A brief look at protest art in India, and how it is challenging bigotry and dogma
The online poster for the Not In My Name protests is perhaps the most recent example of art’s vital role as a challenger of bigotry and dogma, as the vanguard of a new order, as a non-conformist of remarkable eloquence.
The sloganeering may have died down in the Not In My Name protests, but a stark motif lingers on, like a persistent battle cry. The poster for the multi-city protests, created by artist and activist Orijit Sen, appears frequently both on social media and in offline published accounts of the activism that uncoiled its pent-up rage on the streets of India on 28 June. Its primary visual — an illustration of a blood-spattered chappal, with an iron rod by its side — evokes the desolation of a street after the carnage, the moments of uncertainty after a rioting mob has retreated and all that is left of the mayhem is a piece of footwear stained with blood. It also brings to mind several agonising questions: Did the wearer of the chappal escape the riot? Did he die in its midst? Was the iron rod used to disperse the crowd or to beat the wearer of the chappal to death?
Art, when it intrudes upon the political conversations of the day like an uninvited interlocutor, becomes an engaging, and often, shocking, dissenter. It becomes the medium through which seething collective anger finds a visual vocabulary to express the type of dissent described by civil rights activist and the first African-American US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust.” The online poster for the Not In My Name protests is perhaps the most recent example of art’s vital role as a challenger of bigotry and dogma, as the vanguard of a new order, as a non-conformist of remarkable eloquence.
A photograph by Kishor Parekh, from his series Bangladesh: A Brutal Birth, sparked-off the idea for the poster. The photograph is that of a boot on an empty street. “We have become immune to images of death and violence,” says Sen, of the origins of the poster. “But the footwear told the story of the riot more powerfully than images of dead people.” The chappal on the Not In My Name poster became Sen’s rendition of Parekh’s photograph, and an insignia of the citizens’ protest. “Protests are a form of public art,” Sen emphasises, “they operate at the same level of symbolism as performance art, and the blood-stained chappal became a strong motif of this particular movement.”
Historically, protest art has found its fiercest mien during wars. In fine art, Picasso’s Guernica is perhaps the most rousing example of an artistic condemnation of the bombing of the Spanish village Guernica, by Nazi Germans and Fascist Italians. The mural-sized oil painting, completed in June 1937, is a monochromatic narrative that rages against the causal bombing of the village.
Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros painted frescos in the 1920s that were vivid chronicles of the lives of Mexican peasants and Spanish conquistadores, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The 1960s and '70s were when pop culture influenced the artists of the milieu, in particular American artist Peter Saul, who used bright Dayglo colours and acrylics to paint his own interpretations of the Vietnam War.
Contemporary guerrilla street artists like Banksy have painted murals that decry everything from capitalism to the treatment of refugees in host countries. Banksy’s mural of Steve Jobs at a refugee camp in Calais addresses the deplorable condition of Syrian refugees in the French port city and elsewhere in Europe. It is a stencil of the Apple founder as a refugee, wearing his signature turtleneck, carrying the original Apple computer, and holding a black garbage sack across his shoulder. The piece is a startling reference to Jobs’ lineage — he was the son of a Syrian migrant who moved to the United States after World War II.
Despite the popularity of murals and the use of outdoor spaces like building facades as vast canvases, it was the poster — traditionally, printed paper with text and graphics — that was the favoured medium of announcements by advertisers, playwrights, political parties and other propagandists. Shakespeare’s plays were advertised on textual posters. The development of lithography as a method of creating images with oil, fat or wax on a smooth lithographic limestone plate, in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder, made the mass production and printing of posters possible. They came to represent cheaply printed samples of every artistic movement: Symbolism, Cubism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In recent times, hastily printed posters on walls and pillars have become the subversive, counter-establishment voice of the people, asking uncomfortable questions, refusing to couch their words or illustrations in politeness, resurfacing when torn down from public spaces.
In India, collectives of artists, writers, scholars and activists, like Sahmat — The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and Committee — have used the poster to challenge the dominant discourse around political events, particularly the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. Sahmat’s posters for a Sufi-Bhakti performance, titled Anhad Garje , or ‘the silence reverberates’, a phrase used by the medieval poet, Kabir, were 32 x 23 inches of silkscreen that responded to the razing of the mosque with a simple line printed at the bottom: Come to defend our secular tradition.
