by Rahul KumarOct 18, 2021
Before COVID-19 reached our shores, 2020 began with large parts of India engulfed in the flames of public demonstration against amendments to India's citizenship laws. These new laws are widely perceived by many as creating legal pathways to snatch the rights of Muslims, Nomadic Tribes, Dalits, Trans people, and other groups not able to furnish generational documents of citizenship. Protests were triggered in December 2019 in the frontier state of Assam, and quickly spread to universities, sparking widespread police brutality. Over the subsequent three months, 200 pieces of public land across the country were occupied as sit-in protest sites, resisting the country's Bharatiya Janata Party's actions, a decentralised sprouting inspired by the spirit of the highway blockade at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh.
From the very early days, the highway occupation site was visually alluring, the area around the small make-shift stage dotted by flex banners printed in the local market, most prominently featuring Dr. BR Ambedkar pictured with his magnum opus, the Constitution of India. The Progressive Artists League, a young collective, was amongst the first artists to join and create work by hand at the site. They had been active at other ephemeral protests in the city, creating montages in chalk directly on the streets. Vishal, one of the artists from the collective shares, "Once while drawing with chalk at Jantar Mantar, the riot police deployed nearby were ordered to stand over and erase our artwork in progress. We pleaded with them not to erase the faces of the beloved freedom fighters being drawn, and even though some of them seemed to agree with us, they conveyed helplessness against defying orders from the top." At Shaheen Bagh, the group started creating portraits paired with couplets in Hindi and Urdu on cheap cotton cloth. "The duotone black-and-red style comes from previous experience in creating quick posters in public spaces," Vishal explained, "the rough strokes reflect the harsh circumstances, influenced by the works of Chittaprosad, Zainul Abedin, and Somnath Hore."
Over the months that followed, the highway became a thriving exhibition space, one that was truly public. Without curators or commissioners, each participant could be an artist, performer, musician, rapper, and there were no rules other than the will of those assembled. Installations emerged from the creative spirits of the artists and workers in the adjoining industrial areas. One of the most popular was a 12-feet replica of Delhi's India Gate made in mild steel and plywood, and painstakingly painted to match the sandstone texture of the original. The sculpture was lovingly adorned with the names of those whose lives had been lost in violence during these demonstrations. A little further down stood a 30-feet high light drawing of the map of India in iron, mild steel, wire gauze, and LED lights created in collaboration by local and visiting artists. This sculpture became one of the most recognisable icons that emerged from the moment, however, its presence could not escape the masculine monumentalisation of the nation, including the unfortunate subsumption of the borders of Kashmir and other occupied frontier lands into the outline of India.
Crowds thronged the corridor of murals painted by Fine Art students on the exterior walls of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University showcasing the plethora of voices and inspirations behind the movement. The strong, bold colours and strokes portrayed iconographies such as those of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, late scholar Rohith Vermula, accompanied by couplets from Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pash, and others, as well as newer imagery birthed during the movement, including that of the girls of JMI standing up to police violence, and the octogenarian grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh who led the protest from the front. At the same site, an unlikely crowd favourite for selfie-takers was the fictionalised structure of a detention centre cell created by another group of JMI students.
JMI student Meherban Dazz's open-air photography exhibition demonstrated a no-frills approach to presenting work that is deeply required for art to spread in a densely populated region like India. He displayed over 60 images on a stretch of the road divider showing moments from the early days of the uprising, including the horrific police violence, which drew very strong reactions amongst visitors. The young photographer then continued to follow the trail of dissent across multiple sites in Delhi, capturing the energy of young and old protestors, and has recently been documenting the large-scale farmer's protests ongoing since November 2020. Other photographers and filmmakers, including Nausheen Khan, Javed Sultan, Mustafa Quraishi, Shahid Tantry, spent continuous months at the sites capturing the rhythms and strides of the movement, and we still await the release of their edited bodies of work.
