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Indian ‘art activism’ shines in Toronto
Sahar Zaman  26th Jul 2014

The auto rickshaw that carried slogans of communal harmony after the Babri Masjid demolitio

he first image in the gallery on a dramatic red wall is the black and white top view of a large sea of humanity. In the centre is the body of an artist and activist being carried away. He was killed by political goons while he was performing his street play. January 1989 saw the death of this playwright, actor, director and lyricist, named Safdar Hashmi. His death led to the birth of SAHMAT. The acronym stands for Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. It was an unprecedented coming together of writers, painters, scholars, in protest against the murder of Safdar Hashmi

A little ahead in the gallery you are reminded of another tragedy in India's art world, where the country's most significant artist was driven out of the country, forced to live on a self imposed exile, eventually dying outside India as a Qatari citizen. A life-size cutout of artist M.F. Husain greets you, dressed in the traditional Arab robe, bathed in pure white and gold. You can take your picture with him and carry it back home. "The interactive photo studio is fun, but also makes a pointed statement of solidarity with an artist who was hounded and exiled", says Ram Rahman, the curator of the most significant show which traces the history of the role of art activism in India.

Titled "The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989", after having a successful run in Chicago and North Carolina, it now makes a stop at the Art Gallery of Mississauga (AGM) in Toronto. "The AGM is inspired by the global dialogue instigated by these artist-activists, and aims to engage through institutional action and spirited questioning about the relevance of art beyond the gallery space", says Stuart Keeler, the excited Director of the AGM.

Apart from artworks, the show includes other elements of documentation; posters, books and videos. Rahman explains that this is an unusual show from India since it's not an art-market or gallery driven show, but a totally different aspect of the Indian cultural scene closely involved with social content. The show featured a bright red auto rickshaw parked in the gallery which was part of a communal harmony project in 1992, using these vehicles to carry slogans on the issue.

Rahman explains that this is an unusual show from India since it’s not an art-market or gallery driven show, but a totally different aspect of the Indian cultural scene closely involved with social content.

There are snippets of audio performances which were organised in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition and a set of paintings which includes a rare work by Manjit Bawa titled Kaun Mara? (Who Died?). The acrylic-on-canvas painting is based on the Hindu myth of god Vishnu assuming the form of Narasimha, the man-lion.Image 2nd

There are various children's books based on Hashmi's writings and illustrated by established artists such as Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh between 1980-1990. "Illustrating one of Safdar's poems for children challenged me. I had to develop my visual language for the specific needs and understanding of children," says Sheikh.

Visitors also get a glimpse of videos of performances by Astad Deboo and Shubha Mudgal for Artists Against Communalism. Mudgal fondly remembers her first performance for SAHMAT in 1991, "I was struck by the solidarity that the presence of so many creative people and artistes conveyed. There were celebrated painters, music maestros, filmmakers, theatre persons, activists, scholars."

While the show offers you a brief political history of India post-1989, it also traces the emergence of new forms of art in India. Mould-breaking work by one of India's first installation artists, Vivan Sundaram, also features in this show. From his famous series, Memorial, 1993, the work includes the use of loose iron nails; the image of a dead man from the Mumbai riots locked up in a glass box. Different boxes show the nails used differently as a wreath, a funeral pyre or a bed of nails. Atul Dodiya's famous work B for Bapu (2001) is also part of SAHMAT's collection. The work is from his popular shutter series which shows Mahatma Gandhi in the act of breaking his fast with liquid food, possibly honey water. The shutter can be rolled down but it has a grill surface which indicates Gandhi to be imprisoned.

Free speech and defending M.F. Husain forms a major part of SAHMAT's history. After his exile, SAHMAT started celebrating his birthday in India by inviting artists to make works as a tribute to the only artist in India who was recognised by everyone; from the person on the street to the globetrotting industrialist.

Making its third stop overseas, the SAHMAT Collective has managed to establish the impact it has had on contemporary Indian society and artistic practice.

Sahar Zaman is a news anchor with NewsX. She is also a curator and an arts journalist.

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