In 1993, Sahmat produced a series of posters, ‘In Defence of Our Secular Tradition’, which had poetry from the Sufi-Bhakt traditions accompanied by contemporary art. Lines from Bulle Shah, Kabir, Guru Amar Das were combined with images by artists like Arpita Singh, Haku Shah, Manu Parekh, Nalini Malani, Shamshad and Nilima Sheikh. In a catalogue titled: The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989, curated by Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman, Ram Rahman, one of the founders of Sahmat elaborates upon why Sahmat picked the poster as the medium to disseminate its message of communal harmony: “…But we decided to use the poster format here with a double meaning. We used images by contemporary artists, many of whom were very well known, but whose work is relatively inaccessible to the general public, because we don’t have a lot of art magazines or art books in India. We decided to combine the work of many of these artists, who had already been using themes of Sufism, in their work, with Sufi-Bhakti poems, which evoked the art and gave it a different layer of meaning.”
The digitisation of technology led to the digitisation of the poster, and a proliferation of graphic art that inquired into the nature of state-orchestrated atrocities with schoolboy audacity and playfulness. Sen’s own work, which appears frequently on his Facebook page, is increasingly a reaction to the politics of the day. His online poster Modi Antoinette has the Prime Minister’s face superimposed on a portrait of famed lavish spender and the last queen of France before the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette. A speech blurb emanating from Narendra Modi’s head states, “If they don’t have Paper, let them use Plastic!” A satirical comment on recent demonetisation measures that also brings to mind a remark frequently attributed to Marie Antoinette, who, upon being told that her peasant subjects had no bread to eat, allegedly said, “Let them eat cake.”
Contemporary cartoonists, particularly those from Kashmir, also have prominent online profiles, apart from day jobs at newspapers that print their work. The cartoons of Suhail Naqshbandi, who works for the Kashmir daily Greater Kashmir, are popular on social media for their scornful and sometimes (unavoidably) melancholic reflection of the unrest in Kashmir. There’s one in which a Kashmiri man is shown holding up an intravenous drip, attached to the arm of presumably a dying son. This part of the sketch is titled Fact. Adjoining it, in a section titled Fiction, a TV grab shows the same Kashmiri, with his arm raised. The IV drip is cut off from the screen, and the words Stone pelter, Terrorist appear on the scroll below the image of the Kashmiri. A scathing observation of how the media projects the people of Kashmir to the world. Yet another sketch is of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti ushering a group of children, whose eyes are bandaged as they have been blinded by pellets, towards a ‘dark future’. The cartoon is titled Un“pellet”able truth.
Naqshbandi, who started working as a political cartoonist in 1998, remarks that he usually picks a theme or subject that is challenging to visualise or draw. “My sketches force people to think about Kashmir in different ways, and maybe, find a solution to its problems,” he says of his work. He does hint at attempts to muffle his voice. “There are some unspoken rules that I have to follow. I can’t directly show authority figures in a bad light, but I can, in indirect ways, present sensitive issues with wit,” he admits.
Mir Suhail, a 28-year-old political cartoonist from Kashmir, also faces a predicament similar to that of Naqshbandi. On 9 February, one of Suhail’s cartons was removed by Facebook, for “violating community standards.” The cartoon depicted roots growing from the grave of Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013, joining under the soil with the roots of a tree labelled ‘Kashmir’.
Suhail, who grew up in Kawdara, Srinagar, recalls how, as a child, he was not allowed to play with a toy gun gifted to him by an uncle, for fear of arrest and torture by the police. “That sense of insecurity; the reality of death looming close-by stayed with me, and influenced my cartoons,” he reveals. Apart from cartoons, Suhail has also digitally altered famous paintings, photographs and posters, to depict the pain and disfigurement caused by being hit by a pellet. For instance, he has placed a bandage on one eye of the Mona Lisa painting and on a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi. He has also altered the iconic Kashmir ki Kali poster, by bandaging the eyes of a bleeding Sharmila Tagore, and altering Shammi Kapoor’s expression to one of shock.
Despite the constant fear of being thwarted and persecuted, artists continue to create silent emblems of rebellion against the state. For, one can muzzle a people, but who can gag bold strokes of ink on paper that articulate an incoherent rage?
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