1980 - 1990

The street actor and the audience

Jana Natya Manch

Looking through the lens of Jana Natya Manch performances

The actor and the audience share a special space on the street. They are face to face, aware of each other’s presence yet hold a surprise for each other.

The street play marks a quick, sharp and engaging transformation in an already eventful, busy and dynamic space—the street.

It starts unassumingly, anywhere, anytime, between any activity on the street. For the audience there is no time for preconception…

Street theatre is ‘people’s theatre. Romain Rolland in his work The People's Theatre (1903) indicated that people's theatre need not bear the burden of distributing virtue through its form. People are not foolish, just often ignorant so this theatre should set its audience ‘thinking’ and ‘doing'.

For anyone who has experienced a street play in India, a recurring image almost invariably composes itself into a circular or semi-circular clearing with the performer at its centre and the periphery demarcated by its audience.

It appears to be a ‘mutually decided’ arrangement between the performer and the audience which spontaneously falls into this ‘discipline’ of meeting and talking to each other. The street actor's acting area is sculpted by theiir audience.

Crowds transfixed over a set of strongly positioned actors in a queue. None of the actors seem to be moving in the scene. The kinetics of this shot however, cannot be underestimated..

It has a swirling effect on the viewer who is pulled to the centre, simultaneously struggling to overlook its engagement with the dense crowd on the periphery. The crowd forms a subject in itself, they are  settled and without a sense of claustrophobia or chaos, and, their absence would kill the spirit of the photograph.

It is intriguing but also perfectly logical how, as opposed to most photographs of stage performances, a photograph of a street performance almost never excludes its audience from the frame.

The actor, if need be, will step off the acting space to come closer to people inviting opinion and establishing a direct dialogue, taking the play from ‘playing’ to ‘talking’.

While the street play does not censor or limit the coming close of its audience, it does not, perhaps, bind it with any formality to ‘stay on’ as well.

There are no visual obstructions that make fellow audience members  and the performer in a street play invisible to each other -a common phenomenon in proscenium theatre.

Therefore, the street theatre medium demands a very strong visual experience, in order for the audience to remain attentive amidst all ‘distractions’ on the street. Many street plays are made visually engaging by the use of ‘bodyscapes’, strong compositions and swift definite movements.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is the actor and who is the audience. They merge into each other’s spaces.

The audience-actor image is so iconic that often they define the visuality of Street Theatre. But this interdependence can go beyond here and now.

The actor audience solidarity towards a cause can come together to empower each other. 

In November 1988, the working class of Delhi went on a historic 7-day strike agitating for increase in the minimum wage (from Rs 562 to Rs 1050), dearness allowance, regularization of contract workers, and crèche facility for children of working women.

Moloyashree Hashmi essayed the role of Parvati, an angry woman worker who has been denied entry into the factory because she arrives with her child. 

On the eve of the strike, at Safdar Hashmi’s initiative, Janam and several other organizations organized an artists’ march of solidarity with workers. Leading artists and intellectuals, including Bhisham Sahmi and Prabhat Patnaik took part in the march.  

On the 4th of January 1989, Jana Natya Manch reached Jhandapur, Sahibabad, a small industrial town near Delhi to ‘complete’ the performance of Halla Bol, left interrupted two days earlier, when the group was brutally attacked by political goons. 

The attack led to the death of Safdar Hashmi, one of the founder members of Janam, and Ram Bahadur, a local worker who had come to watch the play. 

The entire artist community of India sharply condemned this unprecedented attack. This image  of the 4th of January 1989 remains one of the most iconic amalgams of a three tier protest...

The protest of a theatre group that returned to the site of an interrupted performance as a form of reclaiming its right to culturally intervene in society, 

The protest of the audience comprising artists and activists who considered the attack a blow to the freedom of cultural expression and a photographer who decided to record this moment inscribing his presence as an active participant to the event.

"The belief in art for art's sake arises whenever the artist is out of harmony with his social environment"                             Georgei Plekhanov ( 1856-1980). 

Credits: Story

Photographers — Safdar Hashmi, Surendra Rajan, Rathin Das and Sudhanva Deshpande
Curated by — Joyoti Roy

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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