Two centuries ago, a natakkar (theatre artist) well known for his comedy accepted a challenge from a neighbour in jest: to go before Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh empire, and call him kaana (one-eyed; he lost sight in the left eye in infancy, owing to smallpox). According to the terms of the challenge, the neighbour would give him a silver coin each time he uttered the word. The following day, the natakkar went up to the maharaja and said: “Maharaj, I went to your in-laws’ village. Your sister-in-law was asking about you.” “What did she say?” asked the maharaja. “She said,” the natakkar replied, “‘how’s my kaana brother-in-law?’ I told her, ‘Why are you calling my king kaana?’ She said she was saying kaana out of love….’” The king couldn’t take offence since the term supposedly came from his sister-in-law. The natakkar won several coins.
Avtar Singh is telling me this classic story from Bhand-Marasi, a fading form of Punjabi folk theatre that uses humour to address political and social issues. We are standing under the February sky on a Sunday morning, near the police barricades at north Delhi’s Tikri border. Thousands of farmers, stretching into the distance, are getting ready for their 85th day of protest against the contentious new farm laws. A few are sitting close to a stove while tea is brewing to keep their hands warm, some are drawing ice-cold water from a tanker for bathing, many are chatting and singing songs of revolution huddled under their grey blankets.
This is Singh’s third visit to Tikri in February. A theatre student at Chandigarh’s Panjab University, he and his five-member troupe have been performing Bhand-Marasi plays at Tikri and north-west Delhi’s Singhu, another border-point that has turned into a village of protesting farmers since December. They address the political reality with a blend of folk stories to keep morale high and offer relief during what has become an unending standoff between farmers and the Union government. When they are not performing at the borders, they travel to the hinterland of Punjab, from Jagraon to Moga and Faridkot, carrying with them their interpretation of a polarised India in the hope of keeping people at the grass-roots informed—and in the process, turning the spotlight on the Bhand-Marasi form.
“What is theatre if it doesn’t ask questions?” Singh, 29, says in Punjabi, smiling widely. “What is art if it doesn’t show the life around us? It is our duty to push the boundaries, whether someone likes it or not. Earlier, our plays used to give messages more subtly but now we try to be more out there. You have to be…. Look around us.”
While India has its fair share of contemporary art that sits in galleries while sitting out of the social commentary box, a form of modern art is gathering urgency in building a narrative of empathy and focusing action on what really matters—on the street, and with the help of social media. Since the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, aimed at fast-tracking citizenship for certain communities from neighbouring countries, more people have taken to creating, and circulating through platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, clever public art and performance projects—from posters, slogans, poetry, digital art and cartoons to paintings, songs, theatrical plays, skits, graffiti and memes—to raise awareness and build a political movement and solidarity in a physically distanced world. The ongoing farmers’ protest has accelerated the trend, erasing the distance between local pain and worldwide outrage.
Much like the resistance motifs that emerged from last year’s Black Lives Matter movement and the human rights protests that engulfed Hong Kong, Belarus, Poland, Nigeria and Thailand, India’s young are finding in art a space to breathe at a time when dissent can prove costly.
Tales of past and present
Art and literature play a special, if sometimes unrecognised, role in our lives—and their power to influence, educate and change mindsets is now being acknowledged and adopted by young theatre practitioners, folk artists, poets, cartoonists, comedians and others in an environment many of them see as hostile to criticism. As Albert Einstein once said, “Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art—neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.”
Whether it’s visual imagery or the spoken or written word, hidden behind each piece of work is a reflection of the times it was born in.
Munshi Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto, for instance, pushed the idea of communal harmony and a just society pre- and post-Partition through their writings—messages that continue to resonate today. Through Janam, or Jana Natya Manch, playwright Safdar Hashmi reinforced the idea of rebelling, or speaking up, against the establishment by taking theatre outside the proscenium and to the streets—an initiative that cost him his life in 1989. A younger generation of Dalit artists continues to depict discrimination, domination and oppression in colourful Mithila paintings. Cartoonists like Satish Acharya don't shy away from filling their panels with the dark realities of the world. Comedians such as Karan Menon force people to think with their politically charged content. Pattachitra scrolls, Warli drawings and Phad paintings—known for weaving the magic of mythology and flora and fauna—now prefer to depict the collective pain of migrant workers who had to walk hundreds of kilometres to their homes after the announcement of what some argue was an ill-planned, sudden lockdown aimed at curbing covid-19 last year.
“Folk and indigenous art has always had a side of being political along with being located in the social and the cosmological,” says social anthropologist Sarover Zaidi, an assistant professor at the Jindal School of Art and Architecture in Sonipat, Haryana. “Now contemporary art is becoming more political, like it becomes when the larger political atmosphere is intense; art creates, subverts and presents the political in direct and indirect ways. And social media is helping amplify this. People who used to share photos of their cats and dogs or selfies are now reposting photographs or sketches of protest art.”
Cultural and art historian Jyotindra Jain echoes this impression of a shift in the way art is being made and consumed. “Over the past few decades, the practice of art has expanded to include mass visual culture, deriving from billboards, advertising, TV, social media, photography, fashion, graffiti, which influence our personal and social values and even shape the ideological conception of the nation itself,” he says. “Art in this contemporary form as visual culture has an unerasable impact on us, often leading to collective social responses.”
