The goons came to the performance waving iron rods and oiled lathis. Their target, a theatre group presenting a street play in a workers’ colony in Delhi, stood no chance. Two people died — a migrant worker from Nepal called Ram Bahadur and the charismatic performer and activist leader, Safdar Hashmi.
That New Year's Day, 1989, Sudhanva Deshpande was a first-year postgraduate student at Delhi University who was hanging out with Hashmi and the group, Jan Natya Manch (Janam), though he had no role in the play, Halla Bol. Deshpande managed to escape the attackers by running fast through winding lanes. When he saw Hashmi again, the latter was slumped on the ground and covered in blood. Deshpande and a few others took Hashmi to a hospital.
“At that time, I took myself very seriously as an actor. I had an ambition that I would be known as one of the top theatre actors of India. I never thought that street theatre was good enough for me. I thought of myself as this exalted artiste,” he says. Today, Deshpande, with a distinctive silver mop and a cycle he rides everywhere in Delhi, is one of the leading figures of street theatre as a senior member of Janam and a veteran of more than 4,000 shows of over 80 street plays.
In his first book, Halla Bol, released on January 1, the anniversary of the attack, Deshpande revisits Hashmi’s death and places it in a wider context of politics, activism and street theatre. The book, published by LeftWord Books, is being translated in several Indian languages. In an interview, Deshpande talks about what he did not write in it — the influence of Hashmi on his own transformation as an actor and activist.
How challenging was writing a book on a tragedy you were a part of?
Halla Bol is a book I have written in my head for many years. Initially, I wanted to write a conventional biography of Safdar, but it was not quite gelling in my head. Two years ago, I was struggling with the idea of personal voices. In the summer of 2019, the whole thing just came together in my head in one go. I realised that I would have to start with the attack and, once I realised that, the personal voice became easy. I decided to tell the attack as I had seen it, although there are elements of others' experiences as well. Once the architecture of the book made sense to me, writing did not take long.
How accurate are the minute details, such as what people said or wore, from an event that took place three decades ago?
It is quite extraordinary that I remember all of it. I even remember what happened in the months leading up to the attack — the process of creating Halla Bol and so on — which is part three of the book. Even in later years, there are some things I remember minutely, especially the making of plays — at what stage what decision we took. I remember vivid details of most plays I have been involved in, either as a writer or an actor.
Did the attack change your attitude to theatre?
It took me a few years to realise what had happened. It wasn’t as if the attack happened and the next day, I said, ‘Chalo, I want to be a revolutionary’. What Safdar’s killing did was that it woke me up and brought me back to earth. I started asking questions like, ‘What’s this country going to be? Why should we have been attacked in the first place?’ This attack politicised me personally in a way that nothing else had until that point. Other things also heightened my political awareness. Avtar Singh Pash had been killed in 1988 and Shankar Guha Niyogi was killed in 1991. In 1989, right after Safdar was killed, there was the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The following year, LK Advani’s Rath Yatra took place and Mandal Commission protests were spreading across the country. In 1992, Babri Masjid was demolished. There was a lot of ferment in the air. I became more concerned with the state of the country, our society, our culture and the growing cultural violence.