Art in the time of CAA

A tea seller in front of a wall painting at Shaheen Bagh bearing the words "main shaheen hoon"—I am Shaheen. Art has been proliferating everywhere—on the streets, graffiti, at protest sites. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN
17 March, 2020

In late January this year, the Jaipur Literature Festival made news for extra-literary reasons. A few students raised slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act—a controversial act meant to sieve out those perceived to be Muslim infiltrators. Bouncers were sent to immediately throw out the group because the organisers had “received complaints from their partners” that the slogans were upsetting the audience. The JLF is sponsored by a media conglomerate—the Zee empire—that discredited the Shaheen Bagh protests on an almost daily basis. The channel has been accused of frequently broadcasting fake news, including images and videos that have been doctored. And so, while panels within the festival discussed what is turning out to be an existential crisis for the future of India’s citizenry, its high-handed response to the group of students spoke volumes of how the art world has responded to the crisis. 

The same weekend, the annual India Art Fair at Delhi put up a prohibitory sign. “We have a zero tolerance policy against banners or sloganeering at the art fair,” it read. The IAF organisers seem to have forgotten that some of the blue-chip artists whose work was on sale had banners in their imagery. Individual presentations by artist-run organisations at the fair managed to speak eloquently about repression—and even reference Shaheen Bagh, which is a little over five kilometres away from the fair’s venue—but a group project at the Italian Cultural Centre’s booth invited a police complaint. The ostensible reason was the presence of a hijab-clad young woman doing calligraphy in Urdu, which the anonymous complainant claimed not to understand but suspected of carrying subversive content. 

The police appeared, made polite enquiries and then left. But when the fair’s management arrived, the organiser of the project and the artists were told that they had no business doing things they were not given permission for. The artists insisted that the activity was announced before, but the fair management refuted this. The work was eventually pulled down, and a group of young artists was humiliated for no reason. 

Their work, which they said carried no explicit political references, showed hand-drawn representations of women overcoming sectarian divisions. The “suspect” Urdu calligraphy featured a couplet by Muhammad Iqbal about birds stretching wings and spanning ever new skies in flight. It included the word shaheen, which means falcon—a metaphor, in this instance, for freedom. On another occasion, a young man silently holding a sign that indicated the distance to Shaheen Bagh was bullied away by security guards from outside the ticket booth at the instructions of the IAF management. 

I wrote an email to the IAF, on 2 February, asking to see the terms of this agreement and the words which forbid banners and slogans. I got a formal reply on the same day, stating that the management would respond to my queries within a day or two, but no response came. I wrote again, on 3 March, asking this time also whether the work that had been pulled down had been returned to the artists. I have not yet received a reply to this second email. 

Like the JLF, the IAF held discussion panels dedicated to the relationship between aesthetics and politics, on collectives in art. The profound hypocrisy of the leading lights of the fair—one of the few institutional bulwarks of the contemporary art scene in India—exposed itself repeatedly in a self-parodic fashion. 

But neither the JLF nor the IAF need be seen as arbiters of how arts events can be staged in India. The International Theatre Festival of Kerala, held in Thrissur in January, for instance, made room for protests and demonstrations. There were vigorous protests both against and for the CAA at this event, which happened routinely, in public view, in a civilised fashion, without disrupting the main programme. This proves that if an arts festival wants to, it can accommodate dissent in a way that is enriching and affirming for visitors and artists alike.

What has been interesting is that outside these institutions and highly corporatised events, art has been proliferating everywhere—on the streets, graffiti, at protest sites. Artists have been bearing witness, acting as a catalysts and custodians for difficult and necessary conversations, and offering joyous as well as thoughtful ways of articulating dissidence to very diverse publics.

I spoke to people in casual conversations in the huddle of protest sites in many parts of Delhi—not just in Shaheen Bagh, but also in Khajoori Khas, Chand Bagh, Mustafabad, Jafrabad, Shahi Eidgah and Azad Market—over the past months. I heard the phrase “hazaaron khwahishein aisi” more than once, especially when people spoke to me informally about why they would come, night after night in the cold. They had come out on to the streets in anger against the act, but they had stayed there for freedom, for dignity, for fellowship and camaraderie. That is how art sneaked in, following the mutiny of a thousand desires. Libraries mushroomed at various protest sites. Reading circles often gathered, swapping novels and poetry at protests. “Read for Revolution,” read one sign.

The Protest Art Community Mural by the artist Akansha and 15 others, was set up at the Italian booth in the India Art Fair 2020. The work was meant to pay tribute to the resilience of women's spirit and strength. COURTESY ENGENDERED

Most of these sites in northeastern Delhi now bear a deserted look, following brutal violence that has left more than fifty people dead, livelihoods destroyed and houses torched down. The Mustafabad protest site, for instance, which featured a free library and was an active space for performance, music and poetry, recited passionately in front of thousands of women and men, is now burnt to cinders. I recall being impressed by the totally self-organised site and autonomously managed programme of events—by the passion and attention to detail on the part of the young organisers—in all the sites that I visited. To think of them as ashen, abandoned heaps is to understand the extent to which the storm troopers of the ruling regime are intimidated by the prospects of spontaneously generated independent thought and culture.

