Maya Rao leads the way in art uprising

Making a point: Maya Rao in performance;

Making a point: Maya Rao in performance;  


Artists are rising up to the challenge of creating safe spaces of expression at the intersection of politics and aesthetics

In times marked by political turbulence, artists are exploring urgent and fresh ways to raise critical questions and respond to social impulses through art making. Scouring a wide range of creative expression like floor paintings, graffiti, invisible theatre, dance walks, slam poetry and protest songs, art is integrating with political action to stage synchrony of radical articulation. The recent past has witnessed artistic outpouring on the streets and social media alongside speeches and sloganeering, signalling a strong return of protest art.

We the people

In the women’s march in the capital on January 3, theatre artiste Maya Rao made a performance that involved draping the sari while reciting the Preamble to the Constitution accompanied by music. The aesthetic is derived from the urgency of the moment. Rao says, “Every time one can approach the Preamble from a different lens. In the context of the women’s march, I wanted to create devices that speak to women, and can be read with ease. The sari is not just a garment, it is layered socially and culturally. Many women wear the sari from girlhood till the day they die, and for an Indian woman, it is often a layering of her own skin.”

Street performances challenging gender norms are a massive part of Rao’s oeuvre. In the 1980s, the anti-dowry campaign found an artistic ally in street theatre. Part of much acclaimed street plays like ‘Om Swaha’, Rao feels that the genre is still as politically potent yet its prime objective has shifted with time. “In the traditional ways of making street theatre, it was important to provide the material, to inform people. Now, with television and media, that is already happening much faster. So, for street theatre, it is not about peeling apart an issue as it was earlier, but how to take it further and examine it through interesting artistic devices.”

young artists working on a graffiti

young artists working on a graffiti  

Sudhanva Deshpande, theatre artist, Jana Natya Manch, reflects, “Street theatre is a live art that combines so many different things from music and text to movement and poetry. In today’s context it is doubly important because it allows people to come together in a public space, to watch the performance together, bond, actively think and start conversations.” Pointing out that the internet and social media have brought in new forms of art and articulation, like memes, Deshpande emphasises, “Though media may appear democratic, it is not entirely so and is mostly disproportionate in terms of what it represents. Street theatre is a medium of the marginalised communities.”

Artists make critical choices about the extent to which they want to align their art and politics. Rao believes that it is crucial to give creative expression to important political moments. Some of the protesting women from Shaheen Bagh joined the march at Jantar Mantar and also wanted to be part of the performance. Winging it in the moment, along with artists, they all strung dupattas together, passing them around, adding on to them and holding them tightly as a rope, creating a motif of collective expression. For Rao, this is the gripping artistic challenge, “I am looking to make performances where a group of people can come together and make art in that moment without preparation, without rehearsals, almost in a folk form manner. In protest events, the time is scarce, the number of people is huge, and passion is high. My artistic curiosity is how we can channelise this energy into uplifting, thought-provoking collaborative art.”

Aesthetics of the street

Coming together to create collective artistic action, another protest on January 5 in central Delhi, invited people to inscribe terms such as ‘secular’ on the streets and pavements with chalk. Led by Artists Unite, protesters used multiple colours and a variety of shapes to chalk out the alphabets. Rahul Roy, filmmaker and one of the organisers from the artists’ collective says, “When we formed Artists Unite, we wanted to explore how one can express dissent apart from the usual speeches and sloganeering.”

Talking about the concept of chalk inscriptions, Roy reflects, “We were looking for a simple yet powerful action to sync well with the people and enable everyone to join.” As more people gathered around the protest sites, there were also attempts at erasing a part of the writing. The threat of censorship follows any kind of protest art. Roy points out that though they want to do radical critical comments as artists, it is important not to hurt sentiments. Dancer-choreographer Mandeep Raikhy adds, “Even a simple, peaceful, creative act like inscribing words on the road was not easy and we were interrupted, challenged and threatened for doing this.”

Using everyday movements as choreography, Raikhy devised a symbolic gesture where people gathered around the writing and went down on their knees in a gesture of prayer. The participants were free to interpret it as ‘sajda’ or ‘maatha tekna’ or just bowing in reverence. While some seemed hesitant about joining in this choreography, unsure of whether this was performance or actual prayer, there were others who followed with curiosity.

On ground and online

While artists are attempting to bring aesthetics to the streets, after the recent campus attacks, university spaces like Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University resemble a visual art gallery. Here students have found their expression in graffiti and floor paintings, covering the university walls and roads with a daily exhibition. Painting in groups of 3-4 people, the students use spray cans, emulsion paints and acrylic to translate their ideas into images. Some works display only text like ‘peace’ written across the road, much like the chalk inscriptions in central Delhi. There are others in the format of a protest poster where text and visuals merge to create a statement. The visuals cite common symbols from political posters of yesteryears like the fist and flag. Others capture the contemporary movement as images of Shaheen Bagh women make their way into the floor paintings. One of the works brings together a portrait of Gandhi alongside the text –‘There are many causes I would die for, not a single cause I would kill for.’

A student (name withheld on request) pursuing her Masters in Visual Effects and Animation, AJK, MCRC, says, “It is a silent, creative protest. Being students of art and media, we wanted to express ourselves in a relatable visual way where people can understand what is happening, what we want to say, and how it affects the entire nation.”

Faculty member, Anugyan Nag, agrees that the art works have generated impactful responses and go a long way in rebuilding the spirits of the students. “This art movement has emerged spontaneously from the students. They have experienced fear, violence and trauma in the same spaces a few weeks back, and it is important for them to reclaim the space as a site of resurrection, resistance and love through these art works.”

While visual political art, from posters to comics, has been a radical form of dissent traditionally, the medium has taken on a new life with art works and images going viral speedily on social media. Much of the art is work in progress, yet artists are closely imagining ways of bringing communities together through collaborative actions. As new mediums of socially engaged art swoop through protest sites, public places and social media, artists are rising up to the challenge of creating safe spaces of expression at the intersection of politics and aesthetics.

A cartoon by Rachita Taneja

A cartoon by Rachita Taneja  

Artist Rachita Taneja recently conducted sessions on protest posters with the students at Jamia. Her comic series, “Sanitary Panels”, started five years ago, has generated much enthusiasm on social media. An activist invested in human rights and environment issues, Taneja started the comic as a response to the arrest of students for posting their opinions online. “I named the comic so because I wanted it to be representative of what it would talk about – all that is controversial, taboo. Some of the images from my comics that have gone viral have also been used at protests where people have drawn it themselves. Writing the text is the more challenging part of the idea. My style keeps switching, sometimes I draw on the phone as ideas emerge, sometimes I write first. It is all in the moment and responses from people range from trolling and threats to appreciation.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 8:19:42 PM |

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