Mapping Sahmat

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Safdar Hashmi: April 12, 1954–January 2, 1989.

Ayodhya: What then are our invocations? May 1993, 24 x 38 inches. Design: Ram Rahman. Texts: Charles Correa, Geeta Kapur, Madan Gopal Singh, and Ram Rahman, with contributions from Rajendra Prasad. Architectural drawings: Ravindra Bhan. This broadside reflected the ideas that had come up at several Sahmat discussions on how to address the issue of Ayodhya in all its complexity. The Hum Sab Ayodhya exhibition and the Muktnaad programme in Ayodhya evolved after the broadside was mailed to cultural activists and student groups across India. Sahmat members travelled to several cities to hold discussions and workshops on how to approach the Ayodhya issue through a process of creative engagement. Historians, along with other academics, were an active part of the project to research and conceive Hum Sab Ayodhya.

Inside the performance tent, 'The Making of India', Safdar Hashmi Memorial, January 1, 2004.

Peace, 2002, poster, 17½ x 22½ inches. Design: Ram Rahman. This poster was a response to the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001. It uses texts from the rock edicts ofthe Mauryn Emperor Ashoka (circa 272–232 B.C.), some of which are inAfghanistan. The edicts call for a just rule for all people to live in peace,regardless of individual religious beliefs.

An installation at The Smart Museum of Art, Chicago. It is an autorickshaw bearing the slogan that was chosen winner from Sahmat’s 'Slogans for Communal Harmony' project, 1992. Some of the other slogans are also seen.

Painter Manjit Bawa (extreme left) plays the dholak for the legendary Sufi singer from Pakistan, Allan Faqir. Anhad Garje, Delhi, January 1, 1993.

The book traces how Sahmat, an avant-garde experiment, offers an aesthetic of resistance in times of fundamental transition.

MORE than two decades have passed since Safdar Hashmi and his theatre group, Jana Natya Manch (known as Janam), became the victims of a brutal political attack, on January 1, 1989, while performing the street play Halla Bol in Sahibabad, an industrial area on the outskirts of Delhi. Safdar Hashmi died of his injuries on January 2. The attackers were found guilty in December 2003.

Singing in and of dark times

Janam (meaning “birth”) and Halla Bol (meaning “raise your voice”) suddenly became words charged with a surplus of meaning in the frosty first week of 1989 after the tragedy, which was also the founding moment of Sahmat (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust). After the attack on Safdar Hashmi and his group there was an immediate sense of grief, revulsion and deep anger which spontaneously led to a realisation of the need to raise one’s voice, to resist the threat to creative expression and the growth of fundamentalist, anti-democratic forces.

Sahmat was born—it emerged—from a violent interruption of committed artistic work, and it answered this violence by an eruption of outrage leading to a formation that combined what might be seen as the avant-garde of artistic protest with the avant-garde of politics. Since then, Sahmat (meaning “in agreement”) has been a platform, a focal point, a movement. But it is not an art movement in the conventional sense. It is not a secessionist group with a programmatic manifesto. Rather, it is a collective with an interventionist praxis which is infused by the conviction that the rise of fascism and communalism can be resisted, and that the values of secularism and creative expression can be defended. All this would not be necessary if we were living in good times. But the world in general and India in particular are passing through dark times. Sahmat adopts the Brechtian stance of singing in and ofdark times. For Sahmat this means occupying the spatial and temporal domains that are threatened by the forces of reaction with the artistic, political and organisational means that emerge collectively out of these times.

The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 is a remarkable historical document. Photographs, programmatic essays and statements by artists, critics and academics have been collected by Jessica Moss and Ram Rahman to give plasticity to the extraordinary story of Sahmat. Each of the sensitive essays by Prabhat Patnaik, Madan Gopal Singh, William Mazzarella, Geeta Kapur, Karin Zitzewitz and Rebecca Zorach, and extracts from texts by Aijaz Ahmad, Ravinder Kumar, Irfan Habib and others highlights a specific aspect of Sahmat.

