirties and forties was more a way of life than a cultural association. Impoverished but intrepid, Balraj brought his enormous acting and directorial talents into the new theatre and the new cinema, introducing ‘method’ acting in both. Bhisham was more into theatre and writing. This was the time of shoestring budgets when invention was spurred by necessity and the artist was a worker living with other workers in communes. The morale was high because they knew the importance of the cause and drew inspiration from fellow artists and audiences. This feeling of solidarity was largely due to the active support of the Party. That is why many were heart-broken when P C Joshi was removed from leadership and the squads broke up. The political and artistic values were not lost, but the tradition of working together for the people's cause became a casualty.

M S Sathyu spoke of his own association with the movement and with some of the stalwarts who had brought so much creative energy to the cause. The astonishing thing about the PWA and the IPTA was the extent of support which these organisations commanded all over India. Hardly any major language community or ethnic group remained outside their sphere of influence. In a sense, the progressive cultural movement was the first organised attempt at forging a pan-Indian cultural identity. And the spread was swift, the scope very large. Even after the organisation was wound up the vitality of the movement was not lost. One must look at the whole of India, not just Maharashtra or Bengal, to realise the extent of its impact. The cinemas of Karnataka and Kerala, for instance, thrived on the progressive impetus of the earlier movement and went on to carve their own space in the cinematic map of India.

V Ramakrishna presented a paper on ‘Left Cultural Movement in Andhra Pradesh: 1930s to 1950s’. He offered a detailed historical survey of the cultural scene against the political and economic background of the region, and explained the meshing of culture with politics in the anti-colonial struggle and the Telangana People’s Movement. Two significant things happened. Some of the established writers – Sri Sri, for instance – were drawn to the progressive cause and contributed seminally to the forging of a new kind of literature and drama, in which the people’s cause would be foregrounded. The other was the transformation of some of the traditional rural forms – Burrakatha in particular – into an artistic vehicle of progressive thought. This drew many talents from outside the educated middle-class into the creative pool and deepened the base of the movement. The Andhra experience shows how the people themselves, the labouring poor from the villages, the ordinary citizens from the towns, women from all classes, would be active agents of cultural change and would take part, as conscious political subjects, in the struggle for emancipation. The Party organisation helped the cultural surge, but the latter had a momentum of its own. The visible success of the progressive movement might have been limited, but its impact has been long-lasting.

Biswamoy Pati read a paper titled ‘Imagined Realities: The left-wing cultural movement in Orissa, 1930-47’. The Orissa scene was not really conducive to a sustained cultural movement of the kind witnessed in some other parts, but the impact of the anti-colonial struggle was deeply felt by the intellectuals and the artists, and the surge of popular movements turned some of them in a progressive direction. The New Age Literary Forum was set up in 1935, giving a coherent direction to the collective self-awareness of committed artists, and one can see how a socially felt demand was met by authors like the Panigrahi brothers, Kalindi Charan and the short-lived Bhagavati Charan. The progressive turn was also pivotal in the works of Sachi Raut Roy and Nityananda Mahapatra, and later on, Gopinath Mohanty.

