The Fight Back

Art and activism in our times.
By Devina Dutt

First Published in The Caravan 1st September 2013.

Safdar Hashmi, a theatre actor, writer and Communist Party member, was able to imbue his activism with the quality of grace.

Two decades before Independence, a generation of young Indian artists and intellectuals came, like their counterparts in the West, under the spell of communist ideology. Many had been exposed to Western ideas through colonial educational institutions of the time, and news had reached them of the rise of communism in the West as an alternative to fascism. Their excitement at the idea of a rational, progressive outlook in politics as well as in art led to a range of socially relevant art created in the first flush of post-colonial India.

The Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was formed by a group of idealistic young writers and students with socialist beliefs, such as Sajjad Zaheer, Mulk Raj Anand and Jyotirmoy Ghosh. The idea was to produce literature that critiqued all that was regressive about the Indian polity and promoted progressive and humanist values. The PWA was officially established in 1936 with the support of PC Joshi, general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI). The PWA would go on to enlist writers like Premchand, Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto into its ranks.

More enduring than the PWA was the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) formed in 1943; during Joshi’s time it was closely linked to the CPI and received financial support from the party. Writers, musicians and theatrepersons such as Balraj and Bhisham Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Ritwik Ghatak, Utpal Dutt, Salil Chowdhury, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas and Kaifi Azmi were all part of IPTA. The play Nabanna (New Harvest), written by Bijon Bhattacharya in response to the Bengal famine of 1943 and directed by Shombhu Mitra, was used to raise huge funds for the famine effort through an all-India tour. It was an early example of the powerful reach and effectiveness of activist art. Although the IPTA era came to an end in 1947, its influence over a whole range of artists remained strong and IPTA continues to be a part of Indian cultural memory.

Despite the legacies of PWA, IPTA and the freedom movement, it is remarkable how rapidly the ideals needed to establish a progressive and egalitarian society disappeared in post-Independence India. The newly formed nation revealed unexpected frailties and a divide between the state and its people began to take shape. The extreme methods used to put down the Naxalite movement in Kolkata in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a reminder of the growing brutalisation of the police force and demonstrated that the state could turn against its own people. Communal riots and incidents such as the horrific Bhagalpur blindings of 1980 were milestones in the deteriorating relationship between the state and its citizens. The old presumptions of idealistic values and social change that had fired the IPTA artists seemed naive and even irrelevant.

A theatre actor, writer and Communist Party member, Safdar Hashmi was one of those artists who was able to fuse his individual quest as an activist and artist looking for new strategies to understand the times, with the fundamental problems of inequity and growing authoritarianism. His brand of street theatre was a response to the daily struggles that workers were experiencing. His murder, on January 1, 1989, as he was performing a play in a workers’ colony on the outskirts of Delhi, demonstrated just how sharp the divide between the ruling elite and the citizens had become. It also showed how casual violence had become in everyday Indian life.

The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat), a loose collective of artists with a broad agreement on upholding the basic democratic values and norms of an open society, was set up within weeks of Hashmi’s death. Although it has received some support from the CPI in the form of a small office space, Sahmat, unlike IPTA and PWA, is a more open organisation that has also sought central government support and funds. It has played a significant role in opposing the rise of the Hindutva-influenced Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a role that pushed it into direct confrontation with triumphalist, belligerent right-wing forces after the fall of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

Since then, the very idea of India as a pluralistic society that honours diverse traditions has come under attack from the right wing. Along with political violence there has been the growth of a more insidious culture of intolerance, with attacks directed at spaces of art and culture, such as universities and art galleries. This was evident in the harassment of India’s best known artist, MF Husain, by the right wing all through the 1990s. The period also witnessed the growth of a new economic confidence, which only appears to have strengthened the supremacist ambitions of the right wing while making the creed more popular to a growing and pragmatist middle class.

In Gujarat, all the gains made by the right wing came to be manifested in the brashness of Narendra Modi’s regime, whose term as chief minister saw some of the most brutal riots in independent India in February 2002, an event he has never apologised or accepted responsibility for.