The volume/catalogue structures the focal points of the struggle: Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid; fighting communalism and fundamentalism; reasserting secularism and affirming the syncretic traditions of India; reconsidering Gandhi; the sustained battle against the distortion of history in textbooks; and defending free speech and artistic freedom, epitomised in the defence of the artist M.F. Husain. Sahmat’s extraordinary creativity, vitality, exuberance and theoretical self-awareness are captured in this catalogue, which itself is an example of that heightened sense of media and creative design that Sahmat has always displayed. It should be consulted and read along with Sahmat, 20 Years, 19892009: A Document of Activities and Statements, brought out by Sahmat in 2009. Sahmat’s name also denotes the readiness and openness for alliances and broad fronts in a political conjuncture which is characterised by the increasing retreat of the state from the ideals and promises held out by the anti-colonial freedom struggle. These are fronts for a struggle against the fascism of our times to defend the key areas in which the promise of the anti-colonial struggle as documented in India’s Constitution was and is being compromised, attacked, violated.

Prabhat Patnaik’s characterisation of Sahmat as a political experiment accurately marks its present position in the constant search by committed artists and intellectuals for a combination of fields of creative activity and a new form of relationship with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from the 1970s onwards. Already the double relationship of the artist’s committed cultural praxis and the relationship with the party was part of the thinking process in the Kasauli seminar on “Marxist Aesthetics” in 1979 (the papers presented at this seminar were published in Social Scientist, January–February 1980). The requirement was for a new, creative form of relationship which admitted the autonomy (but not autarchy) of the various logics according to which a political party functions, and how cultural praxis organises itself in relationship with but not in being subsumed by the party.

This relationship of being withbut not ofthe party is perhaps one of the important lessons that have emerged internationally from critical engagement with the history of Marxist political and cultural practice and the question of cultural intervention. Another way of putting it is to say that the two may be separate but they are not apart. It has taken a long history to achieve this form of democratic relationship in which there is, as it were, an osmotic exchange between the party and the artistic collective. Sahmat’s complex, largely self-organisational, practice produces art which resists cooption and exists in a highly articulated field of reflection about art and commitment. It is sufficiently complex to allow episodic involvement as well as directional, whole-time commitment to party work.

In other words, Sahmat does not implement a given theory. There is no linearity of cause and effect. Rather, theory and practice, abstraction and concrete manifestation, cannot be separated—and thus the practice of Sahmat itself is the materiality of reflection. Sahmat’s ability to establish links and connections, its basic syncretic drive, is directed against the opposing fundamentalist drive towards separation, partitioning and ideologisation of difference. As against the obsession with separation, the insistence on seeing similarities and constellations and the search for affiliations, allegiances and alliances are coupled with an affirmation of solidarity which is based on establishing an alliance and a unified front which cuts across those categories which fundamentalism and fascism privilege explicitly through homogenisation: language, race, territory.

Alternative maps and networks

What is Sahmat defending, what is it attacking? The period after 1947 was not the end of an era for India but a period of transition. Transfer of power meant that we lived in a process of partial liberation. The twin aspects of liberation—freedom from external domination through anti-colonialism, and freedom from internal subjugation by overcoming the feudal casteist order —could never be completely resolved. These are part of the project of India as envisaged in the Constitution. Rather than being an idea, India is an unfinished project of the future, the contours of which were sketched during the freedom struggle. This project is directly opposed to the privileging of a homogenised community of race, language, territory or religion, so dear to fundamentalisms everywhere. Sahmat revitalises the project by defending it against the daily violation of it. So that even as bourgeois parties and governing parties retreat from it, abdicate their responsibilities and pay only lip service to the aims of the freedom struggle, Sahmat affirms them. Thus Sahmat constitutes not a mechanical but a dialectical continuity of the freedom struggle.

Fundamentalism in India continues the ideological drive towards demarcating and creating boundaries and borders from colonialism, and channels it towards religious homogeneity. Sahmat resists any “simplistic, homogeneous, majoritarian” view of identity ( The Sahmat Collective, page 194). The unleashing of imagination by Sahmat is a negation of the leash, the fetters of bondage and the conscriptions of fundamentalisms. The key themes of secularism, diversity and freedom of expression are also meant to be taken literally, as is the desire to take the promise of the Constitution seriously and to show through creative activity that the gap between the promise of the Constitution and the daily violation of it grows.

