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Artists' alternative vision of India now in Ahmedabad: 'Moral critique of the present'

By Rajiv Shah 

It was a pleasant surprise the other day. I received a phone call from Sohail Hashmi, who during my early college days initiated me into Left-wing student politics in Delhi University; the year was 1971. Sohail said he was in Ahmedabad. I asked him to come over. However, he told me he had come with an exhibition of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) on creative expressions of artists on 75 years of India’s independence. So I should reach there at its inauguration.
Organised at Arthshila, a studio which claims to “facilitate artistic expression and curate creative experiences", situated next to the high-profile Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), I reached there to meet Sohail, whom I had not seen since mid-1970s, though would occasionally interact on phone (and sometimes on social media). On reaching there, sitting just outside the studio, he told me that in all Sahmat had collected 280 creative expressions, of which about 128 were on display at Arthshila, as its Ahmedabad studio was “small and couldn’t accommodate all exhibits.”
What particularly interested me was the exhibition was organised by Sahmat, named after Sohail’s brother Safdar. While Sohail had initiated me into Left politics (SFI or Students Federation of India, CPI-M’s students wing), disillusionment engulfed some of us (including Sohail) after a section of SFI decided to support the saffron student organisation Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad candidate in DU’s Kirorimal College, where I was enrolled. SFI became a divided house.
Though enrolled in different colleges, Safdar (he was enrolled in St Stephen’s) and I would attend English MA classes in Delhi University together. While Sohail had introduced me to him at his residence, we came very close to each other during our post-graduate days. Often Safdar and I would study together. I would live at his residence for days together, and so would he at my place.
However, I could never match some of the qualities which Safdar possessed -- of organising street plays for the Jan Natya March, the CPI-M’s theatre group, and an excellent script writer for plays. Finding that I was cut off from student politics, he tried to rope me in the theatre group, but, call it laziness (or may be my family compulsions), I didn’t show much interest.
Be that as it may, he kept on cultivating me. He would often read out to me some of his poems and manuscripts of street plays he would write, including adaptations of Bertold Brecht’s plays, which a lot of interest. He even took me to a three-day workshop, organised by top theatre personality Habib Tanvir with his folk artistes! After we finished our MA, he got busy into finding jobs, hence we didn’t meet as much, though we would sometimes meet at each other’s house.
On entering journalism in 1979, I would meet Safdar at Mandi House, when Shruti (my wife) and I would go to see some play at any of the elite theatres in the area. But after I left for Moscow as Patriot and Link correspondent, we lost touch of each other. I got a terrible shock on reading from newspapers about the gruesome murder of Safdar in January 1989. This happened after he organised a street play “Halla Bol” in a labour colony during the Ghaziabad municipal elections in Sahibabad's Jhandapur village.
Not without reason, anything associated with Safdar in Ahmedabad, where I have been living since my return from Moscow in 1993 to join the Times of India, was bound to interest me. Sohail inaugurated the Sahmat-sponsored exhibition at Arthshila, stating, the exhibits were “artistic expressions” of well known artists displayed side by side with young, upcoming artists. Most of the exhibits are colour printouts, with a few of them having poster-style write-ups, mainly poems. Uniquely, most of them seek to creatively question the exploitative system, “depict” secularism and “oppressive” conditions as they exist today -- as artists see them.
Sohail told me that already this exhibition has been held at seven different place – in Delhi, Patiala, Bhopal, Ajmer, Santiniketan (at its Arthshila studio), Munsiari (Uttarakhand) and Jaipur – and this was the eighth one in the series. Later, during his short inaugural address, he regretted that since “times have changed, we cannot take the exhibition to the streets, as we would have done earlier, because all know what kind of repercussions it could have...” He asked me (as to others) to put across a word to as many people as I could to see the exhibition, and write about it.
As I was planning to depart, Sohail handed over a book “Hum Sab Sahmat” to me containing photographs of all the exhibits which Sahmat had collected. An introduction to the book (actually, it’s a sort of catalogue in book form), “Hum Sab Sahmat: Resisting a Nation without Citizens”, by one Shamat Ray (I have no idea who this person is, as s/he appears to have no presence on internet), regrets that the “consensus of 1947 is all but gone”, underscoring, “It has been replaced by a shrill din that masquerades as the ‘new consensus’.”
Ray continues:
“(The consensus) replaces the legacy of the freedom struggle with a sense of misplaced entitlement... One which is so fragile that at the slightest suspicion of an ebbing support, it becomes viciously belligerent. It is hard to say who is this new consensus for. For there are farmers in hundreds and thousands protesting the state’s writ. There are roads that still carry imprints of millions of migrant workers, inhumanly displaced in the name of public health. There are forests and mountains stripped of their human and non-human inhabitants alike...”
Asserting that the “onus lies with us to keep alive the shared heritage of our struggles – lived and remembered”, the Sahmat book introduction hopes to “overcome” the present “moment of hate” which is said to abound us today. Underlining the need to strive to ensure that the “struggles of millions of us” are not turned into a “mindless spectacle bereft of any meaning, any memory”, it calls the exhibits a result of the exhorting “artists, writers and cultural figures of India” to create “a mosaic of expressions” on India’s 75 years of Independence.
Seeking to invoke “alternative visions of India” in order to “infuse life by calling upon spirits and traditions from our past that treats transition and passage in time as a moral critique of the present”, the exhibition, concludes the introduction, seeks to speak of “our many consensuses and our future desires.” Continuing till October 1 in Ahmedabad, even if it seeks to address a small section of what is called progressive elite in a locality next to India’s most prestigious business school, the exhibits are surely worth watching...


Nita Kumar said…
It sounds wonderful, I wish we could host the exhibit or somehow enable its presence here in Varanasi where we are in ideological doldrums, but where there are creative currents and eagerness to know and express under the surface. Nita Kumar, NIRMAN, Varanasi


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