MayDay, MayDay: The Cafe That Nurtures Art And Expression

Friday, July 07,2017

“I can’t recall when exactly I met Safdar. I think it’s because I met him too often. My father was a playwright and so he knew him. My mother was a Communist Party of India(Marxist) activist and a comrade of Safdar’s. My sister was an activist as well as a singer. She was Safdar’s colleague. I kept bumping into him every now and then and he was aware of my interest in acting. He asked me to act for Jana Natya Manch(JANAM). I was studying History at Ramjas College. In 1987, during my second year, I finally joined JANAM,” recalls Sudhanva Deshpande.

JANAM is one of India’s best know street theatre groups. It was formed by Safdar Hashmi along with other young people in 1973 and it has performed over 8000 shows. On 1st January,1989 the troupe was performing at a labour colony in Jhandapur when Indian National Congress goons attacked them. A Nepali worker Ram Bahadur died on the spot while Safdar Hashmi succumbed to his injuries on the night of 2nd January. JANAM, led by Moloyashree Hashmi, went on to complete the performance at the same place on 4th January.

Sudhanva says, “I don’t know how it was decided that we have to perform. The funeral was on 3rd January. Then Moloyashree sent a message that we must perform. And everybody agreed. There were no second thoughts... That one incident has been the greatest trigger in my life. We couldn’t believe it. A man was killed for doing theatre...The one and a half year that I spent with Safdar will always be the most enriching phase of my life.”

Today, in West Delhi’s Shadi Khampur, Studio Safdar continues to nurture artists and experiment with art. It was started on 12th April,2012. “It had to be that day. We celebrated Safdar’s birthday,” says Sudhanva. “We wanted to have a space for people’s cultural development. As a child, I spent some time in Germany. We were there for a fellowship that my father had got. I visited a lot of European Museums. That deeply affected my understanding of spaces and shared culture. We wanted a space that is inclusive, democratic and easily accessible. The need for this space comes from our collective understanding of cities and their growth,” he adds.

Employee Akshay Kumar cleaning the area outside Studio Safdar

Alongside Studio Safdar is MayDay Bookstore & Café run by LeftWord Books, the publishing division of Naya Rasta Publishers Pvt. Ltd. MayDay Bookstore was started on 1st May, 2012 marking the International Workers’ Day. LeftWord Books was conceived by a group of leftist intellectuals who felt that a publishing house representing the left was needed. “A publishing house with functional autonomy that presents the views of the broad left without being sectarian,” Sudhanva clarifies.

On 1st May every year, the bookstore celebrates Worker's Day by organizing a massive sale of used books collected from across the country. Performances are lined up for the day even as Professor Mukul Manglik brews coffee for the cafe's patrons. This year the event saw a footfall of more than 500 people.

The used books shelf with books priced at Rs.25 onwards

A Sunday Library is organized for the poor kids in the locality to enable them to get access to good books for free. This year, May Day was a Monday. But the Library on Sunday was still organized regardless of the added pressure created by May Day preparations. May Day Bookstore and Café has an open door policy for Rickshawpullers in the area to come in and fill their bottles with water.

A picture from the Sunday library on a rainy day shared by Sudhanva on his Instagram account

"It was a conscious decision to set shop in this area. We knew we didn't want to be in Hauz Khas or Shahpur Jat. For us, the space had to be a community oriented one. I had been hunting for places since 2009. The School Teachers' Federation of India(STFI) and the All India Democratic Women's Association(AIDWA) joined us as well. There was a fund collection drive across the country. And the response from the people was truly overwhelming," Sudhanva continues.

Sudhanva Deshpande has been managing affairs at LeftWord since 1999 and is presently the Managing Editor of LeftWord Books. Vijay Prashad formally joined as Chief Editor in January, 2015. “Earlier Vijay was helping us without being a part of LeftWord by writing and getting books,” says Sudhanva. “The publishing ecosystem was changing very fast. There were too many changes and I was handling too many functions alone. I am not an acquisitions guy. I am better at technical editing and designing. Now I focus on Promotions, Reach and Marketing.”

"My problem is that I can't think the way the market wants me to think. I don't think in monetary terms. I can still think about how to reach more people but never in terms of money," he confesses. Both Sudhanva and Vijay work pro bono for LeftWord. “I keep doing roles in stupid films every now and then to sustain myself. My training as a Communist has helped me tremendously in managing myself as well as this place.” Sudhanva has been a member of the CPI(M) since 1990.

"What keeps this place going is the connection that young people feel with this place. They are a truly courageous lot, these young ones. Artists, student leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University love taking risks.

The writing on the wall

LeftWord is coming out with a series of books to commemorate 100 years of the Bolshevik Revolution. 2 of the books in this series are already out while 4 others are in the pipeline. “The designing of the books in this series is going to be very simple, graphic and minimalistic. We’re trying to recreate the Soviet aesthetic visible in the Art, Posters and Typography of that era,” Sudhanva explains. “We are also bringing out Teesta Setalvad’s memoirs in Hindi along with some other Hindi books this year.”

The two books of the 2017 series that are out Source:LeftWord website

Sudhanva says that there are a lot of ways in which young people can contribute to MayDay. “They can come more regularly, volunteer time for a number of things or curate events for Studio Safdar. If nothing else, it’s a lovely place to hang out with comrades, isn’t it?”

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