Prachee Dewri presented a paper on ‘IPTA and the Music of Assam’. Her paper focussed on the music that was composed during the 1950s, with special focus on the works of Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnuprasad Rava, who were two people who worked as partners in most of their artistic endeavours during this period. Prachee began with noting that these two artists had already begun experimenting with music in the thirties, moving away from the classical based music of people like Lakshmiram Baruah, and exploring the ‘folk’ genres of the region and used this music in their plays and films and had also recorded them. Agarwala and Rava also theorized on art after their involvement in the IPTA. She linked up how their theorizing on performative arts, like Agarwala’s “Shilpir Prithivi” and Rava’s “Asamiya Krishtir Samu Abhash” was manifested in their creations. The work of many more musicians who entered the fold of the IPTA during this period, some of whom were discovered by Agarwala and Rava, such as Bhupen Hazarika, Dilip Sharma, Sudakshina Sharma, Anandiram Das and Pratima Pandey Barua and who sang in diverse genres such as the Borgeet, Bongeet, Kamrupiya Lokageet and the Goalpariya Lokageet, was also traced briefly through playing some musical clips. Specifically, Prachee’s paper also focussed on how the IPTA promoted lesser known genres, and how these genres themselves influenced the composition of new music in the subsequent decades.
One would like to think that this was not a symposium of the ordinary kind, which are a dime a dozen in season, particularly in New Delhi. The rationale of this particular exercise was an exploration of the Marxist view of culture, particularly people’s cultural movements, and that surely entails something like a paradigm shift, transcending, but not necessarily denying, the established values of academic discourse. The activists and creative people who joined the discussion, the political workers, the media professionals, the younger crowd which stayed throughout -- all these people brought perspectives which helped place the movement in its setting, and pointed to directions which progressive culture has to move towards in order to solve its current problems and renew its pledge to the people. One remembers in this connection the two occasions in Vivan Sundaram’s house in Kasauli, the first in 1979 and the second a couple of years later, when a closely knit group had met to discuss similar issues, and which had resulted in the birth of The Journal of Arts and Ideas. Some of these people were present on this occasion too. The level of commitment and intellectual rigour was very much in evidence more than three decades later, with newer and younger people joining in. As expected, the three days of the symposium saw the core crowd stay together late into the evening of each day, with SAHMAT showing some of the best films of the progressive movement, Dharti ke Lal, Neecha Nagar and Komal Gandhar, before a late community supper. The discussion, needless to say, continued till the end.


Date: 08-08-2009
The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust held a one day seminar Against the Neo-Liberal Thrust that is being given to the education policy by the UPA government. The seminar focused on the recently passed Right to Education Bill and the hundred days agenda of the new HRD minister Kapil Sibal.

Eminent educationists, teachers from Central Universities , Representatives of School and College Teachers’Associations attended the seminar and highlighted the dangers of the UPAs agenda in school and higher education.

The inagural session of the seminar was addressed by Sitaram Yechury, Prabhat Patnaik ( Jawaharlal Nehru University ), Muchkund Dubey (President, Council for Social Development), Yashpal and Zoya Hasan (National Commission for Minorities). All speakers in this session spoke of the need for having an equitable and publically funded educational system which also met the need of socially and economically disadvantaged groups.

Prof Patnaik stated that the university needed to be oriented towards intellectual engangagement which was not subservient to the market. This could not be achieved without fighting the neo-liberal context. Sitaram Yechury hightlighted the need for expanding state responsibility in education and increasing social control over all private educational institutions, both in terms of their fee structures and admission policies. The dangers of privatisation of educational institutions was highlighted by Prof Yashpal, while Prof Zoya Hasan emphasised the need for increasing access of minorities to state funded institutions and reducing their dependence on minority educational institutions.

The second session of the seminar focused on school education and was chaired by Arjun Dev (formerly of NCERT) and addressed by Jayati Ghosh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Ashok Agarwal (Social Jurist), Ravi Kumar (Jamia Millia Islamia) and Mr Rajendran (School Teachers Federation of India). This session highlighted the problems in the Right to Education Act and the Minister’s proposal to make 10th class examinations optional. Prof Jayati Ghosh highlighted the silences within the Right to Education Act in terms of absence of financial responsibility of the state for providing education, and on the norms for educational institutions. Ashok Agarwal used his vast experience in dealing with private schools for evaluating the ways in which the current Right to Education Bill created and institutionalised a discriminatory system against disadvantaged groups and diluted Article 45 of the Constitution guaranteeing right to education to all children from 0-14 years. This aspect was also taken up by Mr Rajendran who stressed the need to include children from 0-6 years within the ambit of the act and the need to struggle against the current neo-liberal educational agenda through a broad mobilisation of ordinary people. He also demanded a National Commission on Education and a debate on Kapil Sibal’s proposals in the CABE so that the federal structure of education was respected. Ravi Kumar highlighted the basic contradiction between the goal of achieving an equitable educational system and the broader neo-liberal context and said that the Right to Education act needs to be seen in this context.