There are two things that seem to differentiate the art that has flowered in the time of protests from art that depends on institutional or corporate patronage. They culminated as a direct response to the protests, capturing its spirit of resistance.They also stand out as a record of history at a time when most of our democratic institutions, including the media, cannot be trusted. This is exemplified in two poems that became instantly popular on social media, showing a significant afterlife. One is the stand-up comedian and poet Varun Grover’s “Hum Kagaaz Nahin Dikhayenge”—We Won’t Show Our Papers—and the other, by the young poet Aamir Aziz, is “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega”—Everything Will Be Remembered. Both are stirring poems of dissent and have found resonance across the country. Aziz lists everything, marking every blow on every protesting body that he witnesses, and transforms the ephemeral vicissitudes of everyday resistance into a letter to eternity, writing revolution, inquilab, into the sky.

Young women have found their voice amid these protests too. A case in point is Nabiya Khan, a university student, whose poem with the refrain “pehenke chudiyan, bindi aur hijaab, aayega inquilab”—the revolution will come wearing bangles, bindi and hijab—has gone viral. She reclaims bangles as a symbol of strength, which in masculinist logic is often used jeeringly to suggest weakness. Similarly, in her poem, both the hijab and bindi assert a female reclamation of signs that are spoken about as signifying the oppression of women on both sides of the communal divide. In her telling, the revolution is defined by these women on their terms. She challenges both the dynamics of established power and the repressed misogyny of would-be radical posturing, while laughing at the patronising way in which liberal, secular progressives offer to “save” Muslim women. Her art, in the wake of Shaheen Bagh, challenges the established codes of dominance, rescue and resistance.  

Protest songs from other countries have also made their way into our consciousness. A young man with a guitar, Poojan Sahil, walked from protest site to protest site rendering an Italian partisan song, “Bella Ciao,” into a Hindustani anthem for young protestors, singing, “Wapas Jao, Wapas Jao”—Go Back, Go Back—to the tyrants and their black laws. Two sisters, whom everyone just calls the Sinha Sisters, sang Ali Sardar Jari’s trenchant refusal of half freedoms. Allalla, a band that sings in Malayalam, put out a video of a song titled “Aavoola”—Not Happening—and it went viral, not just in Kerala and among the Malayali diaspora, but even with people who speak not a word of Malayalam. I have heard it hummed in Jamia and in Shaheen Bagh. 

In Shaheen Bagh, the road next to the protest site became a giant canvas. Installations appeared and disappeared over the past two months. An armada of paper boats, installed by the artist Arif Nayeem, with the text of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem, “Hum Dekhenge”—We Shall See—suddenly anchored itself next to the protest gathering. The paper boats became vessels bringing Faiz’s words to a people whose patience can outlive and wear down every scheme and purpose of power. Posters published poetry and poetry learnt from posters. A giant mural, riffing off the women-as-falcons meme appeared, almost overnight in Shaheen Bagh, through a collaborative project helmed by artists such as Shilo Shiv Suleman, with local participation. A new song was composed somewhere, almost every day. New poems burnt their way into viral videos.  

That is the way art and politics danced on the streets, especially on turbulent nights and days. It came spontaneously. No one set out an agenda, no one offered explanations, no one rationalised what might or might not happen. An informal roster of performers and speakers travelled through WhatsApp messages, and each night, different sets of people spoke, sang, read poetry and performed at different protest sites. At Khajoori Khas, I came across an entire protest site managed by students from the Delhi College of Art. At Azad Market, a sign proclaimed, “Welcome to Azad Market Protest Site Art Gallery.” The gallery features flex printouts of everything from children’s drawings to printouts of Instagram posts, tied with a rope to a railing. I watched people take selfies of themselves next to photographs depicting pitched battles with the police on the Jamia campus. Photographs beget photographs. 

Graffiti on a wall in Jaffrabad with the words "laazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge"—We shall witness. SHAHID TANTRAY FOR THE CARAVAN

The overbridge at Shaheen Bagh turned into a makeshift museum of anonymous artists and poets, where slogans, jokes, puns and messages of love and longing shared space with each other. Ambitious murals appeared on the road and on the walls of the Jamia campus, even as student protests against police violence accelerate. I watched an intense young singer, Ankur Tewari, serenade respectable middle-aged women with what turned into a revolutionary love song, “Muhabbat Zindabad”—Long Live Love—and they blew kisses at him. I listened to Sabika Abbas Naqvi berate fence sitters with charming poetic scorn, and I watched the Bollywood actors Swara Bhaskar, Sushant Singh and Naseeruddin Shah, as well as the director Anurag Kashyap, take the stage at protest sites in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. No one called them. They came of their own accord. They shared the stage with local poets. 

We will remember that, during these past two months, the people who create and nurture protest sites took far better care of imagination and creativity than those who man the barricades of institutional anxiety. We will remember how anodyne forums like the JLF and the IAF turned into ashen spaces of repression. Outside them, art, poetry, music and literature came to embody a thousand mutinous desires. Everything will be remembered.