A House for Mr Hashmi

Can an old garment factory become the stage for new dreams? Especially if it has rolling shutters by way of doors and is situated in a cramped area called Shadi Khampur, an address that seems unknown to virtually everybody outside West Delhi. The surroundings are lacklustre tall houses, small shops, honking cars, loud vendors and a rickshaw stand. But inside the former factory on Thursday morning, energies were on the upswing. It was the day that Jan Natya Manch (Janam), an iconic Delhi-based activist group which was founded in 1973, made 2253 E, Shadi Khampur, their permanent home.

The new name of the factory is Studio Safdar, and its new role is of a rehearsal space for theatre artistes from Delhi. The name refers to one of Janam's founder members, Safdar Hashmi, who was bludgeoned to death on January 1, 1989, during a street theatre performance. Safdar's picture looks down on the new studio, alongside images of Janam's subsequent plays. Like all rehearsal spaces, the walls of Studio Safdar have been painted in black, except one wall that remains white "to screen films occasionally", as Moloyshree Hashmi, Janam's secretary, puts it. Studio Safdar will come as a piece of good news to Delhi's theatre groups, who are constantly plagued by a lack of rehearsal spaces. "Most of the time, a theatre space is one that we don't get thrown out of," jokes Janam's actor-director, Sudhanva Deshpande.

The top-most floor will house a library and an interactive space for children, as well as a library of theatre books. A few steps up is a multi-level terrace where Janam, best known for its street theatre, will practise. A cafe and bookstore, called May Day Bookstore and Cafe, in keeping with the group's Leftist character, will open on May 1. "This is a space created for artistes, by artistes," said singer Shubha Mudgal, a long-time associate of Janam, who was present at the inauguration. Among others who crowded the 25x39 ft studio were senior theatre activists, budding performers and painter Arpana Caur.

Janam started in 1973 and is strongly interactive. The new space reflects this ideology in its plans "to involve the locals, including rickshaw-pullers". "This space belongs to everybody in the neighbourhood," stresses Deshpande, and then points to a sign that says 'Studio Safdar Shadi Khampur'. "All three parts of the name are important," he says. In the pipeline are plans for a temporary museum that tells the story of Shadi Khampur, and a festival of the wedding bands that are headquartered a short distance away.

This interactive spirit was evident even in Janam's fundraising spree. "We started working on buying a space for ourselves in 2010, and held a fundraising festival at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai in December 2010, called Sarkash (meaning rebel). Artistes cutting across genres and sponsors came forward to help out,"says Moloyshree.

On the white wall of Studio Safdar, the names of the donors are spelled out by the projector, among them unknown ones such as Raju and well-known ones like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. "It was a struggle but a pleasurable one because everybody came together to create this space," says Deshpande.

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