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As the nation celebrates 75 years of its Independence from British rule, the contrast between ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ seems to have become more and more marked.
Over the past few years, the former has come to acquire certain linearity that is seen to culminate in atmanirbharta or the state of being independent of the extrinsic. Freedom, meanwhile, has become a site where the contradictions and contestations that constitute everyday life in India today are being deliberated.
An ongoing exhibition organised by SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) reflects upon the widening gap between these concepts and the multiple pushes and pulls embedded within this gap. The exhibition, which began on July 2, will go on till August 14 at Jawahar Bhawan, Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi.
Titled ‘Hum Sab Sahmat: Resisting the Nation for its Citizens’, the exhibition engages with the many meanings of freedom, and frames these within the larger politico-cultural landscape of contemporary India.
It features the works of over 200 artists and writers in the forms of paintings, installations, digital art as well as verse and prose poems in various languages, allowing for wide participation of artists as well as viewers. Performances by musicians Shubha Mudgal and T. M. Krishna, and a retrospective of film director Saeed Mirza’s work have also been woven into the programme.
The artworks and texts dwell on questions of citizenship and identity, discord and harmony, ecology and polity, in an attempt to interrogate what we, as a nation, have done with the Independence achieved in August 1947.
Interestingly, just as these works call into question monolithic narratives of freedom and independence, the exhibition itself challenges the domination of the ‘white cube’ in the art world. Rather than being mounted on frames, the canvas-based artworks are clustered in groups of four and pasted on backdrops of jute.
Speaking to The Wire, Rajan, one of the founders of SAHMAT, has explained that the idea is to use inexpensive material that would also be amenable to travelling since the exhibition itself will move across different states and cities.
“This is an attempt to counter the commercialisation of art and to take art into the streets where ordinary people can engage with it,” he says.
This approach also gets reflected in the selection of artists, ranging across generations and sensibilities, evidencing a straddling, rather than hierarchising, of differences. Each scroll-like jute panel features four different artists and writers, enfolding a narrative within it, pertaining to different themes: For instance, Dr Amdebkar and the constitution, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. But the narrative in each panel is consciously offset by tensions between different works, provoking the onlooker to make leaps in their contemplation of these works.
Together, these texts and artworks function as a counterpoint to the grand narrative of national history marketed by the Indian government’s ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. While the latter commemorates the nation’s achievements over the past 75 years and sets neat goals for the coming decades, ‘Hum Sab Sahmat’ is an exercise in reflexivity, dwelling upon the contradictions and messiness that rack the nation at the end of those 75 years.
The number itself is evoked in different ways. Artist Gulammohammed Sheikh uses broad calligraphic strokes to script the number in Devanagari, superimposing upon it delicate sketches of Tagore and Gandhi, as scores of human and animal figures branch out seamlessly between the two figures.
In Kuldeep Kumar’s poem ‘Lal Qila aur Tiranga’, both the monument and the flag acquire subjectivities which intertwine a glorious past and a bleak present; while Madhukar Upadhayay approaches the 75th as just another step in an endless chronology that dwarfs individual entities.
In contrast to this broad temporal view of the ‘anniversary’, other artists use an ironic eye to unpack contestations anchored in the contemporary, as in E.P.Unni’s sardonic cartoon on the fad of bypassing accountability in the times of Digital India.
Kuriakose Vaisian lampoons India’s ‘Big Brother’, aptly through the lens of stand-up comedy, to comment on the regression of sensibilities to pre-historic times; while Parul Jain’s digital artwork indicts the Man as well as the media through an allegorical framing of cat-in-a-bird-cage.
Aban Raza, one of the organisers of the exhibition, explains that one of the key preoccupations of the show is where are we headed as a nation and the resolve to counter the majoritarian impulses of this course. “Hum Sab Sahmat is an agreement to resist a nation without citizens, a nation that is becoming more and more hostile to the idea of citizenship.”
Various texts and artworks engage with recent events such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) legislations, farmers’ protests, the 2020 Delhi riots and the targeting of minorities to create a ground-up narrative centred on resistance.
For instance, Madangopal Singh’s poem ‘Baaddra’ (trans. O Border) is a spatial evocation of the Singhu and Tikri borders and farmlands, framing the farmers’ protest as a localised dissent turned into a national movement; Shakuntala Kulkarni uses charcoal in her work ‘‘Pieta’ (after Hathras)’ to fashion a grim picture of the gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in 2020. In doing so, she transforms the solemn contemplation of Michelangelo’s Mary into an inconsolable cry of the victim’s mother.
In his powerful poem ‘Kinme ho tum?’ (trans. Among which are you?), Vishnu Nagar examines the dialectics of silence and speech that haunts present-day India, while Pushpamala. N cites lines from Rohit Vemula’s suicide letter, offering a scathing critique of what remains of the “value of a man”. Framing it on a black slate, the artist endorses its potential in the political discourse in India.
Ram Rahman, a co-founder of SAHMAT, informs that this dissenting impetus of the current exhibition can be traced back to another exhibition organised by the Trust in 1991. Called ‘Images and Texts’, that travelling show followed a format similar to the present one and like this one, aimed to counter the rising tide of communalism in India at the time.
“However, the politics now has completely changed, and artists, especially the younger ones, are responding to this changing environment with creativity and assertion,” says Rahman. This exhibition thus becomes a common ground in which these creativities and assertions enmesh; and, even as the works agree to disagree with majoritarian impulses peddled by the state, this consensus is used to imagine a reordering of relations of power.
Pawanpreet Kaur is an independent journalist.