Avaaz Do! — A SAHMAT Poster Exhibition Calls for Solidarity
Avaaz Do! This is what the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) called the exhibition it recently held in New Delhi. The exhibition showcased a set of small banner works that several artists made in response to the protests by writers last year, and the debate they generated on growing intolerance in the country. The unprecedented event saw over 100 writers returning awards they received from the government, after the government’s inaction over the murders of M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. Over 400 artists, curators, critics and art teachers issued a statement in solidarity with the writers:
While the Prime Minister of the country has been conspicuously reticent in his response to the recent events, the reactions of BJP ministers in his government reveal their ignorance and prejudice. Mahesh Sharma, minister of state for culture, has made abhorrent comments about mob lynching and murder. His remarks suggesting that writers should stop writing to prove their point are alarming – empowered as he is to take policy decisions in the domain of culture. Arun Jaitely, minister of finance, information and broadcasting, has mocked the actions of our respected writers as a manufactured “paper rebellion”. He asks for scrutiny of political and ideological affiliations of those who are protesting.
To these and other such provocations there is a clear answer: while the actual affiliations of the protesting writers and artists, scholars and journalists may be many and varied, their individual and collective voices are gaining cumulative strength. It is this that the ruling party will have to reckon with: the protestors’ declared disaffiliation from the government that encourages marauding outfits to enforce a series of regressive commands in this culturally diverse country.
While some posters in the SAHMAT exhibition had direct messages inscribed on them, others were more and abstract. A range of styles and material was on display. Sumedh Rajendran’s poster has a faceless man, separated at the waist, trying to move away from the legs, which also represents an iron fence with spokes. The poster is emblematic of a situation in which the individual is forced to self-censor himself/herself, but who is always struggling to accept the cage he/she is forced to fit into. The faceless man could well be Perumal Murugan, who was hounded into declaring himself dead as a writer; or for writer and scholar M.M. Kalburgi, or the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare.
We spoke to Vivan Sundaram on the importance of speaking up in a collective voice. Visual arts lend themselves to a multiplicity of meanings, which makes it impossible to pin them down to one standard interpretation, he said. In an atmosphere where standard, permitted readings are allowed, the visual arts, by their very form, challenge such a perspective.
You can hear the interview here:
We also spoke to Sohail Hashmi from SAHMAT, who said the current situation could be linked back to what began in 1991, the build-up to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. To trace this link through art, the exhibition included some of the postcards from the 1994 SAHMAT project, Postcards for Gandhi. Gandhi famously used inexpensive postcards to communicate with the diverse population in the country. The project was a reminder to return to Gandhian values after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Here is a video of the Postcards for Gandhi project here:
Souradeep Roy is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Cultural Forum.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.