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Art and resistance in South Asia: Fighting the challenges of dark times through creativity

The deliberations highlighted how political turmoil and violence in South Asia have catalysed creativity with many artists grounding their work in response to the challenges

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Art and resistance in South Asia: Fighting the challenges of dark times through creativity

“In dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing, about the dark times.”  Iconic German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s words continue to echo and remain relevant, particularly in South Asia, as underscored by prominent artists at Resisting Together: Art and the Artist in South Asia, an online gathering across time zones. 

The discussion, organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network or Sapan, highlighted how the arts and resistance shape each other, foregrounding the current onslaught on the arts and on freedom of expression by increasingly authoritarian regimes in the region. 

Dozens of participants at the online session also endorsed Sapan’s call for a visa-free South Asia, a demand enshrined in the regional coalition’s Founding Charter jointly presented at the meeting by the activist couple Lalita Ramdas and former chief of Indian Navy, Admiral L. Ramdas, both founder members of Sapan. 

“As we went through the Charter once again, we both said to each other that this is surely something that Bapu (Gandhi) would have approved of totally because these are the dreams that were dearest to his heart,” remarked Lalita Ramdas, acknowledging the significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s death anniversary that day. 

Hate in South Asia 

The politics of hate that took Gandhi’s life continue to consume the region, which is passing through a moment that in many ways links to its troubled past, observed discussion moderator, economist and poetry aficionado Dr Fahd Ali in Lahore. 

The deliberations highlighted how political turmoil and violence in South Asia have catalysed creativity with many artists grounding their work in response to the challenges. 

“There is an artist in each one of us,” asserted event host Kavita Srivastava, well known human rights activist and feminist in Jaipur and also a Sapan founder member. 

As a writer or artist, “even though I run no state, I command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper, and my brother is my whole mankind,” said the well-known revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, talking about the role of the artist in resisting injustice. 

From this “vast brotherhood”, Faiz felt closest to those who were “the insulted, the humiliated, homeless and the disinherited, the poor and the hungry and sick at heart”

Faiz and Salima 

Faiz’s daughter, noted artist and educator Salima Hashmi in Lahore shared his words at the end of her powerful presentation focusing on the visual arts and the work being done in theatre, film and dance. Also a Sapan founder member, she showcased a wide range of works by various artists, demonstrating how art is not about a product, but about engaging with and critiquing where we live, how we live and what we can do. 

Her own evocative painting Poem for Zainab emerged in response to a horrific case of domestic violence in the 1990s in which a woman was violated in the most indescribable way possible by her cleric husband. 

Hashmi’s presentation included several photographs from a public exhibition Hum Jo Tareek RahoN Main Mare Gaye (We who were killed in dark alleys) by the Awami Arts Collective. The artists displayed strings of buntings in a public park, each bunting carrying a press clipping of a killing caused by ethnic, sectarian or other attacks. This tangible evidence of the number of lives lost to violence over the last two decades brought the issue home sharply to city dwellers using this collective space. 

Nepal art scene

“We are an old culture but we are also new nations, and that comes with its own trials and tribulations,” asserted Sangeeta Thapa in Kathmandu, contextualising the development of Nepal’s art scene within the broader socio-political landscape. 

Director of Siddhartha Art Gallery and founder chair of the Kathmandu Triennale, she outlined the movement within the arts in Nepal, including artists’ resistance during the Rana regime, the promotion of arts and culture under King Mahendra and the disenchantment during King Birendra’s tenure catalysing dissent on the streets. 

The 10-year Maoist insurgency in Nepal, “a period of trial and tribulation and great sorrow”, also marked the beginning of a new age of artivism and collaboration, she said, referring to artists like Manuj Babu Mishra, Durga Baral, Ragini Upadhyay, Jyoti Duwadi, and Ashmina Ranjit among others. 

The first international art festival in Kathmandu took place in 2012. Artists coming together also played a role in the aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake. Art collectives like the ArTree went to far-flung villages to start community art projects while the 2017 Kathmandu Triennale was dedicated to The City: My Studio / The City: My Life. 

The upcoming Kathmandu Triennale – initially planned for 2021 and rescheduled to March 2022 due to the pandemic – aims to touch upon indigenous voices among other issues. It will observe the Vikram Sampat date – decolonising time and moving away from the western canons of art, she added. 

From Colombo, Sri Lankan artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara, founder director of Vibhavi Academy of Fine Arts and professor at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts, talked about the challenges in his country. Sri Lanka’s 30-year-long civil war has physically ended, but many issues remain unsolved and questions remain unanswered, he said. 

Sri Lanka art scene

The 1970s, a difficult period in Sri Lanka, also marked a new beginning within the art scene, distinct from the earlier times when artists worked without much interference. It was after 1978 that sanctions on artists, and bans on songs and films and theatre started. However, the visual arts remain relatively free compared to assault on other art forms – “politicians don’t visit art galleries”. 

