As a teenager living in Hyderabad in the mid 1970s, I had briefly befriended a group of Palestinian students studying at Osmania University and living in an apartment in my neighbourhood. I don’t remember their names or much else about them, but I do remember tasting hummus for the first time when they shared some with all of us after a game of ‘gully cricket’!
Our President Pranab Mukherjee’s diplomatic gaffe – pronouncing ‘hummus’ as Hamas – during his recent state visit to Israel was amusing, but certainly pardonable. What was less pardonable was his refusal to touch upon the subject of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was indicative of the degrees by which the official Indian attitude has shifted since the days of India’s stout defence of the struggles and aspirations of the Palestinian people. Those front-page photos of Indira Gandhi receiving bear hugs from the likes of Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro have now been replaced by images of Modi with Netanyahu and Arab princes in similar, though somehow less sincere, postures.
I was more than delighted, then, to say yes to Sudhanva Deshpande’s request, on behalf of Jana Natya Manch, Delhi, and The Freedom Theatre, Jenin, to do a series of artworks for their upcoming collaborative tour, Freedom Jatha, this winter. Despite not having kept up with Middle Eastern politics to the extent I would have liked to, I recognized at once that this was a historic initiative.
Having accepted the assignment, I began to immerse myself in stories of the Palestinian movement, and understood afresh how this tour is so precious — because it goes beyond governments and their changing priorities. It is, in fact, a first of its kind — in its attempt to initiate people-to-people contact on a significant scale, to establish friendships at a real human level, to speak the language of art not diplomacy, to exchange creative ideas, and to learn from and celebrate each other’s struggles.
Even as many of us in India are coming together to defend secularism and democratic rights at home, we need to join hands with brave fighters for freedom, peace and justice in other lands. Today, its very important for us to make possible this India Tour by contributing whatever we can in terms of solidarity, support and financial assistance. We have so much to learn from the experiences of our Palestinian friends, and the amazingly creative responses they have fashioned in the course of their struggles. And above all, this an opportunity for us to show the world that we Indians, despite the attitudes and activities of our so-called leaders, are indeed people with a global vision for peace.
How can anyone not want to be part of it?
I am often asked: how do I get ideas for my artworks? Do words come first or images? There is of course no set formula. But in the past, I’ve always engaged with the place and its people extensively before getting down to an assignment. My first graphic novel was River of Stories, on the Narmada struggle, which I did back in the early 1990s. Honestly, initially even I didn’t know I was going to make a book as I went around the region for months, meeting people, making hundreds of sketches. One evening, I remember, I saw this man on a two wheeler, driving on a bund with the river behind him, his white hair luminescent in the light of the setting sun, a cloud of dust billowing behind him. Call it epiphany, but at that moment, I knew I wanted to tell his story.
In the end, as it happened, he didn’t figure in the book at all. But in my mind, I am clear that he had gifted me a story of which he was, and was not, a part. When working on a project, this kind of an emotional trigger is critical. Till that happens, I can’t produce any work.
This time, I was faced with a peculiar problem. I knew something about the Palestinian situation, but I’ve never travelled to that part of the world. I haven’t felt that soil, I’ve never breathed that air. I was of course looking at stuff on the internet — images of Gaza, the resistance struggle, Israeli atrocities, the checkpoints and the Wall, Palestinian iconography. But nothing was really clicking.
Then Sudhanva sent me his diary from a visit to the West Bank earlier this year. He had also shot photos. I read the whole text, all 10,000 words of it, in one go. It was as if I was experiencing Palestine through him. And ideas started to flow. I did a sketch depicting weapons turning into olive trees. I’ve always liked gamchhas, and was naturally drawn to the keffiyeh, the iconic chequered Palestinian scarf. I did many sketches with the keffiyeh in it.
As I sketched, some things became clear. One, that I didn’t want, at least as a first step, to have images of violence. Not that I condemn the armed resistance per se. An occupied population, even by international law, has the right to defend itself with arms if necessary. But I felt that Palestine represents for me a horizon of hope, of immense courage and fortitude, of gentleness and beauty. I wanted to capture these ideas in my artworks.
I did a drawing of a keffiyeh around a woman’s face, whose one eye is the moon and the other eye a sun. The keffiyeh looked like a nest, a protective space for something tender and fragile. Out of all this emerged my final image, of the eggs.
I wanted to upturn some of the negative and violent associations that have been sought to be linked with the wearing of headscarves, turbans and head covers in recent times — and represent the Palestinian keffiyeh as the protector and nurturer of fragile values that remain under threat in many parts of the world — including our own.
Keffiyeh (from the city of Kufa) headscarves have been adopted by Palestinians as a potent symbol of their struggle for self-determination. Its distinctive standard woven checkered patterns may have originated in an ancient Mesopotamian representation of either fishing nets or ears of grain — symbols of fertility and plenitude. Yasser Arafat was one of the highly visible proponents of the keffiyeh as a Palestinian statement — always draping the end of the scarf over his right shoulder in a triangular flap reminiscent in shape of the map of historic Palestine. Another Palestinian figure associated with the keffiyeh was Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
This image dwells on the diminishing of Palestinian lands and territories over the years, and presents an alternate hope for the future — as a time for the resurgence of blood red Palestinian poppies.
At some point, I also decided that words would accompany the drawings, but I didn’t want slogans. I wanted something suggestive, something that might trigger curiosity as well as an emotional response. Like fragments of poems.
For the people of Palestine, the Key symbolizes the principle of the ‘Right of Return’ – which asserts that Palestinian refugees and their descendants have the right to return to the property they were forced to leave behind in the former British mandate of Palestine – as a result of the formation of Israel, the 1948 Palestinian exodus and subsequent conflicts.
Between 1975 and 87, Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali produced a large number of powerful drawings featuring the character Handala. According to him, “The child Handala is my signature, everyone asks me about him wherever I go. I gave birth to this child in the Gulf and I presented him to the people. he has promised the people that he will remain true to himself. He is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children, and he is an icon that protects me from making mistakes. Even though he is rough, he smells of amber. His hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way. I presented him to the poor and named him Handala as a symbol of bitterness. At first, he was a Palestinian child, but his consciousness developed to have a national and then a global and human horizon. Handala was born 10-years old, and he will always be 10. At that age, I left my homeland, and when he returns, he will start growing up. Things will become normal again when the homeland returns.”
Sadly, Naji was never able to return. He was assassinated in London in 1987. In this image, which I have drawn in heartfelt tribute to a great fellow cartoonist, Handala has acquired a new friend — an Indian girl who stands hand in hand with him. Her name is Madhubala.
Orijit Sen is one of India’s leading graphic artists and designers. His River of Stories is considered as the first graphic novel of India. He is one of the founders of The Pao Collective of comic book artists. He is Mario Miranda Chair visiting professor at Goa University. The Disappearing Tiger, a t-shirt designed by him, is currently featured at The Fabric of India exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. His diverse works, which include public art works, have been exhibited in India, England, Russia, France, Canada, and various other countries.