Once curfew after the riots was lifted in March 2002, the students, artists and faculty of Baroda’s Maharaja Sayajirao (MS) University, particularly from its Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA), were among the most vocal and visible supporters of peace rallies and demonstrations. Working alongside activists and NGOs, they made posters, artworks and banners. One of the earliest motivations to do something came from the realisation, in the aftermath of the riots, that popular visual culture was being efficiently commandeered by the right wing to provoke, incite and recruit mobs. For the first time, photos on mobile phones and amateur videos shot on handheld cameras were posted on the Internet as propaganda to counter accounts from those who had suffered in the riots. In opposing this propaganda with posters and banners for peace rallies, students and artists had to stop and think through the problem of depicting violence while contending with questions about the visual sensibilities of the viewing public. They were forced to acknowledge the gap that existed between their own visual sensibilities and those of the ordinary people of the city. The idea of engaging with the public therefore was to become a critical aspect of an enquiry into their own practices for most students and artists.

A year after the BJP’s spectacular win in the state elections, a three-day national seminar was organised in March 2004 by MS University’s arts faculty with funds it raised itself after the seminar was denied support by the university administration. Titled ‘The Issues of Activism: the Artist and the Historian’, it brought together artists, activists, writers, students, critics and historians. The book Articulating Resistance: Art and Activism (edited by Deeptha Achar and Shivaji K Panikkar, Tulika Books, 352 pages, Rs 995) draws largely from the presentations and exhibitions made at the seminar. Later, the editors invited scholars to write a set of fresh essays that were also included.

The book describes how censorship, vandalism and resistance have played out in the university, with students, artists and faculty ranged against the right wing and an increasingly partisan university administration. Contributing authors seek to describe the dynamic relationship between art and activism and also tackle shifts in contemporary arts practice, particularly in the last three decades. Articulating Resistance also considers questions of class, caste, gender, community and sexual orientation as the basis for an analysis of arts practices, making for a politically sharp reading of conventional art history.

The book features established writers such as Geeta Kapur and Rustom Bharucha. Kapur’s essay ‘Secular Artist, Citizen Artist’ asserts, “The secular is central to the very formation of modernity and artistic modernism”. Tracing the history of movements like PWA and IPTA as well as the responses of an organisation like Sahmat, she analyses the position of artists as modern, secular, progressive members of the national elite in the light of changing political regimes.

Essays by younger scholars abandon the long gaze in favour of a close reading of specific issues. These are voices, which have not yet become part of any canon and there is a freshness to their sharply articulated readings of art and activism. Writers like Santhosh S, YS Alone, Benoy PJ, Gary Tartakov and Jothi F Xavier appear in the sections ‘Dalit Issues, Dalit Art’ and ‘Problematising the Minor in Art’, where they train their eyes on aspects of marginal and fringe cultures. By doing so, their writing questions the position of the artist as a member of a privileged group and yet a centrist figure in the cultural landscape.

Almost a decade in the making, the book’s publication proved to be a difficult challenge for its editors and for the students to whom it is dedicated. It was almost ready when the editors found themselves in the very situation they were presenting and theorising about. On 9 May 2007, Niraj Jain, a man claiming to speak for the public of Baroda, disrupted the final examinations of the arts faculty in the presence of the media and police. S Chandramohan, a student of the Department of Graphics, was abused, manhandled and arrested. In a familiar drill, Jain claimed to be hurt by the alleged obscenity of a routine examination display, a nude figure of a goddess titled ‘Durga’ made by the student. The police felt that the work might spark off communal incidents, while the local media, which had tended to project the fine arts students as bohemians, sensationalised the incident for a short time before dropping it completely. The MS University administration remained a silent witness. For defending his student, art historian, professor, and one of the book’s editors, Shivaji K Panikkar, who was temporarily officiating as dean of the the arts faculty, was suspended. Over the next few months, a wave of student protests using street plays, poster exhibitions, singing and discussions were held on the campus.

Although there was outrage against the university’s stand and a “governor’s fact finding commission” was formed, the protestors were overpowered at every turn of this very public and protracted struggle. Panikkar continued to be under suspension until the acceptance of his resignation, in June 2011. He was barred from ever entering MS University again and is currently dean of The School of Culture and Creative Expression at Ambedkar University in Delhi.

For a book that has a history of bitter strife behind it, Articulating Resistance is a measured reading of the dialectic between art and activism in contemporary India. In a substantial introduction, Deeptha Achar and Panikkar present a history of the development of visual art in India. They attribute the art–craft binary, which places art above craft, to Eurocentric approaches, and to the trajectory of internationalist capitalist modes of art practice, which contribute to the “making of a properly capitalist-elitist practice of art in India and were constitutive of the arena of Indian art during the first few decades after Independence”. Elsewhere, they draw from their own experiences of engaging with the viewing public in the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. “This new engagement with the popular opened new avenues for thinking about the relationship between Art History and popular visual culture.”