That Ayodhya should have become a central concern ( Sahmat, 20 Years, page 8) of Sahmat’s protests seems now obvious. The destruction of the Babri Masjid was of course, as Ram Rahman emphasises ( The Sahmat Collective, page 92), a key episode in Sahmat’s activity because it made one realise how important the defence of secularism is for the prevention of a distortion of history. The conscious affirmation of syncretic traditions (Bhakti–Sufi), the affirmation of secularism in education, of commonalities and inclusiveness versus divisive and exclusive communalisms, all stem from this.

In this spirit, the music festival project Anhad Garje affirmed in 1993 the broad and rich traditions of India, and their openness, diversity and tolerance of all faiths. Set against a background of strident majoritarianism and the opposite, defensive reaction of minorities who were tending then to shrink into a cocoon, this was a call for transcending the narrowness that competitive communalism invariably induced ( Sahmat, 20 Years, page 8). And the exhibition Making of India celebrated the “complementary diversity” of our culture. Ram Rahman, Shamshad and Vivan Sundaram ( The Sahmat Collective, page 183) wrote: “Here we will expand the frame of our enquiry to encompass the subcontinent, and instead of a linear historical presentation, we will examine ideas, sites, cultural traditions, artifacts, architecture and social transformation through history.”

These formulations do not mean that power relations and hegemony are elided. All joint fronts have to negotiate the difficult terrain between consensual and adversarial or agonistic relationships. By returning to the Constitution, one exposes reactionary jargon. As Irfan Habib put it, the right wing attempts “to identify the Vedic (ancient) culture alone as the main, and even exclusive source of Indian culture in the name of so-called Cultural Nationalism stands in direct contradiction to the concept of Indian culture as a composite one” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 180). And the notion of a composite culture is a part of Article 51A of the Constitution. But the Constitution is not a fossil. The contours of a substantively secular and democratic, free India have to be teased out of the constitutional fabric almost daily to show that they are integral to the present and are not elements of the future.

From the beginning, therefore, Sahmat develops its aesthetic by a reflection on the types of artistic and political alliances it goes through. Indeed, the refigurations of elements taken out of older, familiar and possibly conservative contexts into a new form of montage is itself a thematisation of the larger question of alliances and fronts in their twin articulations of artistic creativity and political protest movements.

Safdar Hashmi already saw this when he envisaged street theatre not just as a secessionist presence, but also as part of a more general aesthetics of inheriting older forms and in order to transform them for contemporaneity: “What is desirable is that proscenium theatre should imbibe some of the spirit of the street theatre and the special skills developed within it, and street theatre people need to learn a lot from their counterparts in terms of finesse in performance” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 48). Sohail Hashmi points out that Safdar, though critical of proscenium theatre, kept up his dialogue with it. He was interested in theatre for “what it says, and for engaging its audience critically and creatively” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 52). The aspect of what is useful and what one does was the important point. This remains a continuing concern in Sahmat.

Vivan Sundaram emphasises that Sahmat obviously constantly engages with new strategies of contemporary art-making ( The Sahmat Collective, page 160) also because this is necessary for avoiding cooption by the established apparatus. Art on the move, mail art, the question of an appropriate format, all these concerns are attempts to ensure that the modes of artistic production are at a historically most advanced level, to match the advanced nature of the political struggle, as projects of and for the future in which the question of interconnectedness has become important. “Mail art and the international networking is an ‘invisible’ journey connecting through alternative circuits,” as Sundaram points out ( The Sahmat Collective, page 144).

Creating alternative maps and networks was always one way of protesting against the existing order. In this sense we can see that the streets of Delhi and the roads and train tracks of the country through which Sahmat’s artistic production (this new production line) moves is a disruption of the unseen linkages of power, commerce, and manipulation. Sahmat’s practice negates these established fields of power by creating its own mesh/field as an imaginative, oppositional alternative field. It asks the Brechtian question from the Solidarity Song: Whose street is the street? Whose world is the world?

