Retracing India’s legacy of resistance, from 1857 onwards

Print edition : December 03, 2021

“The spinning wheel” by Kanishka Prasad and Vertika Chaturvedi. In the background is a display of SAHMAT’s publications on the Indian national movement. Photo: Sahmat

“I touched Gandhi: V.M. Basheer” by Ajayakumar, gouache, “Postcards for Gandhi”, 1994. Photo: Sahmat

Vivan Sundaram’s image of Gandhi touching the salt on the ground at the Dandi Satyagraha. Photo: Sahmat

Photograph by Ravi Agarwal, “Postcards for Gandhi”, 1994. Photo: Sahmat

Collage by Surjeet Kaur, “Postcards for Gandhi”, 1994. Photo: Sahmat

Cardboard relief by Nagji Patel, “Postcards for Gandhi”, 1994. Photo: Sahmat

“India is not Lost”, an art exhibition organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust to commemorate the country’s 75th year of independence, serves as a powerful, emotive reminder of what our freedom fighters stood for.

THE Jawahar Bhawan, from where the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in New Delhi functions, is the venue of an unassuming exhibition organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust [SAHMAT] which reflects the core reality of the ups and downs of our independence struggles of nearly 100 years before 1947. It is an emotive amalgam of the ideas of “equality, fraternity, humanism and pluralism” that went into the “waves of hope” that developed into actions by “civic dissenters, protestors, workers unions, farmers and citizens of all vocations” standing together “in their quest to remember and reform India’s legacy of communal amity and creative freedom”, which is the essence of our national movement.

Put together by Aban Raza, Deepani Seth and Arushi Vats, this exhibition is called “India is not Lost”. In it, we find our thoughts entering those spheres of struggle against all forms of oppression, both foreign and indigenous. The timetable of this exhibition carries us back to the revolt of Mangal Pandey and the prairie fire that it unleashed all over India in 1857, past the horrors of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his companions, up to the Partition of 1947 and beyond.

It is not an easy task, but the curators have made it more attractive by involving over 200 creative artists from over 20 countries, such as the United Kingdom, India, France, the United States, Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, China, Thailand, Australia, Kenya, Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica and Vietnam. The interesting element of this show is that one finds Indian artists in many of these countries—Zarina Hashmi from the U.S., Vishwanadhan and Rajendra Dhawan from France, Prafulla Mohanti from the U.K., Shami Mendiratta from Spain, Archana Hebbar from Japan and Shibu Natesan from New Caledonia. In fact, there are Indians in different walks of life in many parts of the world, reflecting our age-old interest in wandering. Naturally, they arouse an interest in us, our history and creativity among many countries in return.

Artists’ Gandhi

Indeed, this open-ended version of our national movement was also enshrined in Mahatma Gandhi’s call: “Let India be and remain the hope of all exploited races of the earth, whether in Asia, Africa or any other part of the world.” So it came to pass, and remains enshrined in our memory and actions over time.

This flexibility of outlook gives us the capacity to declare firmly: India is not Lost. As we celebrate its invincibility in the 75th year of our independence with an expression that is both Indian and world-embracing at the same time, it is also historical, contemporary and original in outlook, allowing its participants and curators to present it in a forthright manner with as much ease.

Also read: Revisiting Gandhi’s early years

There is a spinning wheel installation by Kanishka Prasad and Vertika Chaturvedi that is intriguing. It is a curious blend of the handicraft and modern industry, with a bicycle wheel that rotates a series of postcards created by the artists who responded to two calls of SAHMAT, first in 1991 and then in 1995.

Its enormous strength lies in its visual impact as Gandhi’s symbol but it also links this with significant aspects of his teachings as presented in iconic form by so many creative artists, giving it relevance in the context of an industrialising society. Behind this are displayed SAHMAT’s publications relating to various aspects of the national movement. Also on display are original paintings by Shamshad and Madhvi Parekh used as illustrations for children’s books.

One cannot cover all aspects of such a presentation in detail, but the nearly 500 postcards in display are themselves not only a wide net of communication but also a powerful iconic reminder of what our freedom fighters stood for and inculcated in us as issues to be fought for.

One thing is clear: the image of a wiry bespectacled figure in a small dhoti reflects both Gandhi the man and his ideas that made him the icon of one of the most exploited and oppressed people, torn apart and divided by castes and communities that were a powerful obstacle to their progress and development but were unable to stop their march forward.