The book presents a picture of the churning of diverse ideas and approaches as the students and faculty of a leading liberal arts institution attempt to fashion an appropriate response to the growing influence of right wing ideology in the state. By 2007, after the blatant invasion by these forces of the sanctity of campus and examination processes, the student fight back was scaled up too. Students’ protests continued for several months and included covering up of campus studios in black cloth, street plays, poetry readings and songs. The book has photographs of agitated students taking part in installation-performances, angry banners and demonstrations outside university offices.

But there is a hint of urgent frustration in these responses and a sense that despite trying several approaches, the students were outplayed every time. Even as panel discussions on the autonomy of academic institutions were underway, students invoked Bertolt Brecht: “Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes there will be singing in the dark times.” Songs with verses such as the following were written and sung when “other forms of speech were censored”.

Din dahare angan mein tere
Machi hai kaisi halchal.
Jaago re manwa jaagna hoga
Aaj nahin to kal.

(Turmoil in your courtyard, what turmoil in broad daylight, wake up, you must wake up, if not today, tomorrow.)

This collective resistance did not, however, achieve much. Does such resistance have only a token, symbolic, performative value? Who is the audience for it? Is it a show of strength, a heroic, slightly foolish but necessary exercise? Should artists even be fighting these battles with those who will be able to claim victory quite easily? Should protest in the face of specific challenges be conducted with more finesse and a plan to sustain?

The MS University students were their own audiences and they were preaching to the converted. In a city undergoing a change as radical as Baroda was at the time, turning its back on its liberal past and pluralist culture, one is compelled to conclude that the students’ reactions were a very belated and limited realisation of the many things that were shifting course in their city. As we become, technically, a better functioning democracy, with different groups learning to ask for their rights, the notion of generalised protest on the part of artist-activists seems redundant and ineffective. Panikkar’s two-page note, ‘Thinking Back’, in which he asks how artists are expected to manage their vulnerability in the face of a reactionary public attack, addresses the heart of the matter.

I would like to refer to the attitude of the art conscious elite ... it is their attitude of protectionism that somehow lends [sic] to a belief that artists can practice by keeping themselves strategically away from the gaze of an intruding public. Perhaps this refusal to engage the public sphere head on derives from fear of reactionary forces or from a lack of concern about the larger social space for art ... in the process there is loss; loss of our abilities or our facilities, loss of our credibility, rigour and commitment—and we seem to be losing our spaces: the public spaces that many works of art once used to occupy. In such conditions how do we uphold and resurrect values like democracy, autonomy and institutions and the right to express through art?

This is an individual cry of anguish and in the contemporary situation unanswerable. On the related theme of intolerance in the public sphere, playwright and academic GP Deshpande suggests in an essay in the book that the decline in our taste for plurality in our lives is a reflection of a decline in our taste for ideas. “The big Enlightenment project that the period of colonialism brought to the Asiatic lands and especially to India has been abandoned,” he says. This offers a clue about our disinterest in intellectual stimulation, of which provocation too must sometimes be a part. Deshpande also writes of the build up of insularity that results from the unprecedented stability and prosperity enjoyed by the urban middle class since Independence.

Indian cities, with their liberal spaces increasingly under threat, present many problems to urban artists. By contrast, subaltern artists from outside the cities seem rooted in their local contexts and operate with a more assured sense of their audience.

MS University’s students protest the arrest of student S Chandramohan outside Sayajigunj police station in Baroda, 2007.

Dalit activist and intellectual Kancha Ilaiah points to the figure of the balladeer Gaddar as an example of an artist who has succeeded in creating art that has challenged the very structure of Indian caste and class hierarchies in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. Gaddar uses the Telangana dialect—which finds no place in texts written by upper-caste Telugu writers—and the intimate idioms, linguistic structures and proverbs of the illiterate productive classes, which establishes a direct connection with his listeners.

In one song Gaddar speaks of the Dalit whose blood fertilises the black soil in the fields. The “red blood rose” is taken away by the Brahmins for the puja, he says. “While you are at the puja we will be playing drums outside the temple,” he adds, emphasising the marginalisation of the Dalit. In a more recent song Gaddar shows that his activist voice can expand beyond the issue of caste barriers and critique larger issues too, such as the emergence of the US as a unipolar force in the world. “Look out, the American is coming, in the early morning he comes in the form of toothpaste, in the afternoon in the form of Coca Cola, and in the evening in the form of rum and whiskey. To control our consciousness he lives with us in the form of Star TV”. This is bold, explicit songwriting with a touch of the agitprop and is very effective activist art.