The pluralist palimpsest

Sahmat’s role in the re-evaluation of Gandhi is particularly significant because it is part of Sahmat’s conviction that “multiple, sometimes alternative and radical streams of political, social, and cultural practice were part of India’s nationwide struggle for independence” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 128). The historian Ravinder Kumar pointed out that when Gandhi talked of culture, “he was above all concerned with the question of creative coexistence between different social classes and cultural traditions in a plural society. The mechanisms of such coexistence are understood only partially by historians of India. Yet, there is reason to believe that different communities not only had a high level of cultural porosity in their interfaces, but their members also acted on the assumption that such diversity was a source of enrichment rather than of impoverishment” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 139).

Sahmat defended this kind of diverse cultural space against the imposition of a monolithic, Hindu-based identity. Believing the notion of a singular identity to be “at odds with the complex mosaic of ethnic, racial, religious and philosophical traditions of South Asia, Sahmat wanted the cross-fertilizations within India’s vibrant culture to remain in view” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 129). By doing so, Sahmat reaffirmed the theoretical position that India should be looked upon as a palimpsest. The affirmation of the simultaneity of its historical formations is an affirmation of this palimpsestic order, which necessarily negates any primordial purity and validity of simple origin. It fights against the logic of erasure which is contained in the drive for purity of an original, authentic, homogeneous order of society. The only logic of erasure would lead to emptiness since then the original sheet is blank. The only authenticity is in emptiness. The canvas is empty. Fascism is based on the wish for, concept of, and desire for erasure, and the obsession with purity and origins. This leads to a programme of erasure. The impure is obliterated. As against this, the left-wing perspective is based on the development of the critical art of inheritance, which shows how to critically inherit, combine past and present, establish links and, out of the plenitude of the world, derive that critical assemblage which will enable us to shape a better world.

Hence also the insistence of inscribing on to this a protest through writing, art, performance, and praxis, because the logic of fascist homogenisation would lead to erasure: the erasure through riots, pogroms, terror. In his studies of Indian history and the formation of its cultures, D.D. Kosambi once called India a “country of long survivals”. It was “a country where contemporary society is composed of elements that preserve the indelible marks of almost every historical stage”.

Jawaharlal Nehru tried to capture the linguistic and cultural complexity of India, its diversity and unity, by using the image of a palimpsest, often used to characterise the historical complexity of large states and empires and to negate the essentialisation imposed by authenticity and origins. The validity of the palimpsest lies in its totality and not in any particular layer. In 1946, India appeared to Nehru like an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”.

This image of the palimpsest is admittedly idealistic, but it corresponds in many ways with the notion of “non-synchronous simultaneity” which Ernst Bloch formulated in the context of his study of fascism in Weimar Germany in 1935. In a palimpsest, the layering can be seen as a form of enrichment, which leads to the dominance of the multiple. Any attempt to ascribe authenticity to one particular layer, to some mythical original, some “ Ur-text”, leads to an impoverishment because it destroys the totality of the process of inscription. In any case, the original layer would logically have to be an empty surface. Thus do fundamentalists affirm the doctrine of complete erasure, of tabula rasa, in order to ensure the ascendancy of homogenisation against the presence of the pluricultural. The desire for the supposedly authentic and the corresponding search for original texts and roots generates strong tensions in any pluricultural formation. The idea of an Ur-text which permitted of no variations, which considered different interpretations, different arrangements of mythological epics as blasphemous, was essential to the fundamentalist attack on the exhibition Ham Sab Ayodhya.

It is appropriate that Sahmat gave a fresh impulse to bold, colourful experimental design and dissemination of progressive information. Here again Sahmat inherits and transforms the experiences and suggestions of other related periods of struggle. Ram Rahman mentions that it was important from the beginning for Sahmat to “convey a distinctive visual identity” for all the print material produced by it. “This attention to graphic design expanded to cover the group’s art projects, performance spaces, and street actions. Sahmat’s emphasis on bold and color-filled typographic design intentionally diverged from the dominant look of political graphics in India in the 1980s and 1990s.… During the Ayodhya movement starting in the mid-1980s, the Hindu Right developed a visual iconography for their campaign based on popular ‘calendar art’ styles of depicting mythological figures, particularly the god Rama. In contrast, the visual culture of protest and resistance launched by Sahmat had roots in Soviet constructivism and the German Left of the 1920s” ( The Sahmat Collective, page 240).

