Home Art Creative Dissent in India Amid COVID-19

Creative Dissent in India Amid COVID-19


Smish Weighing Us Down
Sid Mishra/Smishdesigns, “Weighing Us Down” (courtesy the artist)

Bengaluru, India — These past few months have been some of the hardest that our generation has seen. In India, a country with over one billion people, the times have been acutely tumultuous.

In December 2019, the leading right-wing party passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which granted fast-track citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014. This was not only discriminatory against the Muslim population in India, but when paired with the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would require people to produce documents of ancestry to be deemed as Indian citizens, it spelled disaster.

Malavika Thampi
Gif Malavika Thampi (courtesy the artist)

The reality is that in India, millions never possessed ancestral papers to begin with, and for a large part of the population — especially the poor — these documents were lost to floods, natural disasters, migration, or have naturally faded over time. The proposal of the CAA and NRC led to widespread protests across the country for months to follow, with people upholding the Indian Constitution and demanding the courts to repeal the act.

From day one of the protests, illustrators, animators, graphic designers, and comic artists took to social media to share their artworks of dissent. Across the country, artists used their pens and drawing tablets, creating posters and powerful works to call out the perpetrators, to fight against violence, to protect the innocent students facing the rage of the policemen and goons while the government turned a blind eye.

Siddhesh Gautam, Appupen, Smish, Sameer Kulavoor, Orijit Sen, and Shiva Nallaperumal were some of the first few artists to respond to the protests. Some of the artworks made us laugh, like the works of animator Rajiv Eipe and  Dhil Krishna. Others gave us hope and a feeling of togetherness, like Sonaksha Iyengar, Anirban Ghosh. Even the graffiti became more political overnight, with street artists like Tyler Street Art and Shilo Shiv Suleman leaving a more permanent mark.

When goons attacked students at Jamia Milia University in New Delhi while the police force watched, a new crop of artists channeled their anger into art. At protests, placards, posters, and zines were created as a community effort. When the home ministry tried to shut down Shaheen Bagh, a sit-in peaceful protest led by women, the creative community gathered and created more posters and reading corners to educate each other.

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Illustration by Siddhesh Gautam (courtesy the artist)

“I believe that everyone is an artist. There is also a hidden agitation in each of us; it’s a common human trait,” illustrator and artivist Siddhesh Gautam tells Hyperallergic. “And when a bunch of agitated minds come together and share a common agitation, they dissent.”

He continues, “The series of lockdowns have brought these agitations to the fore, through art. The abundance of time to think and practicepractise the art has given us a chance to rethink how to engage with the issue. As a society, we have become more expressive about various issues, from political to social; economical to cultural, and personal to environmental, all through the digital world.”

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Illustration by Amalendu Kaushik (courtesy the artist)

Amalendu Kaushik, an illustrator, shares the sentiment. He says, “As artists, art is our tool — our instrument to express ourselves. And this goes on for speaking out against injustice as well. I am not new to this. Coming from a politically charged state, we have had to voice our dissent now and then against the authority. And since the virtual medium is the fastest way to reach out to the masses, it naturally is our go-to option.”

Amalendu started a collective called ozin_patoki during the December protests with some friends, to mobilize people and voice their concerns regarding the state of affairs. He notes that the curfew and the internet shutdown were on at that time. “A few of us would meet at the curfew-relaxed hours to hand over art pieces to this one friend who surprisingly had internet. And it is only then, under internet shutdown, that we realized the importance of the virtual medium and its far reach,” he adds. “I am also a street artist, and I have taken my protests to the street as well. but graffiti art despite its strong impact is ephemeral in nature.”

Talking about one of the most iconic artworks created for the protests, Sid Mishra says:

When there were first talks about NRC and CAA in the country, something inside me snapped and I wanted the artworks to reflect what a lot of people were going through. In particular, I made an artwork that depicted the weight of saffronisation (of India) on the Indian common man and how it is shaking the very core of our democratic values and belief systems. I wanted to express the heaviness I felt in my heart. I thought of using the tricolors in the Indian flag where the ever-spreading saffron color is weighing a man down as he struggles to maintain its weight standing on the diminishing green color. My approach was to send across a message using one of the most iconic symbolisms (the national flag) known to everyone to make it more relatable for the larger audience.

With the news of COVID-19 and the pandemic spreading, a lockdown was enforced on March 25, 2020. Overnight, the protest sites were shut down, the murals painted white, and millions of migrant workers across India stranded, with no means of earning or going back home. But as was expected, the protests didn’t end; it merely went digital.

When Shaheen Bagh was shut down for public health concerns, the protest went online with the hashtag #HarGharShaheenBagh (Every home is Shaheen Bagh). Overnight, pages like @art.of.resistance, Inquilab, and Creatives Against CAA became online galleries to express collective dissent.

When the government asked for donations to PM CARES, an emergency fund set to help in relief work during COVID-19, but said that it would not be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), more art emerged as a commentary and critique. When the government charged the stranded migrant workers — who have been rendered jobless since March 25 — to pay for their train fare, the artist community protested some more. What’s even more tragic is that the Karnataka government decided to cancel these special trains last minute, without any official statement.

On May 7, a group of people from Karnataka held an online placard protest and Twitter storm using the hashtag #trainsformigrantsnow against this inhuman move by the government, demanding for the rights of migrant workers to go home in dignity. They shared a set of creatives to be used, and shared an open letter to the Prime Minister, stating that “The Central and State Governments have failed to ensure payment of wages, food, financial and tenure security during lockdown thereby stripping the workers of rights to dignity and food.”

Another development was the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in feature photography, given to Associated Press photographers Dar Yasin, Mukhtar Khan, and Channi Anand for their coverage of the Kashmir lockdown (ongoing for over 8 months), the world’s longest lockdown.

We seem to be fighting so many battles at one go. And yet there are rays of sunshine on the cloudiest of days. Like the online COVID-19 gallery started by Art&Found, highlighting contemporary art from India that deals with isolation. Art&Found also started DesignFightsCOVID to help raise funds for NGOs providing relief during COVID-19.

As Mishra adds, “Artists need to come forward, mobilize, and enable people to feel and express themselves truly. Our society is already very emotionally repressed and it is healing to find an outlet in the arts. The protest lives on through all of us who create art, write poetry, and are challenging the current fascist government in every way possible.”

It’s going to be a while before the protest gains momentum again. But revolutions, much like rivers, ebb and flow. And when the fight against COVID-19 is over, the artists will be waiting, pens and paper in their hand.

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