The third session of the seminar focused on higher education and was chaired by C.P Chandrasekhar ( Jawaharlal Nehru University ). Speakers in this session included Sudhanshu Bhattacharya (NEUPA), Dhruv Raina and Soumen Bhattacharya ( Jawaharlal Nehru University ), Vijender Sharma (Democratic Teachers Forum, Delhi University ), N Raghuram ( Indraprastha University ) and Dinesh Abrol (National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies). The session highlighted the limitations of the National Knowledge Commission and Yashpal Committee with respect to their recommendations for reforming higher education. Sudhanshu Bhattacharya said that the government needed to set up a National Commission on Higher Education to check malpractices and privatisation of education. Vijender Sharma showed how the Yashpal Committee had created space for private education and why there was a need to oppose foreign investment in education. This could only be done by increasing social control over private capital. Dhruv Raina highlighted the need to democratise education and research in institutions of higher learning. Dinesh Abrol argued that technical education needed to be subservient to social goals and control and not to the market. Thus market and not overregulation was the problem. The seminar ended with a resolve to oppose the current neo-liberal agenda and called for a sustained fight to amend the right to education act for achieving equity in educational opportunities.

Press Release condemning ban

Date 3.08.2009
We are shocked to learn from press reports that the BJP government of Chhattisgarh has banned Charandas Chor, a classic of the modern Indian theatre, written and produced by Habib Tanvir. The play was first done in the 1970s, and is originally based on an oral folk tale from Rajasthan. Habib Tanvir worked on this tale, introducing into it elements of the art and beliefs of the Satnami community. Satnami singers and dancers have performed in this play, and it has been seen by members of the community several times. In Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, there are several rural troupes who are today performing some version of this play.

The play itself is the story of a thief who, under the influence of a guru, pledges never to tell a lie. He sticks to his pledge, even at the cost of his life. This superb tragic-comedy, in a thoroughly entertaining and artistic manner, brings into focus the moral and ethical degeneration of our society, in which, paradoxically, it is a thief who ends up being more honest than those who supposed to be the custodians of our morality.

Charandas Chor remains Habib Tanvir’s best-known play, and has been performed literally hundreds of times by his world-renowned Naya Theatre troupe all over India and in several countries across the world. It was made into a film by Shyam Benegal, with Smita Patil in the lead, in 1975, and was the first Indian play to win the prestigious Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival in 1982. It then did a successful run on the London stage.

We demand that the Chhattisgarh government immediately revoke this absurd ban.

Act One, M.K. Raina, Arvind Gaur, Moloyashree Hashmi, Asmita Theatre Group, N.K. Sharma, Bahroop Art Group, Sahmat, Brijesh, Shahid Anwar, Govind Deshpande, Sudhanva Deshpande, Jana Natya Manch, Vivan Sundaram, Jan Sanskriti, Wamiq Abbasi, Janvadi Lekhak Sangh, Javed Malick, Madangopal Singh

Press Statement Date 29.07.2009

We are deeply disturbed by attempts being made by interested quarters to take over several historically important and protected monuments in different parts of the country, in clear violation of The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, on the excuse of offering worship there. Many of the monument are parts of the precious legacy of the country and under the rules framed under the Ancient Monuments Act, there can be no installation of worship wherever it had ceased.

We call upon the PM, who is also in-charge of the ministry of Culture to initiate immediate action to save these monuments from encroachment. We also call upon the Chief Minister of Delhi to rein in all such elements who are aiding and abetting the violation of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. We also call upon the authorities to initiate immediate steps to evict the encroachers and to take all steps to ensure the protection of all listed monuments. This should set a model for official action against law-breakers irrespective of the religious community or ritual concerned.

Irfan Habib, Ram Rahman, Amar Farooqui, D. N. Jha, Prabhat Shukla, Arjun Dev, Sohail Hashmi, Zahoor Siddiqui, Shireen Moosvi, Suraj Bhan, Suvira Jaiswal, Archana Prasad

Released to the press

To celebrate the life, theatre, politics and creativity of

Habib Tanvir

(1923-2009) join us at the memorial meeting at

6.00 p.m. 10 June 2009 Muktadhara Auditorium Banga Sanskriti Bhavan 18-19 Bhai Veer Singh Marg, near Gol Market

