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Streetside rebels with a cause

Two days before the National Street Theatre Day is celebrated, Hindustan Times hits the road to discover that the medium is alive and thriving.

art and culture Updated: Apr 09, 2010 23:30 IST
Aasheesh Sharma

Aao, ao, natak dekho… (Come watch a play) begins the chant. Loiterers, wastrels and shoppers in the suburban Bhoapur village, near the Delhi–UP border, crane their necks towards an elderly woman beckoning people in a soprano voice at a street corner. Queries are met with the response: Khel hone wala hai. Within minutes the trickle of people has grown into a ground swell.

Between a barbershop and a cobbler on the pavement, the actors of Jan Natya Manch are taking a great theatrical tradition forward.

Hamlet in a hamlet? They are game for it. Health messages against sexually transmitted diseases outside an STD booth, even better. Costume changes happen behind a downed shop shutter, curtain calls happen without a curtain.

There are no auditoria, tickets or make-up but the audience is the warmest in the universe, says Sarita Sharma, 28, teacher with Sardar Patel Vidyalaya by day and street theatre performer by the evening.

"The spontaneous response that one gets more than compensates for lack of infrastructure."

Ask Moloyashree Hashmi, 56, the spunky secretary of Jana Natya Manch. Her crew and she are staging Isse Hum Kyon Sahen? (Why should we tolerate this?) not far from the spot where her husband, iconic theatre activist Safdar Hashmi, was murdered by political goons 21 years back.

"We voice concerns about minimum wages because street theatre gels with the philosophy of the Jan Natya Manch that works for working people."

Two days before April 12, National Street Theatre Day, Hindustan Times discovered that Jan Natya Manch is not the only street theatre group in the city where the message is as crucial as the medium.

Every practitioner of street theatre is a rebel with a cause, says Shamsul Islam of Nishant Natya Manch that has been spreading light over such socially relevant subjects as degradation of women and religious intolerance for more than four decades.

"Some of our plays on communalism and war-hysteria have been performed more than 5,000 times," says Islam, who teaches Political Science at Satyawati College.

The campus is where the Asmita theatre group is shaping young minds, says founder Arvind Gaur.

"Of the five street plays that we staged more than 100 times across Delhi's colleges in the last three months, four sensitised youngsters on global warming."

The immediacy of street theatre inspires students to turn directors.

"After directing Aaakhir main bhi ek insaan hun (After all I am a human, too) about caste bias and Ummeed that dealt with violence against women at Lady Shriram College, now I do plays that focus on trafficking at Awaam Foundation," says 20-year-old Neharika Mahajan.

Lessons from the people

Actors are rough at the edges till they understand the society's socio-political issues, says director Shamsul Islam of Nishant.

Here are some who've made the evolution from the street to marquee beautifully.

Nishant Natya Manch: Manoj Bajpai

Jan Natya Manch: Nandita Das, Anurag Kashyap, Loveleen Mishra

Asmita: Kangna Ranaut, Deepak Dobriyal, Shilpa Shukla