Shaheen Bagh and the new wave of protest art that’s sweeping across India

Shaheen Bagh and the new wave of protest art that’s sweeping across India

Posters, murals, installations, Instagram filters - protest art is having a moment in India

Women of resistance art installation at Shaheen Bagh | By special arrangement

Women of resistance art installation at Shaheen Bagh | By special arrangement

When Ayesha Renna protected her friend Shaheen Abdulla from police lathis in Jamia Millia Islamia University, for Tamil filmmaker Ponvannan, watching Ayesha raise her finger at the police was a moment of revolution.

“When I saw the emotion on her face, that was a defining moment for me. It felt like that emotion did not need any explanation and a new revolution has begun.”

Ponvannan’s subsequent illustration, One Finger Revolution, was shared widely on social media and became a defining visual of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in the country. When the picture went viral, Ponvannan told ThePrint, it felt like “the country had unanimously connected”, not just with him but with the movement as well.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament on 11 December 2019, leading to widespread protests across India. Four days later, students from Jamia Millia Islamia college in Delhi, while peacefully protesting in and around their college, were attacked by the police. A few hours later, Muslim women from Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and nearby areas sat down to protest. And they have not stopped since.

Breaking the stereotype of ‘repressed women in hijabs and burkhas’, the women of Shaheen Bagh have stood resilient in the face of bullets and lathis, and have become a symbol of resistance that has found resonance across the country. An unknown neighbourhood until 15 December 2019, Shaheen Bagh is now a metaphor for strength, community, humanity — and creativity.

Art is political

Since the days of cave drawings, art — be it visual or performance — has been a vital mode of communication as well as a reflection of political trends and moods around the world. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, artists in the US started creating work to voice their grief, helplessness and anger.

Take, for example, Brooklyn punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock’s songs like Powerlessness, All This Useless Energy, Beating My Head Against a Wall, and Yr Throat. Pop queen Madonna, in her speech at the women’s march in Washington in 2017, even went so far as to say, “Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.”

Then, during the protest in Hong Kong, artists took to adopting imagery from the local protests to create logos, graphics and illustrations and publish them on Telegram. Due to fear of execution, most artists worked anonymously, taking the example of Phesti, a local designer who took up this pen name to remain faceless. He took imagery from the local subway and created a logo of people holding hands, below which he wrote “HongKongers stand as one”. These artists would work in shifts of 200, brainstorm and crowd-source ideas.

Protest art, whenever and wherever it emerges, gains a local flavour and is heavily influenced by contemporary issues. Post-colonisation, when British art and scholarship were imposed on Indians, artists in protest started making art which glorified the ‘swadeshi’, and references to the vernacular literature were made.

“Abanindranath Tagore onwards, you see a change in points of reference for Indian art,” said Paula Sengupta, an artist and curator. “Artists started referring to Indian classical art forms and classical tales from the past as sources for making art.”

Sengupta cited Tagore’s Bharat Mata — a 1905 painting that depicts India as a goddess (the first illustrated depiction of the concept) and Nandlal Bose’s painting of Mahatma Gandhi during his Dandi march.

Anubhav Nath, director of Delhi-based gallery and art platform Ojas Art, also pointed out that pre-Independence paintings showed a suffering Mother India to express dissent.

Today, as hijab-clad women painted in the tricolour cover the walls of Shaheen Bagh, it is clear that protest art in India has become an outlet for citizens to express their anger towards divisive politics and the protestors’ own kind of patriotism.

Also read: The placards and songs that ruled the CAA protests across India

And it’s not confined to the tents and walls of the southeast Delhi neighbourhood  support for the women of Shaheen Bagh was seen at the prestigious annual India Art Fair, too.

Probir Gupta’s installation, A Poem of Instruments, displayed at the event held in January, was dedicated to the women of Shaheen Bagh. Consisting of a comb, microphone, typewriter and a mixer grinder, his piece was meant to reflect the history being created by the women of Shaheen Bagh.

“When I think of my mother, the first image I see in my mind is of her with a comb, which is why this piece is my dedication to the mothers of Shaheen Bagh,” said Gupta.
Probir Gupta’s art installation at India art fair | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint

Gupta, who has actively been a creator of protest art since 1996, believes that people in Delhi usually do not take sentiments of dissent beyond tea-stall conversations, and this is what makes the current anti-CAA/NRC protests different.

