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.