Jana Natya Manch Sahmat Janvadi Lekhak Sangh Directions: This is the road between Gol Market and St. Columba’s School. From south and east, take Ashok Road up to Gol Dak Khana, then Kali Bari Marg, and turn immediately right. From west and north, take Mandir Marg, Gol Market, turn right on Bhai Veer Singh Marg. Most bus routes for Shivaji Stadium take this road and will drop you in front of Muktdhara. From west and south-west, from RML Hospital, take Baba Kharag Singh Marg where there is the construction of the express metro, Gol Dak Khana, then left at Kali Bari Marg, and turn immediately right.
9868301864 (Sudhanva), 9868254822 (Moloyashree), 23711276 and 23351424 (Sahmat)

jananatyamanch@gmail.com, sahmat8@yahoo.com, jlscentre@yahoo.com

Habib Tanvir
, the legend of contemporary Indian theatre, was also a writer, poet, actor, organiser of progressive writers and people’s theatre - passed away on June 8, 2009 at Bhopal. Habib Tanvir, whose plays make him a true citizen of the world will always be remembered for his abiding commitment to the values of secularism and progressive ideas.

For us at SAHMAT, Habib Saheb was an inspiring presence as its founder trustee and its chairman after Bhisham Sahni’s passing away in 2003. His was one of the most militant voices in the spontaneous protest after Safdar Hashmi’s brutal murder in 1989. Habib Tanvir had earlier collaborated with Safdar Hashmi in dramatizing Premchand’s story

Mote Ram Ka Satyagraha”. Habib was an important organizer and participant in SAHMAT’s Hum Sab Ayodhya exhibition and the Mukt Naad cultural sit-in in Ayodhya in 1993, after the Babri Masjid demolition.

Habib Tanvir was born on September 1923 at Raipur, Chattisgarh. After initial education at Nagpur, he went to RADA in 1955 and travelled in Europe during 1956-57. He became the organiser, secretary, playwright and actor-director of IPTA during 1948-50.

In 1954 he had directed ‘Agra Bazar’ which he himself described as “the first serious experiment integrating song with drama and rural actors with urban” For the last 55 years Agra Bazar’ has been performed all over the country countless number of times. He founded Naya Theatre in 1958. Habib’s abiding contribution to contemporary culture will be his remarkable incorporation of traditions of folk and tribal theatre, music and language into his modern formal craft. The power of his plays delighted and moved audiences cutting across all class boundaries from the man on the street to the powerful elite.

During the last two decades Habib Tanvir had through his plays invited the ire of the Sangh Parivar and the reactionary forces for firmly standing against fundamentalism and obscurantism through plays like “Ponga Pandit”, “ Zamadarin”.

Habib Tanvir will be missed by progressive artists all over the country. His passing marks the end of an era.

To Nagin and the artists of Naya Theatre we convey our heart-felt condolences.

Statement on 14-04-2009

Press Statement on Tendentious Reporting in Media

We are deeply disturbed by the tendentious reports in the media of the Supreme Court proceedings on April 13 dealing with the S I T report on the Gujarat carnage of 2002.

This unhealthy trend in the media reporting is going to seriously compromise the credibility of the media and undermine “ freedom of expression” enjoyed by the media which we all cherish.

An impression being created in a section of the media that the former CBI director R K Raghvan who led the S I T has “told” the court that Teesta Setalvad “ cooked up macabre tales of wanton killing” is mischievious. Only the Supreme Court, the amicus curiae and the Gujarat government have access to the report. The S I T has not filed any other document in court to which the media has access nor was Mr. Raghvan in the Court. It is therefore obvious that the media is only uncritically reporting what the Gujarat government’s lawyer said in the note liberally distributed to the press outside the Court.

While the Supreme Court observed that there was no room for allegations and counter allegations at this late stage, the media coverage has brazenly flouted this observation by reporting the totally baseless allegations against social activist Teesta Setalvad and the organisation she represents Citizen for Justice and Peace on the basis of the Gujarat government’s note circulated in the Court. This is all the more reprehensible because Teesta Setalvad and Citizen for Justice and Peace have neither been given a copy of the S I T report nor has their response been sought in the matter.

