‘I have loved my country, when men of my community were publicly lynched,
I have loved my country when I was called a Pakistani whore,
I have loved my country when traitor was written across our foreheads,
when dead bodies of Muslims were taken out of drains,
Now it is time for my country to love me back…’
These are lines from a poem by Sabika Abbas Naqvi, founder of Sar-e-Rahguzar: Poetry on the Streets, a project that attempts to embed poetry and murals for communal harmony across different cities. The poem and Naqvi’s story form part of a section titled Interfaith Bridges of the project Compassion Contagion, an ‘archive of compassion’ that documents acts of love, kindness and positivity.
Launched in January, Compassion Contagion has been created by artist and designer Pooja Dhingra and activist Nida Ansari, with a grant by the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. As the pandemic took hold in the country, the people’s movements demanding the repeal of CAA and NRC came to a standstill. Dhingra and Ansari saw the movement at close quarters and were witness to the instances of solidarity among people.
Soon, the lockdown was announced and those who were part of the movement busied themselves with relief work. “Groups that came together during the protests were among the first to be activated for relief during the pandemic,” says Ansari. They began having conversations with individuals and groups who were out there performing acts of compassion at great personal cost. On the other hand, they found that the state’s response was lacking in compassion and the media narrative apathetic. “There were people who were cooking extra meals at home, distributing them and doing everything they could do help those in need and these were not the things we were hearing about,” says Ansari adding that several of these initiatives were creative and innovative in their own ways. “Sometimes simple ideas can start a movement,” chimes in Dhingra.
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So, in July 2020, they began documenting these acts the form of stories. They asked themselves the question first, ‘What constitutes an act of compassion?’ and realised that it could mean anything at all. “Compassion is universal and we tend to associate with compassionate people both personally and professionally. We truly believe that it is also contagious and these stories can inspire people,” says Dhingra. The duo wanted the archive to represent an alternative narrative that was being ignored by mainstream media. It had to be diverse and intersectional, too.
They posted open calls on social media groups inviting people to contribute to the archive they were building. “Our inbox was flooded. We were overwhelmed. We also wanted stories from the grassroots and not just those that came from the development sector,” says Ansari. Dhingra and Ansari then put together a team of contributors that would help them conduct detailed interviews and produce artwork for each. To help organise them, three overarching themes; We The People, Fieldnotes On Compassion and Interfaith Bridges were created. “We conducted over a 120 interviews. Most made it to these themes while some were standalone. There is a story of a daughter of a sex worker written in her own words about the plight of those in the profession during the pandemic,” says Dhingra.
The artwork that uses doodles, sketches, painting, embroidery and other forms glues the archive together and breathes life into each of these stories. “Art was always central to the project,” says Dhingra.
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The result is an aesthetic that draws you in with its art to lesser-known stories and voices. A young man, Gaurang Raval, with an RSS association, has a change of heart and works towards communal harmony. A young village woman goes out to do relief work on her cycle in a saree, fights many battles to be able to wear a salwar suit only to go back to the saree when the villagers and her husband object. These and more stories have found their way to the different sections in the archive.
Interfaith Bridges which originally intended to publish crowd-sourced poetry is a section that both Ansari and Dhingra hold dear. “We are both in interfaith relationships and this project is an interfaith partnership, so it was a theme that was personally important to us. The idea was to build bridges between communities. There was a lot of propaganda during the pandemic and marginalisation of communities,” says Ansari.
The last story recorded a week ago and with it the first phase of the project has come to an end. In the second phase, the two intend to explore and document the alternate models of development that emerged through grassroots initiatives and collectives during the pandemic.