NET/TEN Shareback: Anu Yadav - On Janam: Background and Reflections

Fall 2016 Travel Grant Recipient

Anu Yadav (Washington, DC) traveled to Delhi, India to observe the work of political street theater group Jana Natya Manch, or 'Janam,' in December 2017. She observed their rehearsal process for the development of their new play, led a workshop and conducted interviews.


On Janam: Background and Reflections

Jana Natya Manch, or ‘Janam’, is India’s premier street theatre troupe. Since 1973, they have performed more than 8000 times over 100 street and proscenium plays in about 140 towns and cities of India. They have a deep history of building with movements, from organizing during India’s state of emergency to supporting the largest strike by working class people in the history of Delhi. In 1989 senior troupe member Safdar Hashmi was assassinated while performing, which led to massive national protests and the establishment of April 12, Hashmi’s birthday, as National Street Theater Day. Their street plays cover a huge array of social issues, and they are a significant cultural institution of street and political performance not only within Delhi and India, but in the world today. They currently run an independent art and activism space called Studio Safdar and continue to work in the community.

In 2001 I went on tour with them, captured interviews, observed rehearsals for a period of three months as part of a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. In 2007 I coordinated Jana Natya Manch’s Washington, D.C. stop in their first United States tour. In 2011 one of their senior leaders interviewed me for an issue of their magazine featuring women theater artists. In 2012 I received funding from the University of Maryland at College Park to travel to Delhi for an internship with the company. As part of my activities then, I taught a workshop, performed a reading of my solo play in their new cultural center, Studio Safdar, as well as observed and documented their annual Safdar Shahadat, a series of events and performances commemorating the life of the late Safdar Hashmi.

During my trip December 2017 I spent time with the theater company, observed their rehearsal process, conducted a workshop, and interviews with troupe members. They were working on a new play and preparing for their annual ‘Safdar Shahadat.’ Over the last 15 years I have known them, Janam’s work has grown tremendously to include the independent space for arts and activism known as Studio Safdar, continued touring, international tours and exchanges, as well as May Day bookstore and café run by publishing house Leftword Books, of whom one company member is senior editor.

My biggest takeaway from the trip was the respect for Janam's continuity and sense of community. Oftentimes in the United States, as an artist I get caught in the individualized quest for upward mobility, out of the need for economic survival. As artists we get set up to compete with each other for the same pots of funding, and, in my personal experience, touring constantly which can make me feel ungrounded and disconnected from my communities. I continue to be impressed with Janam’s commitment to place, and the magnitude of what they have been able to build since their founding in 1973, all the while not accepting any government or non-profit funding outside of individual donations. They have a deep network of love and community, and alliances with a variety of women’s organizations, activist and labor groups throughout Delhi, and India.

As one company member pointed out, the need for street theater continues today. In these troubled times, street theater is a way to demand a vitality of democracy not simply at the ballot box but in all the spaces we inhabit – the square, the factory, businesses, schools and in our homes. Democracy is about dissent, dialogue, and building towards our shared future, which happens by being in community with each other. As Janam’s work shows, theater is not the revolution. It is part of a revolution of values and community-building, and Janam has not only sustained an incredible wealth of activity for the past 43 years, but has built a strong foundation of relationship and place that will continue for years to come.



Anu Yadav

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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