The proceedings in the Supreme Court related to the response of the Gujarat government and the amicus curiae Shri Harish Salve to the S I T report. The very fact that the Supreme Court had to set up the S I T to correct the miscarriage of justice due to the tardy investigation by the state of Gujarat was highlighted in the court’s observation that but for the S I T investigation many more accused, who were freshly added, would not have been brought to book. It was the untiring efforts of Teesta Setalvad and the CJP and the National Human Rights Commission that persuaded the Supreme Court to set up the S I T and on the basis of its findings further arrests have been made of persons who held administrative and ministerial positions in the government of Gujarat.


Statement on 23.3.2009

Open Letter to NDA Allies condemning Varun Gandhi’s hate speech

Press Release March 23, 2008

Open Letter to NDA Allies

The Citizens for Justice amd Peace (CJP) and SAHMAT urge the various allies who constitute the NDA coalition and who believe in Constitutional Governance to not only condemn outright, the communal hate-ridden speeches of Varun Gandhi while campaigning in Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh but to ensure that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not nominate him as a candidatefort he forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The letter has been written to Nitish Kumar of JD(U), Om Prakash Chautala Indian National Lok Dal, President Assom Gana Parishad and Ajit Singh of the RLD.

Varun Gandhi’s hate speech epitomises the core of the BJP’s supremist and ultra nationalist ideology that has always targeted India’s syncretic civilisational ethos and specifically (and crudely) targets Muslims, Christians and others sections of Indian.

The BJP’s core ideology stems from its politcal heart the Rashtryiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and is openly being backed by the BJP party.

The allies of the NDA who swear by the Indian Constitution need need to make their position clear on Varun Gandhi’s speech and his possible prospective nomination as a Lok Sabha candidate from Pilibhit. Not to oppose his nomination and candiadture as Lok Sabha candidate is to support not just Varun Gandhi but the BJP that has grown from strength to strength through flagrant violations of the Indian Constitution and the rule of law.

In the past, prime minsterial aspirant Shri LK Advani has been known to have indulged in similar hate mongering (en route to Ayodhya in December 1992); senior party leaders like Shri Murli Manohar Joshi have also committed similar offences; Gujarat chief minister Naremdra Modi’s statements on the internally displaced refugees livng in pathetic conditions in relief camps of the state in 2002 were not just violations of the law, but shocking; fratermal organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parisgad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (BD) have taken the entire content and tempo of hate speech to the levels of a cynical game and continue to indulge in these criminal violations because they escape the long arms of the law.

It is about time that all those political players who have a stake in the future of Indian democracy, who are fighting the elections and especially those who have in the past and still continue to support the BJP-driven NDA come clean on Varun Gandhi’s speech and oppose his nomination as a BJP canbdidate. Not to do so would be to support the content of the violence ridden speech made by him.

Teesta Setalvad, Javed Akhtar, Javed Anand, Rahul Bose, Vivan Sundaram, Ram Rahman, MK Raina, Shakti Kjak, Archana Prasad, Madhu Prasad, CP Chandrashekhar, Indira Chandrashekhar, Badri Raina, Prabhat Patnaik, Utsa Patnaik, Chanchal Chauhan