Meet the new artist
App and website designer Akash Rikhi wasn’t aware of the concept of protest art till he saw an Instagram post of a massive “Black Lives Matter” painted in yellow on a Washington, DC street leading to the White House last June. The Chandigarh resident was intrigued enough to start reading about the global history of protest art. He learnt how Iranians creatively used the colour green to protest in 2009, despite a crackdown on dissent by their government. How 16 artists from Lahore, Pakistan, wrote a Women Artists Manifesto in 1983 during the Zia-ul-Haq era, to protest against the misogyny and oppression that had become all-pervasive. How illustrations depicting Hong Kong’s heavily armed police officials pushing back black-clad protesters with umbrellas, yellow hardhats and gas masks, were disseminated anonymously across the world last year via the encrypted app Telegram. How puppet theatre has long been used in India to tell children fantasy stories of kings and queens while silently making a political statement. How the Fearless Collective, “a movement that aims to replace fear with love in public space”, painted gigantic murals at the site of the anti-CAA protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, a south Delhi neighbourhood that gained international fame after a sit-in protest led by women, in 2019-20.
“It was like a wake-up call,” says Rikhi, 29, who decided to create digital art on his phone’s SketchBook app to raise awareness about issues. “Modiji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) always says digital first, so I opted for digital art.” And his artwork is getting attention. Soon after singer Rihanna posted in support of the farmers on Twitter, he drew her face on a flag that said “We Support Farmers”. A week later, he saw a man standing at a chowk carrying a big poster with his work. “I could never imagine that my work could have such an impact. It’s one thing to get more likes on social media, but to actually see it make a difference in society…it’s so inspiring,” he says. “In today's time, it’s not easy to raise your voice...(but) we have to speak up for the future we want. Art allows us to do that.”
It was easier to express yourself 30 years ago, says Sudhanva Deshpande, a senior Janam member who wrote Halla Bol: The Death And Life of Safdar Hashmi. “We have had plays like Natak Chhappan Chhati Ka (2014) and Yeh Dil Maange More (2002) but now we have to be more careful about how we present our work.”
Danish Husain, poet, storyteller and actor, agrees. “Earlier, you could say anything but now a direct opinion can land you in trouble. This is where art becomes the form that allows you to express at a time when there’s a collective sense of suffering. And technology and social media, despite its issues, has helped people unite.”
Such is the power of social media in amplifying these conversations that visual art created in a village in Punjab’s Bathinda can be appreciated by someone in Thailand who doesn’t understand the Gurmukhi script used in the painting. “When there’s social unrest and oppression, powerful art emerges. It’s true of all eras. Look at the Chinese Revolution, French Revolution, the anti-Vietnam war,” says Salima Hashmi, the Pakistani painter, activist and daughter of the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It was at her home that the Women Artists Manifesto was written 38 years ago. “People are also becoming more aware of their privilege and leveraging it in favour of progressive issues.”
So far, yet so near
Artist Siddhesh Gautam, 29, calls himself a “designer”. “My present art doesn’t come from the heart. I want to draw butterflies, flowers, trees, skies, but how can I make them now when the house next door is burning?” says Gautam, the famous “art baker” of the Instagram handle @bakeryprasad. He uses art to preserve Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy and raise awareness about the ills of society. “Globalisation has made art one…the imagery is becoming one…from Asia to South America. People are realising that what’s happening in their neighbour’s house might soon happen to them.”
It was to address urban India’s disconnect with the ongoing farmers’ protest, and counter arguments like “who needs farmers when food could come from Zomato”, that Patiala’s Mantaj Singh Sidhu, a Google employee, decided to create graffiti in the form of a farmer’s face on a 35ft-high wall near the Tikri border. “People forget the food the restaurants serve comes because a farmer in Kerala, Punjab, Maharashtra, gets up early morning to go to their fields,” says Sidhu, 30, who spent three days and ₹35,000 zeroing in on the wall, getting the permissions and painting. “I think art can bridge that gap because it has the power to move people from within.”
Art educator Anarya, 29, who uses one name, is more focused on women’s representation in her art, which she shares mostly on Instagram. Like Rikhi, she was more focused on doodling about everyday life till the anti-CAA movement. As she started frequenting Shaheen Bagh, she realised there wasn’t enough representation of women in protest art. She started capturing the little moments at the protest site in pencil drawings—like a child sitting among a crowd of women on the road and holding a red heart.
Once the farmers’ protest began and she noticed the lack of art dedicated to women farmers at the protest sites, Anarya started giving life to their struggles on white A4 sheets. “You have to put politics in art because it’s a great visual medium. You see first and then you think. And that can change a lot of things,” she says.
Between the lines
As soon as I ask Bir Singh, the famous Punjabi singer who came out with “Mitti de puttro ve, Aklan nu taar laga ve... (Sharpen your minds, sons of the soil)” late last year in support of farmers, about the role art has played in raising awareness of issues, he says something similar to what Gautam told me: “You can’t pretend everything is pretty and happy. The world around us is not well and, as an artist and a citizen of this country, it is my duty to raise my voice. And what better way than saying it through my art?”
Since 2015, Tarn Taran’s Bir Singh, trained in folk, kirtan and classical music, has been using music to belt out romantic as well as socially conscious songs on everything from farmer suicides to the drug crisis among the youth. “I have to sing romantic songs for films to earn money but it’s also my duty to educate people. More than anything else, art is a powerful tool for education,” he tells me on the phone. “It’s all the more important now when voices are being muzzled.”
The beauty of art is that interpretation is not limited to what you see or hear. While Bir Singh sees it as an educational tool, cartoonist Mir Suhail says it can be a warning: “Art is not really glorification. I can paint the sky green and that’s perfectly okay. It’s open to so many meanings. If tomorrow I am walking on the road and a stone hits me, I can make a drawing near it to inform people to be careful. Art can work as a warning sign as well,” he says.
When I ask Avtar Singh the same question—the role of art in our lives—he asks for time. The same night, I receive a text from him. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it—(playwright) Bertolt Brecht. This is why we need to speak up. Not just for us but for our future.”