SAHMAT: Upholding the Constitution through art

A Kashmiri woman looking at her dead fiance; by Sanna Mattoo

A Kashmiri woman looking at her dead fiance; by Sanna Mattoo  

Over 50 artists have expressed their views on the Constitution whose 70th anniversary is being celebrated across the country

As the nation celebrates the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Indian Constitution, over 50 artists from across the country have come together at Jawahar Bhawan, to articulate their views through photographs and artworks. This has been made possible by the coming together of the organisation SAHMAT with Aban Raza, an artist and filmmaker, who has curated ‘Celebrate. Illuminate. Rejuvenate. Defend. The Constitution of India at 70’.

On display is a copy of the original document that became effective in 1950. The installations, works in mixed media and photos highlight social issues that have come out onto the streets.

Protest at Jamia

Protest at Jamia  

When we meet, the nearly six foot tall artist is in a session with 15 undergraduate students of history, political science, and sociology, explaining the work of each artist. Most of the artists on display are young — in their 20s, though there are a few seniors as well. So while Sanna Mattoo from Srinagar is 26 years old, Pablo Bartholomew from Delhi is 64.

Raza, who is also a teacher of printmaking at Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), was on campus on December 16, a day after the assault on students. “It was very scary and all my students were fearful. Yesterday five students were roughed up when they tried to cross the barricade after undertaking a protest march from Jamia to Parliament Street.” Her reaction came after I pointed out an impactful digital print of JMI students by Ram Rahman. There are other pictures of the protest by students of the minority community against the fear that they would be robbed of their citizenship.

Also present at the exhibition is historian Sohail Hashmi, elder brother of Safdar, overseeing the work spread across the the gigantic space. “SAHMAT was formed as a reaction to Safdar’s murder. It is a fight for preservation and creation of creative voices,” he says, talking of how the people of Kashmir have suffered over the past few months.

At the exhibition, there are a series of photos by Sanna Mattoo that is titled ‘I will never forget the day my breath started fading away’. There are moving images of a Kashmiri Muslim woman — looking at her fiance, a civilian killed in an encounter. There is also a scene of women mourning death of Aamir, a 13 year old boy. Another disturbing picture of a youngster whose back has torture marks is also on display. These photos on human rights abuse, allegedly perpetrated by security forces in the Valley, highlight the anguish and pain of ordinary Kashmiris. The curator wanted more representation from Kashmir to inform visitors of the situation prevailing in the Valley.

Another highlight is a collage of the Preamble and pictures in which artist Vivan Sundaram has added more text for the layman. In ‘Understanding the Preamble’, the text is bordered by photos of protest by women and a banner with “Save the Constitution” written on it.

Pablo Bartholomew’s Gandhi Statue, Machlipatnam district, Andhra Pradesh, was taken in 1977. Khursheed Ahmad, a Kashmiri artist freelancing in Delhi, has painted a calligraphic work that shows the historic accord of the Delhi Agreement of 1952 signed by Pt. Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah.

Ram Rahman, a co-founder at SAHMAT says the context of the exhibition is poignant, because of the current agitations focusing on citizenship and rights. “It has led to an amazing burst of creativity, both visual and in text, with poetry songs and slogans, very often created by very ordinary people. There is also much wit and humour in much of the agitation that one is seeing and I think there is a very positive way of citizens engaging with serious issues.”

Excerpts from a conversation with Raza.

What was the idea of the exhibition?

The main idea is to take a stand and to say: ‘Ok this is what is happening in the country and this is not going in the right direction’. So we have to pause and think about what we have achieved so far since the Constitution was set up 70 years ago, and about how we take this forward. The only way is to involve more young people. So we decided to rope in young artists who will take the dialogue forward.

Can art go hand in hand with politics?

The Constitution itself was hand painted by Nandlal Bose and his team. Art now is being used as protest: roads have been painted, murals installed in the city. Art is reminding us that we need to take a stand. Art and politics have to go hand in hand when there is a threat to change the nature of the Constitution. Artists have to be responsible and relevant to society. If you stay apolitical, then it means you are silent, which is not acceptable in today’s context and times. You have to be a responsible citizen and save the Constitution.

Do you feel that art is a medium to highlight the concerns of the minorities in Delhi — like the dadis in Shaheen Bagh and students protesting at JMI?

Absolutely. We have included Shaheen Bagh’s banner that has a poem by German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht translated into Hindi. It is “Kya zulmato to ke dor mein bhi geet gayte jaye ge/ Ha zulmato ke geet jayege” (meaning, “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about dark times.”) The intention was to increase representation; minority’s representation. The voices in Kashmir, of young women and Dalits can be heard loud and clear here. There is one artist from Manipur; two from Assam couldn’t come because of road blockages.

Could you talk a little about the artist Sanna Mattoo’s depiction of life in Kashmir?

Sanna Mattoo is a photographer who is risking her life. She could just disappear one day. Not just her, but any Kashmiri. Where is the accountability? It is absolutely ridiculous that all democratically elected representatives like Omar Abdullah have been in the custody for months.

At Dr. Rajendra Prasad Road; on until February 15th 2020

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 6:48:54 AM |

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