After 1978, “either you have to praise the government, or be silent, or do your so-called artistic things which are art for art’s sake”, said Thenuwara. He also spoke about the misuse of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act to stifle freedom of expression. The struggle within the arts for a new language led to the establishment of the Heywood Institute, now the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. These impacted the emergence of arts and artists in Sri Lanka. “Without changing mindsets, we can’t go forward”, he said. 

Artists must respond to the politics of hate, religious extremism and militarisation, he said, calling for “a more conscious struggle against the politics”. Thenuwara is slated to present his new artwork at the Venice Biennale this April. 

Artist and cultural activist Lubna Marium in Dhaka talked about the difficulties of surviving as an artist “without ever subscribing to any political party or any regime”. She has been engaged in this struggle for 50 years in Bangladesh, where she runs one of the largest dance companies in the country. 

Resilience, resistance 

Marium, a Sanskrit scholar, is deeply involved in researching and understanding arts and aesthetics and is part of a trust that manages Shodhona: A Center for Advancement of South Asian Culture. Her presentation titled ‘The infrapolitics of art as activism: Beyond the binary of domination and resistance’ sought to differentiate between resilience and resistance. She shared a personal example of herself as being resilient, while her daughter’s expressions are more militant/resistant. 

Resilience is necessary but it is not necessary to be always resistant, she said. The “conception of resilient subjects as apolitical subjects overlooks the ‘transformability’ aspect of resilience, which in part is about ‘innovating and sowing the seeds of transformation’”. 

She illustrated this with a video presentation of a dance production based on an event from 1971, commissioned by the national Shilpakala Academy where Marium and her team were able to subtly insert their own voice. 

Eminent vocalist T.M. Krishna in Chennai highlighted the problem with focusing only on resisting the state, often at the expense of important and difficult internal conversations. An exponent of the rigorous Carnatic tradition of India’s classical music and public intellectual who regularly engages on socio-cultural issues, he stressed the need to introspect and ask difficult questions. “We need to step back and look at the ugliness in society — whether it’s caste, gender, ethnic othering”. 

Building bridges

“It’s the people who are on the margins who ask the difficult questions about social and political structures because their conditionality makes it difficult for them to remain silent.” Meanwhile, those who are privileged, the middle class and upper classes, aid and abet every form of violence in society “as we face one of the biggest challenges to our constitution and our morality”

He urged participants to build bridges and further a more democratic conversation, including conversations with those in “traditional” art forms. We can then have “a far more vibrant and incisive conversation with that monolithic structure that we call the state,” he said. 

The link between art and resilience as well as resistance was highlighted also by eminent feminist activist and theatre and dance exponent Sheema Kermani, who joined the session from Karachi. Simply performing classical Bharatanatyam and Odissi in Pakistan was “an act of defiance, an act of resistance, to the kind of suppression of these arts that we saw during Zia ul Haq’s regime”. 

That was a time when classical dance was banned and many dancers left the country. “I was the only one who stayed because I thought it was my basic human right to perform,” she said. 

In solidarity with the struggle of the Afghans, the event featured a brief clip from a poem by Ghani Khan, the late prominent Pushto poet, philosopher and artist and son of the highly regarded peace activist Abdul Gaffar Khan. Human rights activist and physician Dr Fauzia Deeba from Quetta introduced the musical rendition by the well-known singer Sardar Ali Takkar.  

Researcher Pragya Narang in Jamshedpur, India, also sang verses of Ghani Khan’s Reidi Gul in Pushto, a language she schooled herself in for this rendition, apologising beforehand for any errors in pronunciation. Pushto speakers found no such errors and particularly appreciated her efforts. 

The inspirational poem is a conversation between two flowers. One, having fallen from a beloved’s hair, despairs. The other, a desert flower, replies, “Don’t lose heart… amidst this cursed soil, I stand apart. In this grey desert, I am a miracle from the sky.”  

Paying tribute to the exhilarating musical collaboration between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and A R Rahman, young artists from Pakistan shared a video of their rendition of Gurus of Peace, with Nauman Ali, Omer Hayat and Husnain Jamil Faridi of the Progressive Students Collective. 

Sapan movement 

Sapan events traditionally start with an In Memoriam slideshow, a tribute to visionaries of the peace movement in South Asia which also commemorates some prominent South Asians who passed away over the past month. Sneha Jha, a London-based researcher from Bihar presented the Memorial Wall this time. 

The story of Sapan – a personal political tale of history, hope, and connections - was presented by young IT entrepreneur Samir Gupta in Delhi and youth activist Sarita Bartaula from Kathmandu, currently in Maryland, USA. 

This event was the 10th monthly webinar organised by Sapan as part of a series titled ‘Imagine! Neighbours in Peace’. The Facebook Live recording of the meeting is available at this link, with a video log sheet of timestamps at this link. 

Since its inception in March 2021, on the last Sunday of every month, Sapan has held regional discussions on shared concerns. The February event will focus on the theme of music and radical love with acclaimed artists Saif Samejo, Parvathy Baul, and others. 

(Sushmita Preetha is a journalist based in Dhaka. Priyanka Singh is a researcher and data analytics consultant based in Delhi. By arrangement with Sapan News Service, www.southasiapeace.com) 

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