Two theater companies, one Indian, the other Palestinian, have been jointly staging a series of plays throughout the Indian subcontinent. Not only is their collaboration historic, but so is their theme: the everyday conflict between Palestinians and their Israeli neighbors.
That the two men who conceived the Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch (Janam) and the Freedom Theatre, headquartered in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, both perished violently adds another tragic twist to a dual national history already steeped in colonialism, European partition and political upheaval. As the Indian daily The Hindu noted:
[Janam] founder Safdar Hashmi was murdered in 1989 while performing [the] street play ‘Halla Bol’ [‘Raise Your Voice’]. Juliano Mer-Khamis, founder of the Freedom Theatre, was shot dead in 2011 outside a theatre [in Palestine].
Hashmi, who started Janam in 1973, was just 44 when he was struck down. Mer-Khamis, who began Freedom in 2006, was a month shy of turning 53 at the time of his death. It should come as no surprise, then, that their companies see themselves as natural allies.
Sudhanva Deshpande, a director long associated with Janam, expanded on this theme, telling The Hindu:
We both do political theatre, which speaks of oppression and social realities. India and Palestine have a long relationship of support and solidarity. From Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, India has supported the Palestinian cause. That apart, we connected through theatre. We liked their work, and they liked ours.
Their 11-city Freedom Jatha tour debuted in December in Bhopal and followed that with performances in Delhi and Lucknow. On the fourth stop, the play “Hamesha Saamida” (“Forever Steadfast”) was staged as an open-air production in several sections of Mumbai.
And on Wednesday in Bangalore, the seventh city visited, the actors performed the play – which is given in both Hindi and Arabic – to crowds that eagerly expressed their enthusiasm. Per the Economic Times:
The script is a collaborative effort among both theatre groups to simplify the concept for Indian audiences. ‘India has a million people speaking a million languages. It is a land of a million stories,’ said Palestinian actor-director Faisal Abu Alhayjaa. ‘So we have to make sure people in different parts of the country understand what the Palestinian occupation is all about.’
Nor is it a coincidence that the tour’s presence in India comes at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has signaled a clear shift toward building stronger ties with Israel – a sharp reversal from the stance adopted by previous administrations.
While the current leadership has vowed that nothing has changed in its support of the Palestinian struggle, India’s recent abstention from two United Nations votes condemning Israel for human-rights abuses in the Gaza Strip – a move that stunned even Israeli lawmakers – seems to indicate otherwise. Speaking to The Middle East Eye, a British news website, Deshpande said:
We believe that the [nationalist] ideologies of Hindutva [adopted by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party] and Zionism are very close cousins. Given that, we feel that it’s really important, in our fight against Hindutva, to have solidarity from the Palestinians . . . It’s really important because we have been a multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious society — and that idea of India is severely under threat.
Alhayjaa echoed Deshpande’s call for solidarity. “Hamesha Saamida,” he told The Middle East Eye, aims not just to raise awareness among Indian theatregoers but also to rebut “flawed narratives so prevalent in the Western media” that they have irreparably damaged the self-image of generations of Palestinians, including many between ages 18 and 25 who have chosen to take their own lives.
It is important to note that funding for the tour came not from arts institutes or government agencies but from private donors, a distinction that Alhayjaa hopes will encourage other artists to take up the cause. As he put it:
Together, with art, we spread the word about freedom and tell stories of people under oppression. Life in Palestine has a lot of suffering and pain, but there is also hope. My responsibility as an artist is to make this hope grow until we have our freedom.