Street theatre (nukkad-natak), typically non-ticketed, is performed both outdoors and indoors, in public, professional or residential spaces. It is mostly performed to educate, engage, and create awareness in society towards social, cultural, political, or professional issues.
Over the past many years, street theatre has become one of the most impactful and impressionable formats in theatre. Many renowned theatre personalities and political activists have used this medium to share their message with the people. Safdar Hashmi was one such artist who wore many hats- actor, playwright, street theatre director, lyricist, and activist. His influence on street theatre has been so profound that his birthday, 12 April, is celebrated as the National Street Theatre Day.
Hashmi died at the young age of 34. His group was brutally attacked by a mob on 1 January 1989 while performing the play Halla Bol in Jhandapur village, Uttar Pradesh. He succumbed to his injuries the next day. Halla Bol, a play on worker’s rights, has since become one of his most popular plays. His ideologies were always at loggerheads with many political leaders of that time and this came across in his plays which covered a wide array of issues, such as, rigging of elections, violence against women, inflation, etc.
His unexpected death shocked the nation. His funeral procession, nearly 15 kilometers long, brought together thousands of people including artists, intellectuals, political activists, workers, students, etc. This was unusual for a young theatre artist at that time. To pay a tribute to him and show strength to his adversaries in those trying times, JANAM, a theatre group co-founded by him, performed the same play at the place of his attack on 4 January, just two days after his death.
Celebrating National Street Theatre Day today is not only a tribute to artists such as Hashmi but also shows the resilience of this art form and continues to be an effective medium for creating mass awareness.
Like many people around me, I had not seen street theatre up close and my first experience of it was in 2009. What was supposed to be a usual morning commute to my workplace, changed my perception about my career and life. On that morning, I happened to see a nukkad-natak named Kachara (garbage) on the streets of Delhi University performed by Hindu College. This was my first experience of watching a full twenty-minute play in-person and I was left mesmerized by it. In that moment, I realized the potential of street theatre in raising and addressing workplace issues.
During my seven years in the corporate world, I realised that issues such as sexual harassment, unethical practices, non-compliances, and lack of integrity are the common norms across industries. I had left my dream to become a professional dancer for a corporate career due to the financial instability that came with the former, however, my experience in the corporate world continuously made me relook at my choices. And watching that play put many things into perspective for me. I could see that this through this art form I can channelize my creative energy and also use street theatre for communication of ideas, stories, opinions, and addressing the malpractices in the corporate world.
Thus, I left a comfortable salary and a stable job at the age of 26 and started Be.artsy in 2010. In the last 8 years, I have had the fortune of directing five street theatre festivals in the country, “V4V Be on the street”. Through Be.artsy, I use street theatre extensively to create awareness on sexual harassment in workplace, internal communication, power theft, power conservation, promoting CSR programmes to its target audience, financial literacy, ethics, compliances, sales conferences etc. Till date, Be.artsy has engaged over 50,000 white and blue collar employees covering nearly 70 corporate clients (such as, PepsiCo, Airtel, American Express, British Telecom, National Stock Exchange, etc.) and has conducted over 2,500 street theatre performances in 9 languages and reached over 490,000 people all over India beyond workplaces.
This year, on National Street Theatre Day, I appeal to the artists to believe in the power of this art form and use it to bridge the gap developed in society and at workplaces and creatively address social, economic, and political issues that surround us today to not only take street theatre beyond its struggle for survival but also leave its imprint on our hearts and minds forever.
Happy Street Theatre Day”- Shikha Mittal, Founder Director- Be.artsy.