Minister of Information & Broadcasting
Govt. of India
New Delhi
Dear Minister,

We are deeply shocked at the decision to cancel the screening of a documentary made by the eminent Indian painter M.F. Husain, after it had been scheduled for November 25 at the ongoing International Film Festival of India in Goa. We are also profoundly alarmed at the wider implications of this act of blatant censorship imposed on artistic production. You are surely aware of the background to this decision by the Directorate of Film Festivals. On November 22, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) and an affiliated body that calls itself the Sanatan Sanstha, petitioned the chief minister of Goa and the director of the film festival, urging that the screening be cancelled since it involved a person who had allegedly caused offence to the “religious and National sentiments of crores of Hindus and Indians (sic)”. Almost at the same time, activists of the same two bodies carried out a series of protests in the city of Mumbai, in the vicinity of the Films Division office. As the website of the HJS puts it: they made a “representation with a warning” to the Films Division officials, about the plan to screen the Husain documentary. Then, in the narration on the HJS website: the official at Mumbai had “a long discussion with the Chief Officers in the Film Division”, “tried to contact the officers in Goa and New Dehli (sic) again and again and finally told the delegation at 3.30 in the evening that the screening of the abovementioned film was cancelled”. The craven and unprincipled capitulation by the film festival organisers has been portrayed by the HJS as “one more feather” in its cap (http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/5830.html). At the same time, the official response has been to either feign ignorance or pretend that the issue is of little consequence. The chief minister of Goa has reportedly said that he had no knowledge of the entire process and the director of film festivals has taken the position that the screening was being “deferred”. Frankly, we are appalled at this abject failure of principle and the thorough abdication of responsibility by officials entrusted with safeguarding the autonomy of cultural and artistic production. The HJS and its affiliated organisation, the Sanatan Sanstha are, as you would know, under investigation by police and intelligence agencies for their possible complicity in a number of terrorist actions in the country. Indeed, the option of declaring them “unlawful” organisations, is reportedly under active consideration. You would also be aware that the HJS has for years been the central switching-board for a number of cases against M.F. Husain, lodged on the grounds of “obscenity”, “causing ill-will on grounds of religion” and “incitement”. This entire range of charges was considered by the Delhi High Court and in a historic verdict of May 8, held to be completely without substance. The Delhi High Court finding was upheld by the Supreme Court. However, the HJS and its associates have managed to effectively mobilise a sufficient number of complainants scattered all over the country, and the Supreme Court is yet to decide on a petition requesting that all cases be brought within its jurisdiction. You would appreciate then, that the continuing harassment of one of India’s greatest living artists, is a consequence of technical procedures involved in the administration of justice and most importantly, the failure of the administrative authorities to stand up to the coercive strategies of bodies that are currently under investigation for terrorism offences. We urge you to reflect upon the consequences that this would have, for the faith that the common man places in the system of administration he lives under. We urge you moreover, to reflect upon the consequences for artistic production in this country. Husain’s documentary was produced in 1967 and has been widely recognised and awarded by the most discerning judges. It is a sad day for creative activity everywhere, when work of such calibre is deprived of an audience, because of the power of the mob. In the interests of cultural freedom, we urge you to rescind the ban on Husain and allow his documentary to be screened at the ongoing film festival. In anticipation,


Vivan SundaramRam Rahman

ATTACK ON SAHMAT exhibition!

Protest meeting at 11 am on 25 August, at SAHMAT

SAHMAT had organized an exhibition of reproductions of eminent artist M.F. Husain’s works on 22, 23 and 24 August 2008, to coincide with the three-day Art Fair at the India Art Summit, Pragati Maidan, Delhi , at which galleries had been advised not to show the artist’s work. The exhibition had on display, apart from reproductions of Husain’s paintings, eight photographs of Husain by Parthiv Shah, two photographs of Husain painting a hoarding by Madan Mahatta, and three photographs from Husain’s ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ series from the Village Art Gallery, Delhi.

On Sunday, 24 August, at around 3.30 pm, the exhibition, which was being held in a shamiana outside the SAHMAT office, was attacked and vandalised by 8 to 10 miscreants. The television channel ETV, whose crew was present, has recorded the entire episode. The vandals ran away from the scene after destroying the framed photographs and prints, a television set and DVD player (on which Husain’s films were being screened), and furniture. The artist Arpana Caur, and Anil Chandra and Santosh Sharma, SAHMAT members, were witnesses to the episode.

In protest against the attack on SAHMAT and the vandalism, the exhibition has been extended, in ‘as-is’, vandalised condition, for a day – till the evening of 25 August.