Rajasri Mukhopadhyay’s delicately inflected and elegiac portrait of artist Tarapada Santra (1931-2003) emphasises the subaltern face of art history and a very differently rooted activism, which is complete within itself and does not seek mainstream endorsement. Santra was drawn to the Communist Party, and then left it in 1957, like many others, on a note of disillusionment. He then decided to travel in rural Bengal on foot to develop a deeper understanding of his land and his people. It was during these travels that he was drawn to both the archaeological heritage of rural Bengal as well as its indigenous art practices. “Unhappy with the utopia of the future, it was as if the left activist turned to the vagaries of the past, like Kosambi did,” writes Mukhopadhyay. At no point did Santra even attempt to join mainstream art history or develop a theory. He sought out minor forms and completely immersed himself in artisan communities.

More than one from among the younger writers in the book has addressed the problem of the persistence of liberalist patronage structures for the arts that exist in the cities. One of the most incisive critiques comes from Santhosh S in an essay titled “Spectres of the ‘Radicals’ or Where Have all the ‘Radicals’ Gone?” The Radical Artists and Sculptors’ Association, founded in Kerala by KP Krishnakumar in the late 1980s as a hub for young artists, was a short-lived attempt to create a leftist alternative to the conventional organisation and practice of art. In the course of tracing their failure to realise these aims, the writer critiques progressive, left wing intellectual alternatives in contemporary India. They have over used the posture of opposition to Western dominance and globalisation while neglecting “crucial questions related to the dominance of the neo-colonialist, upper class intelligentsia in the sphere of culture.”

Santhosh’s analysis of the failures of avowedly radical artists to read their social and cultural environment with the political acuteness that was expected of them, GP Deshpande’s critique of middle class insularity and Panikkar’s account of elite reluctance to cherish democratic and artistic freedoms suggest the persistence of a pattern. Clearly, a strong and deeply embedded strain of conservatism has always been present in the cultural spaces of free India.

THE COMPREHENSIVE The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 (edited by Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman, The Smart Museum of Art, 300 pages + 450 illustrations, Rs 2000) is a companion to an exhibition of the same name presented by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago earlier this year. It showcases the full range of Sahmat-led interdisciplinary projects, performances and exhibitions by diverse artists in India from 1989 to the present. While some of these artists have been members of Sahmat, several have only come together to take part in specific exhibitions and programmes over the last 24 years.

In the opening section of the book, the fable-like quality of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi’s life and work lights up the pages. Reading his poems for children, his thoughts on proscenium theatre and his refusal to run down other forms of theatre even while upholding the need for street theatre, it is clear that Hashmi was no ordinary doctrinaire communist. Capable of a nuanced understanding of Marxist philosophy, this was an artist who was able to imbue his activism with the quality of grace.

At the Safdar Samaroh and Artists Alert held a few months after his death, more than a hundred painters, photographers and sculptors contributed works, many specially created for the occasion, to help raise operating funds for the new organisation. One art piece, among the hundreds received, was from Somnath Hore, a sculptor and printmaker who had worked closely with the Communist Party in the 1940s before moving to Shantiniketan. The piece, called ‘Comrades’, depicts a man holding in his arms another who has collapsed. “Hashmi died a revolutionary death. One should take care to see that this does not become a cushion for somebody else’s comforts,” was Hore’s message.

This was also the time when LK Advani’s Rath Yatra had inflamed Hindutva elements in North India and right wing propaganda threatened to destroy the secularist nature of Indian society. In organising Artists Against Communalism, an event in January 1991, Sahmat tapped into the rich variety of India’s performing arts traditions to make a point about the country’s composite and pluralist culture. Over 16 hours on a cold day in Delhi, various artists came together to present dances and music from the classical and folk traditions. Later that month, on 30 January, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination was remembered in six cities, following which a mobile exhibition called Images and Words travelled to 30 cities in April with the message of secularism.

In January 1992, Sahmat invited autorickshaw drivers in Delhi to participate in a competition to create or select poems on brotherhood and communal harmony and paint them on the backs of their vehicles. A note in the book says this was one of the biggest public art projects organised till date and that many drivers gave up a day’s wage to participate. But this programme and the bland statement that “hundreds of auto rickshaw drivers sacrificed a day’s fares” is a reminder of the indifference that lurks within many apparently well-meaning urban associations formed by the upper classes.