“Perhaps, the last time I saw such mass mobilisation was after the Mandal Commission.”

Inside Shaheen Bagh, art is flourishing

In January, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights claimed that the children of Shaheen Bagh were being “misled” and were suffering from “mental trauma”. Following this, a group of academics and psychologists visited the protest site to check these claims, and found a rather different reality.

Their report stated that, contrary to the NCPCR’s claims, the atmosphere at Shaheen Bagh was constructive and creative.

“Through the concerted efforts of volunteers faculty and students from different universities a semi-open space in front of closed shops has been created where children are engaged in several activities. In one corner we saw shelves with story books for young children, biographies, fiction, non-fiction books for older ones. The entire space was full with display of children’s drawings, protest slogans and art work. Children have easy access to chart paper, pencils, paints, brushes and crayons, arranged by volunteers. The presence of books, posters, paintings, motifs, graffiti and discussions made the entire space look like a festival of some sort,” said the report.

Mural at Shaheen Bagh | Soniya Agrawal ThePrint
Vasundhra Gautam, an English PhD student at Jamia, told ThePrint that after their library was attacked by the police, the students decided to take their library to those who do not have access to it. Working in shifts, groups of 10 students from Jamia ensure that the children who come with the women sitting in protest have something productive to do. They provide these children with books and art material, and sing songs with them on days when the situation at the site becomes tense.

A class 11 student of a school in Shaheen Bagh spends most of her free time in this corner. She says she likes it when the didis and bhaiyyas explain what is happening in the country, and that drawing in this corner helps her express her opinions and feelings.

Her poster, which says “Read for Revolution” shows the will of the children of Shaheen Bagh to join the protest against the “wrong things” that the government is doing against the people of her community.

Sketch by the student | By special arrangement

Social media, the great equaliser

There was a time when the fine arts were the preserve of the elite. Painting, sculpture, sketching these were things that few had access to and fewer still could successfully create and share. But then photography came along and democratised this elite occupation. With the advent of social media, editing apps and filters, the game has been further, irrevocably, changed. Everyone is a photographer and everyone can create art. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has equal visibility and ability to share their message. So when it comes to protest art, it stands to reason that people would turn to social media.

Akshat Nauriyal, a new media artist who experiments with augmented reality, created an Instagram filter which reads “I reject CAA, NRC”. This filter has over 1,50,000 impressions, which means that many people either used this filter or saw it in stories of their Instagram friends.

“Because the internet is such an important public space, I use it to mobilise people,” said Nauriyal.

Talking about his filter, which is in its essence a means of protest, he told ThePrint that more people are now talking about the government’s atrocities.

“In the current political climate, you can either be for the government or against it, there is no middle ground.”

The 35-year-old said that he has been using his art to spread awareness online so that people come together offline.

Also read: Reading Shaheen Bagh’s silence after Delhi election results: Why non-alignment helps

The importance of being anonymous

Keeping in mind the government’s attitude towards dissent, many artists are uncomfortable about revealing their identity. A prominent puppeteer and artist formed a collective by the name of Artists of Resistance and went to Shaheen Bagh with basic art material and cardboard which resulted in an art piece — a 15×4-feet cut-out called “Women of the Resistance”. She said her art was inspired by the sheer grit and persistence of the women at Shaheen Bagh.

Refusing to name her fellow artists, she told ThePrint that many are now sharing their work with pen names. “Most of us work anonymously, we want the resistance to last and if it means protecting identities of our contemporaries, we will do it. I don’t think there’s any point in being dead.”

Gupta, too, says that artists feel threatened from “all corners of the society” when they express dissent.

Art students of Jamia who have made murals and graffiti in public spaces now refuse to take credit for their work. They say they fear persecution because of their affiliations and their religion — some of them have allegedly even been given warnings and threats by Right-wing proponents and the police.

Added to that is the problem of political art not being accepted by curators and audiences. “[It] is often difficult to sell. There are times when curators feel that dabbling in politics and related art may not yield expected results among the clientele,” said Gupta.

Delhi-based gallery director Nath, meanwhile, has a different take. He feels that protest art is made to inspire people and not necessarily sell. He also believes a market for it could emerge much later, once the movement is either over or when the movement becomes a revolution.

Also read: How India protested when there was no WhatsApp or Instagram