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Why Narmada's afflicted people 'amplify, mobilise' voice through artistic expression

By Rishabh Soni* 

In reflecting and developing a society's views, beliefs, and values, art and culture have always played an important role. Art has a long history of being utilised as a vehicle for social change, by both people and groups, to question authority and promote positive social change.
Art and culture have proven to be crucial in social movements, helping to galvanise support, increase visibility, and spark in-depth discussion. This article delves into how art and culture function in social movements, illuminating the influence they have and the change they can inspire.

Art as a catalyst for change

Art, in all its forms, possesses the rare ability to convey nuanced thoughts and feelings to an audience regardless of their linguistic or cultural background. It can move people to compassion, reflection, and action. When it comes to social movements, art is a driving force for positive change because it brings attention to pressing problems, challenges accepted conventions, and amplifies the experiences of underrepresented groups.
Political and social statements have long been conveyed through the visual arts, including paintings, sculptures, and street art. Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, and Banksy are just a few of the artists who have used their work to protest sexism, militarism, and other forms of social injustice. Their works do more than just convey strong discontent; they also inform and encourage their audiences to question the world as it is.
Music, like other forms of art that are firmly embedded in culture, has been a catalyst for many different kinds of societal change. Music has served as a unifying force and a voice for the voiceless throughout history, from the American Civil Rights Movement, led by Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, led by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Music such as "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowin' in the Wind" inspired people to stand up for what they believed in and galvanised them to take action in the battle for social justice.

Role of culture in shaping movements

Culture, which includes norms, beliefs, and behaviours, is instrumental in social change. When people have a common identity and set of values, they feel more connected to one another. Literature, theatre, and festivals are all examples of cultural manifestations that may be effective mobilisation, solidarity, and momentum generators within social movements.
Literature has always been an important forum for criticising established order. Writers including George Orwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Arundhati Roy have spoken out against authoritarianism, slavery, and human rights violations in their works. They have challenged the current quo in their writings by highlighting the plight of underrepresented groups.
Live, interactive theatre has long been utilised as a tool for social reform because of its ability to captivate and immerse audiences. The concept of "epic theatre" and "theatre of the oppressed," developed by playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, uses drama to educate, challenge assumptions, and encourage audience members to take action. They hoped to break down oppressive structures and equip people to bring about change through participatory performances and seminars.
Social movements often use cultural celebrations and gatherings to spread their message. They allow people to gather, partake in one another's identities, and work together to solve societal problems. Pride parades, Women's Marches, and Indigenous cultural festivities not only provide a stage for advocacy, but also foster intergroup understanding, mutual aid, and cooperation.

Art and culture as vehicles for dialogue and education

Culture and the arts are vital to social movements because they encourage open discussion and education. They allow people to meet and talk to one another, question authority figures, and express their own unique points of view. Art and culture have the power to unite people and inspire them to take personal responsibility for making the world a better place by encouraging mutual understanding and compassion.
Inviting dialogue and critical reflection on societal issues, art exhibitions, installations, and performances frequently do just that. These mediums facilitate the discussion of nuanced topics and inspire audiences to broaden their horizons. In addition to the chances for education, learning, and the exchange of ideas provided by cultural events, they also feature workshops, lectures, and panel discussions.
In today's digital era, artists and activists may reach a global audience and spread their message with the help of social media platforms. Now more than ever, people from all walks of life may experience art and culture thanks to innovations like hashtags, viral campaigns, online galleries, and virtual performances. With the use of social media, underrepresented groups can have their voices heard, online communities can grow, and support can be rallied for important social causes.
Art and culture have been essential in recent years' global social revolutions. Visual art, poetry, music, and performance have all played significant roles in the Black Lives Matter movement, helping to spread awareness and garner support for the cause. Similarly, the environmental movement has used creative expression to spread word of the climate emergency and galvanise support for change.

Narmada Bachao Andolan of 1980s

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) is a good illustration of the influence of art and culture in social movements from an Indian context. The construction of massive dams on the Narmada River, most notably the Sardar Sarovar Dam, led to the emergence of this movement in the 1980s as a result of the displacement of thousands of indigenous people and the negative effects on the environment that this would have.
Throughout the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the afflicted communities' voices were amplified and support was mobilised in large part through artistic expression. The following are some of the most significant cultural contributions made by the movement:
  1. Poetry and songs: The poet and environmental activist Adivasi Akkamahadevi is only one of many musicians and writers who have created moving works that convey the hardships, hopes, and injustices endured by the communities in question. These artistic manifestations were important for spreading information, connecting with audiences on an emotional level, and fostering a sense of unity among those involved in the movement.
  2. Theater and street plays: Educating and mobilising the populace was accomplished through the means of street plays and theatrical performances. They showed the effects of dam building on the environment, on people's rights, and on the communities who were displaced as a result. The performances travelled to rural areas, urban centres, and everywhere in between, inspiring conversation and compassion.
  3. Visual art and murals: Paintings, murals, and graffiti were used to reflect the suffering of the impacted people and send strong messages. Artists caught the spirit of the movement by drawing attention to the loss of home and culture as a result of moving.
  4. Documentary films: Filmmakers captured the experiences of those impacted by dam building, as well as the communities' resistance and the environmental fallout. The real faces behind the statistics and the urgent need for action were shown in these films, which played a critical role in increasing awareness both in India and beyond.
  5. Cultural festivals and rallies: In order to provide a dynamic forum for solidarity and expression, cultural festivals and rallies were organised. These gatherings highlighted the interdependence of cultural preservation and environmental protection through the use of traditional art forms like music, dance, and storytelling.
The activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan were able to successfully catch public attention, build a wide base of support, and influence public opinion by incorporating art and culture into their activity. Artistic expressions were used by the movement as a means of humanising the issues at hand, giving a voice to underrepresented groups, and encouraging individuals to take action for social and environmental justice.
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*MBA student, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

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