The rickshaw drivers wrote lines such as “Mera Bharat desh mahan” (My India is a great land) and “Mera desh sona jaisa bane” (May it become a land of gold). There are irregular spellings and the occasional appearance of a dialect of Hindi no educated person would use. A narrative of the long-term neglect of basic needs lurks behind the misshapen childlike handwriting. One slogan refers to ‘Madrasis’ as people who live in India but the error is smoothly corrected by the editors in the English translation by changing the word to “Tamils”. The left leaning activist is spot on in the business of promoting secularism, but misses or glosses over some fundamental failures of the Indian state, in which they, too, might be complicit by virtue of their privileged social rank.

With regard to secularism, Sahmat makes some astonishingly self-congratulatory claims. Invoking the syncretic philosophies of the Sufi Bhakti traditions in the communally charged environment after the fall of the Babri Masjid was an intelligent and timely response. But for artist Vivan Sundaram to say that Sahmat was responsible for “recognising the importance of the Sufi Bhakti movement and foregrounding it in the present time, knowing that it would move out into the public domain, into the classical movement, into Bollywood and become something that a large liberal middle class would identify with” is surely excessive. Would Sahmat also like to be associated with the trivialising of these texts, to their makeover as entertainment and to the opportunity they offer to artists today of making the grandiose, empty, token gesture?

After the Babri Masjid fell, Sahmat responded to right-wing propaganda with a series of well-researched presentations on the history and evolution of Ayodhya as part of the Hum Sab Ayodhya exhibition organised along with the National Museum in 1993. The 83 panels included architectural and historical images, maps and plans, along with texts from historical and literary sources; the attempt, in Ram Rahman’s words, was to “peel open the different layers of its history, contemporary, modern and ancient.”

For example, one panel exhibits the many names for Ayodhya through its history, while another displays the different versions of the basic Ram Katha texts including the Jaina and Buddhist Ramayanas.

In subsequent years too, Sahmat continued to oppose communalism, but it has used contemporary arts practices which have evolved as the country and its art market have forged closer links to the trends and practices of a more globalised art market. In 2002–03, Vivan Sundaram curated an exhibition titled Ways of Resisting, which examined Indian art production over a violent decade, from the fall of the Babri Masjid in 1991 to Gujarat in 2002. Showcasing newer strategies of art-making to Indian audiences, Sundaram’s own sculptural installation, ‘Memorial’, takes a photo of the Mumbai riots by Hoshi Jal and uses steel, glass, neon light, white inlaid marble and a plaster cast of a body to create a work alive with political charge.

In 2007, Sahmat celebrated six decades of Indian independence and the 150th anniversary of the 1857 rebellion with a more introspective exhibition titled Making History Our Own. The personal histories of the exhibiting artists were the subject of the exhibition. Vivan Sundaram and Sukanya Rahman made digital collages on their respective grandfathers, Umrao Singh Sher Gil and Ramlal Bajpai, both of whom were members of the revolutionary Ghadar party set up in the early 20th century by Indian political exiles in the United States.

In all its activities since 1989, Sahmat has been defined by its opposition to the right wing to the extent that it has, despite its links to the Left, neglected two critical changes of the last two decades. Its self image as a collective of politically conscious artists and activists cannot stand if it does not also critique the new political economy and its skewed perspectives on growth and development. In addition, this issue must be reflected more directly in the ‘art as activist’ statement that it supports and helps create. An opposition to the right wing’s communalism also needs to take on its claims on growth and development. With Narendra Modi, the right wing has been able to package itself as a pragmatic pro-growth party that stands for sound economics. This has appealed to large sections of an increasingly self centred, insular Indian middle class.

In addition, Sahmat cannot afford to ignore the perspectives expressed in Articulating Resistance regarding the value of subaltern art practices and the critique of old patronage structures and institutions that still play a key role in art making. Perhaps a re-examination of Safdar Hashmi’s legacy and his personality as an artist-activist working within a chosen context with defined goals would help. In addition, an engagement with the new, exciting, politically-inflected Dalit and minor art, which has not been legitimised by a particular platform and is relatively fluid and independent, will help Sahmat overhaul its own politics, sharpen its responses and save it from the spectre of obsolescence.

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