A meeting to protest against this cowardly attack, and the attempt on the part of rightwing forces to impose a narrow, majoritarian view of our culture, was held on Monday, 25 August, at 11 am, outside the SAHMAT office at 8 Vithalbhai Patel House, Rafi Marg. Those present at the protest meeting, and those who have sent messages of solidarity, include:

Abhijeet Tamhane, Aditi Magaldas, Aditi Raina, Ajay Srivastava, Akila Jayaraman, Albeena Shakil, Ali Abbas Yakutpura, Aman Farooqi, Amar Farooqi, Anant Raina, Anil Chandra, Anjali Raina, Anup Karar, Arpana Caur, Asad Zaidi, Ashalata, Ashok Kumari, Ashok Rao, Aziz Ahmed Khan, Badri Raina, Bani Joshi, Brinda Karat, C.P. Chandrasekhar, Chanchal Chauhan, Dadi Pudumjee, Danish Ali, Dayanand Singh, Dhiresh, Faizan Farooqi, Gautam Navlakha, Geeta Kapur, Geetanjali Shree, Hannan Mollah, Inder Salim, Indira Chandrasekhar, Irfan Habib, Jatin Das, Jauhar Kanungo, Javed Malick, Javed Naqvi, Jayati Ghosh, K. Bikram Singh, Kalpana Sahni, Kamakumar Hirawat, Kanishka Prasad, Kanti Mohan, Kumi Chandra, Lima Kanungo, M.K. Raina, M.M.P. Singh, Madan Gopal Singh, Madhu Prasad, Maimoona Mollah, Manjira Datta, Martand Khosla, Mithilesh Srivastav, N.D. Jayaprakash, N.K. Sharma, N.S. Arjun, Nalini Taneja, Nandita Narayan, Nandita Rao, Naslima Shahana, Neeraj Malick, Nilotpal Basu, Nina Rao, P. Madhu, P.K. Shukla, Parth Tiwari,
Parthiv Shah, Prabhat Patnaik, Preeti Bawa, Pushpamala N., Qausar Hashmi, Radhika Menon, Rahul Verma, Raj Chauhan, Rajendra Prasad, Rajendra Usapkar, Rajinder Arora, Rajinder Sharma, Rajiv Jha, Rajni B. Arora, Ram Nivas Tyagi, Ram Rahman, Riyaz Ahmed Bhat, Romi Khosla, S. Kalidas, S.M. Mishra, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Sahba Farooqi, Sahba Husain, Sahiram, Samar S. Jodha, Sania Hashmi, Santosh Sharma, Sashi Kumar, Shabi Ahmad, Shakeel Ahmed, Shamim Farooqi, Shamshad, , Shamsul Islam, Shankar Chandra, Shanta Chopra,
Sheena Bhalla, Shireen Moosvi, Shruti Singhi, Shubha Mudgal, Sitaram Yechury, Sohail Hashmi, Sravan Kumar, Subhashini Ali, Sudha Sundararaman, Sudhir Chandra, Sudhir Suman, Sukumar Muraleedharan, Suneet Chopra, T.S. Johar, Utsa Patnaik, Uzma Mollah, V. Srinivasa Rao, Vandana Sharma, Veer Munshi, Vidya Shah, Vijay S. Jodha, Vijender Sharma, Vivan Sundaram.

Press Statement

We are surprised and unhappy at the decision of the organisers of the first India Art Summit to exclude the works of MF Husain from the displays of all the participating galleries from across India . The Art summit and three day fair, which opens at the Trade Fair venue in Delhi on the 22nd, is also supported by the Ministry of Culture. While the organisers may have made this decision out of a fear of attacks or protests against the work of Husain, by giving in to such threats by extremist political groups, they are playing into the hands of these forces. It is the duty of the state and the police to protect our institutions and citizens against threats of violence and surely the Trade Fair authorities and the Delhi police are capable of confronting any such threat. An earlier exhibit by Husain continued at the India International Centre last December under just such assurances by the Delhi police.For the artists community, Husain is the reigning father-figure, commanding enormous respect. In fact, Husain has been single-handedly responsible for putting Indian art on the world map and equally responsible for creating the world market boom in Indian art, without which such a summit and fair would not be taking place in Delhi at this moment. It is therefore deeply ironical that his work is being excluded by dictat. We request the organisers to rethink this decision. In solidarity with Husain, Sahmat will show Images of his work on all three days of the summit outside its office at 8 Vithalbhai Patel House, Rafi Marg. We invite all the citizens of Delhi and all artists to come view his work at Sahmat.
Ram Rahman, MK Raina, Madan Gopal Singh, Sohail Hashmi, Parthiv Shah, Vivan Sundaram, Indira Chandrasekhar, Geeta Kapur, K Bikram Singh