It is not surprising then that artists across a wide range were touched by this image in different ways. If Jehangir Sabavala sees him as the tireless traveller, Surjeet Kaur pictures him as the agitator; Ravi Agarwal portrays the young Gandhi evolving his ideas and shapes his physical appearance accordingly; Arpana Caur sees him through the heart of his wife Kasturba, while Orijit Sen sees him surrounded by the symbols of the global youth of the 1960s yearning for the beginning of a world without war.

Others closer to our times, such as Shami Mendiratta, see him sanctified by those who merely appropriate him for their convenience. Ram Rahman portrays him as a larger-than-life poster being removed after the rally is over; Suhas Roy sees him as the eternal sacrifice in a Christ-like crown of thorns.

Also read: The Issur uprising of 1942

Bijan Choudhury, Rekha Rodwittiya, Atul Dodiya, Indrapramit Roy, Madhvi Parekh, Shibu Natesan, Shakuntala Kulkarni and Vasudevan Akkitham, show Gandhi caught up in the brutal ideological battle of ideas between violent and non-violent solutions. But it is artists like Nagji Patel who see him as a concrete body in its passage over time.

Ajayakumar, too, stresses this material element, showing the young Vaikom Muhammad Basheer touching Gandhi as a little boy at the venue of the Vaikom Satyagraha.

Shamshad offers flowers of his grief while Surendran Nair and K.M. Adimoolam see him immortalised as abstract forms. Others personify him as the fighter par excellence against untouchability, as one who performs menial tasks, as in Walter D’Souza’s image of him sweeping the floor, while Sunil Das draws the iconic goat, the source of rich protein for the poor that Gandhi brought to the forefront during his stay in Dalit colonies. But things have changed since.

Jayanti Rabadia shows a cynical collusion between the well-known three monkeys, while Umesh Verma shows Gandhi peering through microscope studying events beyond what the eyes see. Vivan Sundaram’s image of Gandhi touching the salt on the ground at the Dandi Satyagraha shows how it was not so much his homilies but his sense of touching the heart of things that made him immortal. Indeed, the sense of touch is something this exhibition uses to bring us closer to Gandhi’s image and keep us involved.

The 1857 uprising

These creative flowering forms of expression become the basis of a much broader perspective as a series of boxes in SAHMAT’s “Gift for India” campaign and a set of posters on 1857 that bring many others into the presentation—like the declarations of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Khan Bahadur Khan, Azimullah Khan and the soldiers of the uprising that developed into the First War for Independence.

Also read: A story of 1857

This history was later appropriated by V.D. Savarkar in an account that he wrote before his incarceration in the Andamans and the letters that followed, begging for his release in which he promised to serve the British faithfully. I would have liked, however, to see some acknowledgement of the role of Nepal in saving the life of Begum Hazrat Mahal and a number of others from the brutality that Bahadur Shah Zafar suffered at the hands of the British.

Communal amity

Another important aspect of this long and complex journey that we see in this exhibition is how it was not only Hindu-Muslim unity against the British that was forged but also the participation of Sikhs in equal measure that kept us together. Karl Marx in his contemporary accounts published at the time not only sought out every case of evidence of Hindu-Muslim unity but also mentions the Sikh soldiers in revolt in regions as far apart as Aurangabad and Banaras. It is interesting too, how people like Azimullah Khan noted how the firangi [foreigner] “came from faraway lands and such a spell he cast with both his hands he plundered this motherland of ours”. This spell still divides us and the plunder goes on unchecked in the period of neoliberal economics of our times.

The unity in struggle is highlighted in Nanak Singh’s poem “Amritsar ki Aap Biti” of 1919 where he states: “I saw brother with brother drinking water from the same glass and eating their food together.”

Also read: Communalising history textbooks

But it was the warning of Bhagat Singh that rivets us. It is an extract from his “Why I Am An Atheist”, where he says: “Any man who stands for progress has to criticise, disbelieve and challenge every item of old faith”. He is reminding us that the fruits of revolutionary transformation have to be constantly protected and developed along with social and economic developments that hold us together in the upsurges they unleash.

This holds good as a caveat for defending the Indian Constitution that we are struggling to protect today in the face of concrete economic plunder, social disintegration and divisive tendencies.

Indeed, this exhibition serves as a broad-based and creative wake-up call to all of us to feel for “We, the people….” as we, too, are part of them.

The exhibition will remain open until November 30.