Blogging from India #9 People's Theater goes right to the workers of Delhi

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PWW Editor Teresa Albano is blogging from India, where she attended the conventions of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist). The parties hold seats in the national Parliament and lead the governments in three of India’s states.

DELHI, India — Some evenings you will see a small jeep driving around this city full of a half dozen amateur actors and actresses dedicated to the education and rights of the working class. Weaving their way through the impossible Delhi traffic they perform in slums, industrial areas and other sites where workers may be. Such was the evening I spent with Jana Natya Manch (Janam) or People's Theater Forum.

The theater group, founded in 1973, is a consciously partisan advocate of rights for workers, trade unions, the poor, women, religious minorities and oppressed castes and ethnicities.

This month Janam is performing three times daily (six or seven times on Sundays) to spread the word about an April 24-25 strike for minimum wage and the right to be listed on the employers' 'master list.'

'There has been such an attack on the working class and erosion of rights,' says Sudhanva Deshpande, a leader of the theater group. 'What was established as labor law has been so eroded that we have to reestablish them.' He said oftentimes workers aren't put on the employers' master list, which means if they are hurt or killed on the job, they don't exist and families won't be able to get compensation.

Some six actors gather, with supporting comrades from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Center for Indian Trade Unions, at Delhi's biggest and most historic mosque, Jama Masjid. Pulling out costumes, blankets and props from the jeep, the actors and their comrades get to work. One comrade holds the red flag with its white hammer and sickle and star (CPI(M)'s symbol) against the mosque's gate. Muslim women comrades stand by in support. A blanket is put down on the dusty street full of taxis, two- and three-wheelers, vendors and their carts, pedestrians, beggars — many children and disabled — and numerous men carrying loads on their shoulders, some of their burdens looking like cartons of office supplies.

A crowd starts to gather as an elderly comrade from Delhi starts his fiery speech in Hindi. He tells the people about the necessity to fight for rights, saying if you do the work you are entitled to decent pay. A younger woman comrade starts to pass out flyers from the CPI(M) and CITU about the issues and the dates of the strike. Hands reach over the heads of others to take the information.

After the young woman gives her speech — which also identifies the CPIM and CITU and what they stand for — the skits begin.

There are four, two with a serious tone and two with comic hilarity. They deal with health and safety, wages and letting people know they have the right to organize and demand a better living.

The first comic sketch portrays an old-style fat capitalist who tells workers they don't need more money but more religion. The second one provokes more laughter when the “new-style' capitalist in techno, almost hip hop style 'cool,' takes the stage. 'So cool,' the actresses croon. He's got it all, they say, an MBA from Australia and ... a 'mobile' (cell phone).

The crowd responds with loud laughter and smiles as the troupe combines this age-old theater form with working class politics and struggle. Then it's the end. The troupe asks for donations. Even one rupee will help, they say. They go through the crowd and some people give.

Then it's on to the next spot, which tonight happens to be right around the corner at another entrance of the mosque. This time the sun is setting and the group has to wait until the call to prayer is over. Then again the show begins. This time a crowd of some 200 with children sitting at the front encircle the group.

Leaflets and laughter travel throughout the audience.

The last performance of the night is at a dirt- and rock-strewn parking lot which serves as home for bicycle rickshaw drivers, sandwiched between a totally congested street (due to a street being closed next to a nearby bridge) and a train line. There is a makeshift kitchen/house in the lot. Maybe most of these drivers stay here overnight. There are two light bulbs, one over the tent/kitchen and the other about 20 feet away. The group sets up right under the other light bulb. They place their blankets down and drivers begin to sit and congregate.

After the first speech a plea is made: wait until the movie is over and more will come and watch, one person says. Next door is a small movie theater where most of the drivers are watching a film. Another young woman dressed in an orange 'punjabi' suit takes the floor to kill the time before the movie ends. She gives a speech that elicits applause and cheers from the gathered. She is an organizer of the small CITU and CPI(M) unit that has been built among these drivers.

Then the movie ends and more people pour out. Standing and sitting, some holding children, they watch the final theater performance of the night.

Afterwards they pass out tea to the performers and supporters. People talk and then say goodbye. It’s back into the jeep, and then the Janam performers are dropped off at various places.

These comrades have an intense schedule. They work during the day and then do the performances every night. 'We are either working or rehearsing,' says one actress. But on the days of the strike they won't perform; they will be part of the strike.

On April 12, Janam will join with other groups to commemorate the birthday of Janam's founding member, Safdar Hashmi. Hashmi was killed while performing in 1989 when the group came under attack by thugs. The commemorative march is to honor Hashmi and his commitment to radical and revolutionary art dedicated to the working class and social progress.