Artist Aban Raza has been documenting protests and communal attacks as they unfold in India

The artist will receive the Asia Arts Future (India) Award at the India Art Fair, which begins today 

February 01, 2024 04:03 pm | Updated February 03, 2024 11:12 am IST

Aban Raza (right) with historian Romila Thapar.

Aban Raza (right) with historian Romila Thapar. | Photo Credit: Aaran Patel

Sangeeta, a farmer, a pink dupatta draped over her head and shoulders, holds up a painting to the camera. The canvas, painted in 2021, depicts the massive farmers’ agitation at the Tikri border, where a trolley-full of women protesters are on their way to occupy and block one side of the highway. Their fists are raised in jubilant rebellion; one of them waves the national flag. You can almost hear their chants. “There was a great sense of elation and also a reflection of the citizens’ desire to demand their rights,” says artist Aban Raza who was at the scene and captured the moment with her oils. “It was incredibly inspiring to see the many groups of women organising themselves to participate in the protests. They had come up with a rotational system where a few women arrived from their village to Delhi’s border, stayed for a couple of days, and then went back, only to be replaced by a new group of women,” Raza says.

An award-winning contemporary artist based in New Delhi, Raza’s work confronts the diverse ways in which Indian citizens register their presence and their protest in the public sphere, whether Shaheen Bagh — the site of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill protests — or the 2020-2021 Indian farmers’ protest along the Delhi border. “It is a constant struggle, because there are a lot of ethical questions one keeps debating. Who am I to tell someone else’s story, especially from a place of privilege? Such questions could make one feel hollow, but you’re reassured each time you try to do something,” she says.

However, reading relentlessly about how divided this country is or how the economic rift keeps growing, Raza feels she is going down a rabbit hole at times. “It can be terribly disheartening,” she says. “When they attacked Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, I didn’t really know what they were doing while I was standing amidst it. But when people’s lives are deteriorating, and you see a beautiful country slipping away, you can’t look the other way.”

Aban Raza’s painting depicting women in Alwar, Rajasthan.

Aban Raza’s painting depicting women in Alwar, Rajasthan. | Photo Credit: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Aban Raza’s painting of women at the Tikri border in Delhi-Haryana during the farmers’ protest.

Aban Raza’s painting of women at the Tikri border in Delhi-Haryana during the farmers’ protest. | Photo Credit: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke

Raza’s work goes beyond the churn of politics and touches upon the mundane, the everyday lives of forgotten people: farmers harvesting crops, women sleeping in comfortable proximity on a train journey, toiling construction workers at Delhi’s Rajpath.

Virmati with Aban Raza’s painting of her village, Pengawan.

Virmati with Aban Raza’s painting of her village, Pengawan. | Photo Credit: Courtesy Khushiram

There is tremendous awareness and almost a sense of burden on her shoulders when she acknowledges gaining money off these circumstances through her art. “If I’m making money from a painting of a protest, the onus is on me to engage and give back to that particular cause. It’s also confusing because once a movement has died, one may not always know exactly whom to reallocate funds to,” she points out. However, an exhibition titled There is Something Tremendous About the Blue Sky in 2022 at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai — covering the farmers’ protest, where she stood in solidarity with them while documenting their stories daily — echoed through an audience beyond the cocooned art world. Images of her works began circulating across newspapers and among people in Punjab, even farmers; and an activist made smaller postcards of her paintings that found their way to people’s fridges in the remotest homes.

Unravelling of democracy

Artist Aban Raza

Artist Aban Raza | Photo Credit: Pablo Bartholomew

As we hear slogans from the streets revering the newly minted Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, we discuss how her career as an artist, which began in 2014, largely covers the unravelling of democracy over the past decade. “It’s a trajectory that follows a disgraceful series of politics,” she says looking back at events that echo through her work, such as the 2015 Dadri incident where a mob attacked the home of 52-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq, killing him, because he was suspected to have slaughtered a cow; or when women are told not to wear jeans; or when student activist Umar Khalid was taken into custody amidst the Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition row.

In 2017, 25 years after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Raza visited the site. “They didn’t allow phones inside, and we had to place them in lockers a kilometre away. The area was completely caged in. After passing the Ram Lalla idol, we were offered prasad. The site was barren except for this idol. I would like to paint the land from my memory of it,” she says. This, along with a series of ongoing paintings bearing the memory of original sites and their historic names against it, will “add to the discourse on how you can’t change India’s past”. Other places depicted in her works include Allahabad (now Prayagraj) or Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi (renamed Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road).

This month at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, Raza will receive the Asia Arts Future Award (India) at the annual Asia Arts Game Changer Awards India, an Asia Society India Centre initiative that takes place as part of the India Art Fair. The award recognises artistic practices from the subcontinent that articulate lived experiences of a region and its cultural landscape. “There’s no application for this award, and it’s purely my work that gets recognised by the industry, which pushes me to keep doing what I do. The journey of an artist is a lonely one, with very isolating experiences,” she sighs. Does her journey ever make her fearful or want to give up? “I won’t stop speaking or fighting. I may distance myself from issues if the air gets dangerous; but I will keep documenting events as they unfold.”

The writer and creative consultant is based in Mumbai.

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