The aesthetic of the multiple

What remains after stone and rubble? Can the debris of past destructions be rescued by museums of the future? Ayodhya was reduced to rubble. In Speaking Stones, an installation by the artist N.N. Rimzon (shown in the exhibition Ways of Resisting, 2002–03; see The Sahmat Collective, page 169), we see a figure in the middle of photographic images reporting the ethnic and religious violence in India since Independence in 1947. Flint-like rocks weigh down the newspaper photographs of violence, preventing them from being blown away by winds of indifference. The figure in this emblematic reproduction “shrinks into mourning”, as Geeta Kapur writes, expiating a guilt, acknowledging and “repudiating the violence of the social order”.

The labour and work of mourning and grieving ( Trauerarbeit) lead to that version of an “Aesthetic of Resistance”which has emerged out of India’s troubled trajectory from secular visions to violent struggles over the control of the memory of the past. Combined with mass movements for the renewal of secular politics, this has the potential to restate the projects in favour of cultural complexity in contemporary India. The revolutionary surrealistic dream of a coalescence of art and life envisages a new form of community bringing together the disparate on the basis of similarity and solidarity which creates new alliances, and which is directly in confrontation with the homogenised community of race, language, territory and religion so loved by fundamentalists.

It is in this context that from the beginning, as Madan Gopal Singh writes, Sahmat searched for other modes of resistance as a “joyous carnival of compassion and inclusion”—of “shared beliefs but never any mandated agendas of art practice”. The carnivalesque celebration of creativity is an answer to the terror of the authentic. It is an integral part of the work of mourning. The aesthetic of the multiple, the assemblages and the various overflows through syncretic experimentation, signal a struggle against that ideology of the authentic and the pure which is at the ideological core of fascism and fundamentalism.

Out of this struggle emerges an Aesthetic of Resistance. The avante-garde is a concept relevant to both artistic and political fields and processes. The necessary dialectical unity of both was envisioned by Peter Weiss in his great novel Aesthetics of Resistance ( Aesthetik des Widerstands, 19751982) by the historical reference to the Spiegelgasse in Zurich. In 1916, Lenin lived at one end of it. At the other end the Dadaists congregated in the legendary Cafe Voltaire. These two avant-gardes never met. But if they had, then the imagination of the revolution, the struggle against fascism, would have achieved that level of concentrated interconnectedness which would have emphasised the wholeness of revolutionary transformation of every element of social existence. The political struggle and the artistic struggle do not exist in separated fields. This catalogue documents this.

Sahmat’s defence of democracy again reaffirms that pluricultural and heterogeneous societies should be viewed as complex webs and palimpsests of overlapping similarities and solidarities. We could indeed see the signature of the pluricultural form of life in the affirmation of similarity in diversity, as against the absolutisation of singularity through homogenisation. The affirmation of solidarity through similarity would help us to defend secular, democratic principles. Only objects, frozen in time and space, can be identical and remain the same. Processes involving individuals and their social configurations, alliances and allegiances explore ranges of similarities. These processes lead to social and cultural weaves. It is hardly surprising that this metaphor is important for Sahmat and it is no wonder that reference to Kabir is emphasised in Sahmat’s world. Kabir’s verses, sung by the Gundecha brothers at one of Sahmat’s New Year commemorations, capture this sense of weave and enmeshment of composite cultures:

Jhini jhini bini chadariya

Kah ke tana, kah ke bharni, kaun taar se bini chadariya

Ingla pingla taana bharni, sushumna tar se bini chadariya.

The weave allows partial and temporal overlaps and thus a more experimental praxis and resultant solidarity for the common defence of values which are violated daily by communalism and fundamentalism. Sahmat’s activity, its praxis, was able to translate grief and mourning into a cultural praxis and aesthetics of resistance generating empathy, solidarity and collectivity of purpose. In its praxis Sahmat has been able to translate its passionate engagement through a communication process to generate the empathy of solidarity (Gramsci’s conpassionalit a) and mass engagement.

Dr Anil Bhatti is Professor Emeritus, Centre of German Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 was published as a companion volume to an exhibition of the same name (co-authored by Jessica Moss of The Smart Museum and Ram Rahman of Sahmat) that opened at the The Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, in February 2013.