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How do language barriers impact artists?

The ‘Zabaan and Pehchaan’ talk at the India Art Fair examines how privileging of the English language makes the arts ecocystem exclusionary for artists from beyond the metros

Story of Sandpiper bird by Japani Shyam. Picture credit: Japani Shyam
Story of Sandpiper bird by Japani Shyam. Picture credit: Japani Shyam

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A robust talks programme, titled ‘Align and Disrupt’ curated by independent curator-educator Shaleen Wadhwana, is one of the highlights of the ongoing India Art Fair 2023. The focus is on making the art scene more inclusive by highlighting barriers within the space, and holding solution-oriented and action-focused conversations. "The series aims to bring together voices that align on crucial issues of the arts ecosystem and disrupt the existing status quo with infrastructural changes and attitudinal changes,” says Wadhwana. 

Make sure to head to the fair, being held in NSIC Grounds, Okhla, New Delhi, on 12 February for the talk on language barriers faced by artists. The talk,  ‘Zabaan and Pehchaan’, looks at what happens when English is imposed as mandatory for progress in the field and how it closes many doors for them. 

Also read: India Art Fair 2023: Designer Vikram Goyal debuts with new set of sculptural pieces

The panelists include Gond artist Japani Shyam, Pranav Misra, co-founder of award-winning fashion label, HUEMN, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, artist and curator with Raqs Media Collective, and Sabika Abbas, performance poet and founder of Sar-e-rahguzar, Poetry on the streets. Wadhwana feels that the disconnect lies in the way the art ecosystem has evolved, where there is a dominance of English in the urban spaces while the long-standing regional schools and areas have developed their own languages historically. “This gap is what makes the urban arts space inaccessible for artists coming from regions where English is not a frequently-spoken language. This is one of the reasons why regions of Delhi and Mumbai remain outside the purview of many artists growing in native and regional languages," she says. 

The barrier is felt even more when English is imposed on artists during profile submissions, artist statements, and in interviews. Such requirements must change, emphasises Wadhwana. This is reiterated by Shyam, who acknowledges that while English brings people together and connects them, it is unfair to make it necessary in every space.

Also read: 19 works that you simply must see at the India Art Fair 2023

Shyam’s artwork mostly focuses on the relationship with nature and life in her community. Her father, Jangarh Singh Shyam, was a celebrated Gond artist who paved way for others in his community by showcasing the art on national and global platforms. Japani is continuing her father’s legacy with her ideas, identity, and voice.  “I am not fluent in English and people from the community don’t speak the language either. Our artworks are based on stories that we have heard in our regional language, and it becomes difficult to translate those in English while retaining the essence,” Japani says. By making it the artists’ responsibility to learn English shows the normalisation of the superiority of the language over regional ones, thereby making the ecosystem exclusionary.

As the event is in Delhi, ‘Zabaan and Pehchaan’ will be a Hindi panel to reflect the commonly spoken language in the city. Wadhwana says this will be an important discussion for artists to advocate for changes on a large-scale platform.  “Solution-centric conversations with the panelists can lead to a deeper understanding of how to include language translations in museums, galleries, heritage sites to translators for artist studio visits,” she adds. This could be further expanded by incorporating more regional languages in future editions of such national-level events, she adds. During the panel discussion, Indian Sign Language interpreters will be presenting on stage. 

‘Zabaan and Pehchaan’ will take place at India Art Fair, NSIC Grounds, Okhla, New Delhi, on 12 February at 3PM. 

Also read: India Art Fair 2023: Showcasing multiplicity of voices






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