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Image, Music, Text at the M. F. Husain Gallery at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

UNITED WE STAND

Meera Menezes visits a show celebrating twenty years of SAHMAT and takes us on a whirlwind tour of its notable initiatives.

IT TOOK A BRUTAL MURDER TO SPAWN A MOVEMENT. WHEN political activist and actor Safdar Hashmi was killed in broad daylight while performing a street play near Delhi in January 1989, it unleashed a nationwide outpouring of grief and anger. It also led to the founding of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) shortly thereafter, which strove to uphold the values that Hashmi stood for.

To commemorate twenty years of SAHMAT, an exhibition was held between the15th of January and the 14th of February at the M. F. Husain Art Gallery at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. It spoke volumes that the show was held in a gallery bearing the name of one of India's most famous artists who had been driven into exile by narrow, bigoted forces. Image, Music, Text plotted the various strategies and initiatives developed by SAHMAT over the past two decades to deal with the political and social events that have marked the nation's history.

This wide-ranging exhibition re-introduced the platform that SAHMAT has consistently provided to artists and academics through street actions, performances and artists' projects. Using paintings, sculptures, videos and a plethora of memorabilia including posters, banners and books, the exhibition showcased how SAHMAT has supported socially and politically committed art practices. Harnessing the creative potential of artists, it has time and again, decried and countered the attack on artistic freedom and the increasing polarization in society along communal and cultural faultlines. Photographer Ram Rahman, one of the moving forces behind the exhibition, drew a parallel between the initiative and the artistic resistance to the Nazis, terming it "a tribute to that lineage in an Indian context"

The exhibition itself was divided into several spaces, chronologically tracing the various events and landmark exhibitions that SAHMAT had organized in the last twenty years. By doing so, it reflected the shifts that have taken place in the Indian polity and social system. SAHMAT had begun its journey by documenting the Janotsav project in the Mongolpuri slum in 1990 where they had even published a newspaper. Photographer Parthiv Shah had a dark room there - you could see the prints made by the slum children at the show.


A poster during the Hum Sab Ayodhya show.
1993.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 ripped the secular weave of the country and spawned a counterresistance movement spearheaded in no small measure by SAHMAT. Besides meeting the president Shankar Dayal Sharma and calling for the dismantling of the make-shift temple on the ruins, the group defied Section 144 and staged a cultural sit-in on the street with artists, singers and poets. One of the works,Kaun Mara? painted at the time by Manjit Bawa, also formed part of the show.


Manjit Bawa. Kaun Mara? Acrylic on canvas.
Painted at the street protest after the Babri
Masjid demolition on December 11th, 1992,
on Safdar Hashmi Marg, Delhi.
In August 1993, the group organized the exhibition Hum Sab Ayodhya and the event Mukt Naad. Hundreds of artistes gathered and performed on the ghats of the Sarayu during Mukt Naad. In Hum Sab Ayodhya, artists examined the layers of social development, history, culture and mythology associated with the site. On display at the show were illustrations of little known Sufi saints of Ayodhya by artists like Alex Mathew, Gulammohammed Sheikh and Bhupen Khakhar.