EVENT Filmmakers, lawyers and information technology activists came together to debate the political value of art
What is the role of the artist in her political surroundings? Should she respond and engage, or should she confine herself to “art for art’s sake”, if at all that is possible? These were some of the questions broadly addressed by a panel recently.
Held as part of “Project Cinema City” at the National Gallery of Modern Art, the panel explored different approaches to this intersection of art and activism. The panel featured filmmaker Deepa Dhanraj, journalist-activist N.A.M. Ismael, filmmaker Madhushree Datta, and human rights activist Arvind Narrain.
Ismael represented a voice from the local sphere, as well as one who worked in the digital medium. He spoke about the politics of the digital realm: for instance, the perception that new media such as the Internet and mobile phones are “democratic”. The truth might well be that users mostly have to “dance to the tune of Bill (Gates), Steve (Jobs) or Tim (Cook).” The Internet allows as much space to anti-democratic forces, so the utopian perception that it is the ‘panacea’ to all our ills needs to be investigated.
In a retrospective on her years as a documentary filmmaker, Deepa first credited her atmosphere with politicising her: her interest in film and politics came together during the politically busy years of the early 70s. She is known for making films such as Something Like A War. During her formative years, in terms of films, there was only Films Division, which ran only State programming; DD was set up mainly to publicise state schemes. “There was a lack of alternative media,” she said.
In terms of visual narratives, too, there was only one dominant aesthetic. The poor would be represented only as prototypes. For instance, a documentary that spoke of famine would typically display a farmer on his haunches. Women as subjects were typically surrounded by too many children, mostly emaciated. “Very rarely did the poor speak. There was no political dynamism accorded to them,” she said.
In sharp contrast, when she shot her film on the tobacco industry, she found a high degree of political activity: the women workers, who were agitating for higher wages, essentially directed the film, telling the filmmakers what needed to be shot.
Taking a critical look at her work, Deepa noted that while she was very interested in questions of labour, she did not take on minority issues or caste; this she called a kind of “censorship”. As a young, idealistic filmmaker, she had been tied to a certain construction of a working-class feminist heroine – for instance, this image would not have allowed a ‘heroine’ to be one who bore domestic abuse; that was perceived as a sign of ‘weakness’. Now, she tries to move towards documentary practice that honours the personhood of its subjects, she said. She realises that she aims “to stand with, not speak for” the subjects of her films.
Arvind Narrain spoke about human rights work and its cultural possibilities: specifically, about acts of “remembering” and “forgetting”. What public events do we memorialise? Why do we not have a museum, a space for public remembrance of major events such as the Sikh riots and even the Partition? While the State might have failed in this regard, artists can step in here, he implied. He gave the example of an artistic project called ‘Cups of Nun Chai’ by artist Alana Hunt, which sought to remember the unrest in Kashmir in 2010 – where many young teenagers were killed – by drinking cups of tea with different people and having conversations about the dead.
Madhushree Datta shared her experience organising cultural components for the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. The heterogeneity of the forum – 130,000 people, from as many countries – meant that its cultural components had to be organised with similar diversity. “We did not have any model in front of us…We couldn’t just have the anti-position,” she said, referring to the typically ‘liberal’ rejection of status quo. A multi-cultural space, a sort of “public square”, was the home to performances, photographs and other art installations that were both for entertainment (or “catharsis”), and discourse (politics), were set up. She screened a short video to describe the energy at the event: cultural events included Shubha Mudgal singing ‘Hum Dekhenge’ and a performance by folk-rock band Indian Ocean. “It could not have been more romantic,” she laughed, after the screening.