Janam’s street theatre journey began in October 1978. The first play Machine with lyrical, stylized dialogues depicted the exploitation of industrial labour.
In the aftermath of the Emergency (1975-77), it became impossible to do large plays. As Safdar Hashmi told the theatre scholar Eugene van Erven in the summer of 1988, “We discovered that the trade unions… were no longer in a position to bear the expenses of even 500 or 700 rupees for a performance…. during the Emergency they had been totally destroyed. They needed our theatre in their reorganisation efforts but they had no funds.”
A new kind of theatre was now needed, but no one knew what kind. “All we knew was that we wanted a play that was (a) inexpensive (b) mobile and portable [and] (c) effective.” They read dozens of plays but none satisfied them. Janam decided to write its own plays. The first of these was Machine, a short, 13-minute play with a cast of six, acted in a circle with the audience on all sides, first performed on October 15, 1978. Safdar records how the idea of Machine emerged:
“There is a chemical factory… called Herig-India. The workers there did not have a union. They had two very ordinary demands… They wanted a place where they could park their bicycles and… a canteen where they could get a cup of tea… The management was not willing even to grant these demands… The workers went on strike and the guards opened fire, killing six workers. So this old Communist leader told me about this incident… and he said, ‘Why don’t you write a play about it?’”
The initial draft of Machine was written by Safdar (then 24) and Rakesh Saksena, and was finalised on the floor, where everyone present contributed. Machine is an abstract play, in a way. The machine, created very simply by human figures, is the symbolic representation of capitalism. The worker, the capitalist and the security officer are all parts of the machine; they are complementary parts of a system founded upon the exploitation of one by the other; their co-existence, then, is unequal. As the Narrator puts it:
“They stay together, they work together. Owner and worker, goon and victim. And more: mill and grain, thakur and dalit. Always together, forever together!”
But of course the permanence of togetherness is illusory; an exploitative system breeds within it the seeds of its own destruction. The machine breaks down and comes to a grinding halt – the workers have revolted.
“After we sang the final song, the trade union delegates… lifted us on their shoulders. We became heroes… The next day we performed at the Boat Club for about 1,60,000 workers. So you see, our street theatre began very gloriously… A lot of people tape-recorded the play… A month after the rally we started getting reports from all around the country that people were performing Machine… They had… reconstructed it in their own languages.”
Ten years and a thousand shows later, Safdar still could not explain the success of Machine: “The workers absolutely love this play. I still do not understand [why], for it’s so simple… It is schematic, except that the dialogues are interesting. Everywhere they loved it, though… Perhaps it is something… abstract that appeals to them.” But Safdar has explained, here, the success of Machine: first, because of its not just “interesting” but stylised, lyrical, near-poetic prose; second, because it captures in its abstraction a very real, living truth and trusts its audiences to make the connection between the abstraction and the reality; third, because abstraction and brevity lend it a certain simplicity, without rendering it simplistic.
What Machine did, then, was to encapsulate the basic framework of Janam’s street theatre: it is a theatre allied with the people, the revolutionary classes in particular; it signalled the involvement of its audiences in the creative process (the idea for Machine came from a trade unionist); it placed poetry in the foreground; it laid stress on theatrical innovation; and it inspired several others to take up street theatre.
Download the Script here
Watch the video of the play here