The provocation of brutal communal violence in north-east Delhi, as well as the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country brought the nationwide protests to a halt in mid-March 2020, an event that included the unfortunate destruction of all the above artwork by police forces. Artist Tehmeena Firdos, who has grown up in Shaheen Bagh, utilised the subsequent months of lockdown to immerse herself in a meditative rumination, creating a deeply poignant body of sculptural work. Her tender, small-scale pieces, created in textured dental plaster with fragments of wire netting, and embedded watercolour paintings and found prints sandwiched between acrylic sheets, embody the fear and uncertainty that engulfed the community in the aftermath of the communal violence. Firdos says, "These works are an attempt to speak about the spatial and ideological restrictions that we as Muslim communities have felt in independent India, accelerated over the last three decades with the rising popularity of the Hindu right-wing, and recently compounded by the recent arrests of students and young activists." However, while installing the sculptures for the exhibition Seeds are Being Sown in September 2020, Firdos was keen to note the multiplicity of emotions present, especially the feelings of hope for an equitable land that persist from those 101 days and nights.
The confinement of the COVID-19 lockdown brought with it a sharp spike in reported cases of gender and caste related violence. In September, one case that sat at the intersection of these two structures sent deep shock waves across the country, reigniting the need for protest amongst activists. Referred to as the ‘Hathras case’ after the Uttar Pradesh district in which it occurred, this gang rape of a 19-year old girl by four men from the dominant Thakur caste was seen to expose the collusion between upper-caste perpetrators, police, and state in cases of violence against Dalit people. The police acted with impunity at each step, initially refusing to file a complaint, and after the victim's unfortunate demise, forcibly cremating her body in the dead of night without her family's consent or presence.
Activists and artists drew parallels with America's #BlackLivesMatter protests, comparing the impunity with which police acted to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which had occurred only months prior, and took to social media to express their anger by tagging #DalitLivesMatter. Actor, activist and writer, Jyotsna Siddharth, demanded that onlookers and media reportage "call it what it is - caste-based violence." Artist-curator Vidisha-Fadescha released a graphic image proclaiming it a Day of Rage, lamenting, "there is no peace in living here, there is no peace in dying."
Artist Siddhesh Gautam, often known by his Instagram moniker 'bakeryprasad', was amongst those drawing attention to the incident. Gautam first expressed the collective pain through a drawing of the lone burning pyre with two men in uniform standing by; a stark image that forced the privileged viewer to confront the way through which they themselves, along with penal and other state systems, actively participate in the brutal alienation of oppressed caste communities. Rallying more voices to gather in protest, Gautam released an image celebrating 'Dalit Power' through a scene of charging buffaloes, building on iconography of the highly productive, yet marginalised animal theorised by Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. As digital and limited physical protests continued, Gautam pointed out the need to see Dalit people beyond tragic figurations, through a powerful image of a group of hands returning the viewer's gaze, surrounding Babasaheb (BR) Ambedkar's finger pointing towards the path for justice and equality, with a caption that read, "Please don’t forget to document our achievements when those hashtags stop floating.”
The sustained uproar pushed weekly national magazine India Today to release an issue centered on the voices of Dalit women, with a painting of a young girl with birds and deer emerging from her flowing hair by Malvika Raj making it to the cover. Raj, hailing from Bihar, melds her Madhubani style of painting with markedly Ambedkarite values to express the plight and beauty of Dalit-Adivasi lives. The protests around the Hathras incident also brought to visibility other caste atrocities that occurred during the COVID lockdown, notably through a series of 26 posters and videos by artists Shrujana Shridhar, Samata Kala Manch, Aakanksha Aditi, Rahee Punyashloka and others, commissioned by Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network (DRDHNet). As part of this series, Jyotsna Siddharth's performance art video stands out in their response to the rage of the Hathras incident. The video brings in sound clips from the Hathras case FIR (First Information Report), and pairs them with the deployment of an "embodied practice technique to generate movement forms that translate the subconscious effects of caste violence on the body", shot in front of the parliament building, firmly suggesting a timely reclamation of public, cultural, and political space by the community.
While these two moments stand out for their proliferation of marginalised voices and views, artists in 2020 have been consistently responding to the tumultuous array of events occurring around them. From the anti-CAA protests, to the migrant crisis, environmental destruction in Goa and Assam, state brutality in Kashmir, to the on-going widespread protests against new farm laws, young artists, especially those outside commercial gallery circuits, have used their tools to amplify events from the ground; alluring citizens all over the country to learn more, expand critique, and participate in multifaceted ways, bravely stepping up to fulfill their role, in Toni Cade Bambara's words, of making "the revolution irresistible."
Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.