The Street’s Theatre

How a troupe celebrates a working-class neighbourhood

The vision behind Studio Safdar was to create a cultural centre in a working-class neighbourhood. In their performances and theatre festivals, working class people, from the surrounding suburb of Shadi Khampur, are both actors and judges. RAHUL M
31 January, 2022

“I have always been interested in theatre,” Ravi Kumar Otwal told me. “In fact, I was one of the best at mono-acting in school.” His voice, although acutely hoarse owing to the change of seasons and passive smoke, boomed with pride. Otwal owns a tea stall—a decrepit shack housed under a murky blue tarpaulin awning supported by two creviced wooden poles, precariously withstanding the winter wind—in Shadi Khampur, a working-class neighbourhood of western Delhi. His tea stall is located opposite a bustling bank and a photography studio, which, he said, reminded him of his youthful passion for the arts. Beyond his tea stall, about a minute’s walk away, lies Studio Safdar.

Studio Safdar was born out of the legacy of violence between governments in Delhi and working-class neighbourhoods such as Shadi Khampur. The studio is named after Safdar Hashmi, an artist and activist who started a street-theatre campaign in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. His organisation, called the Jana Natya Manch—or People’s Theatre Movement—organised plays in the capital’s working-class communities, criticising the ruling regime on price rises, its fanning of communalism, rising unemployment, the trampling of labour rights and its failure to empower women.

“Street Theatre as a cultural tool has become a form of expression among the working class, both in urban and rural contexts,” Sudhanva Deshpande, a theatre director and member of the troupe, told me. “It is through this that they express their complaints and concerns. When you look at the people in power you realise that they’re all from a rich background, so this is where street theatre comes in. They express themselves through songs and narratives in the streets.”

On 1 January 1989, Hashmi and his troupe were performing a play in Sahibabad, a neighbourhood in eastern Delhi, in support of the demands of workers associated with the Central Indian Trade Union. Following a dispute, the followers of a local Congress leader murdered Hashmi and Ram Bahadur, a migrant worker from Nepal. The next day, despite the murder, the Jana Natya Manch performed the same play at the same location in support of CITU workers. The troupe has performed in Sahibabad on every 1 January since, in memory of Hashmi and Bahadur.