April 18, 2013

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

It was New Year’s Day 1989, and political tensions were high in Delhi’s outskirts. Municipal elections were under way. Local factory workers were on strike, protesting unfair treatment. Nearby, street theater activist Safdar Hashmi and his troupe, Janam, were performing a play to support the laborers. 

Suddenly, a group of men burst onto the makeshift stage and brutally beat Hashmi before the stunned crowd in broad daylight. He died the following day, shaking the capital’s creative community to its core.

“Nothing like this had ever really happened,” recalls Ram Rahman, a photographer and friend of Hashmi’s. Dozens of Delhi’s artists, activists, writers, scholars, and musicians joined forces to express their outrage. Artistic freedom was under attack—and something needed to be done.

Thus, Sahmat was born. An acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, the word means “in agreement” in Hindi, a nod to the pluralistic spirit of India’s artistic community. Bringing together creators from all walks of life, the inspirational group is the focus of the Smart Museum of Art’s latest contemporary art exhibition, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989.

Raise your voice 

“We have raised our creative voice against sectarian politics and against attacks on freedom of expression,” says Rahman, the exhibition’s co-curator. An independent secular movement in a nation fractured by religious and political fundamentalism, Sahmat uses a wide range of artistic collaborations to celebrate tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.

Over the past two decades, the collective has found innovative ways to bring its message into the public sphere. In 1992, the group challenged Delhi’s rickshaw drivers, who traditionally decorate their vehicles with short love ditties, to paint slogans or poems about brotherhood and harmony. Hundreds of drivers, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim alike, participated, competing for a small cash prize. Among the winning entries: “Deeds and not birth make a man great.” 

The project, Slogans for Communal Harmony, remains one of India’s largest public art initiatives to date. On the day of the competition, participating drivers banded together, sacrificing a day’s wages to join a procession through the city. Then, Rahman says, “They drove around Delhi for years with those poems on their rickshaws.”

Resist division

The Smart retrospective, which runs through June 9, features work from more than 60 painters, designers, performers, and other collaborators. “You’d be hard-pressed to find an artist in India who hasn’t been involved with the group in some way,” says co-curator Jessica Moss, the Smart’s associate curator for contemporary art. Rahman jokes that one joins the informally organized collective by “coming to the office and eating lunch.” 

“Sahmat likes to define itself as a ‘platform,’ where artists can participate,” regardless of whether their work is overtly political, he says. In 1997, for example, the group invited 200 artists from around the world to commemorate 50 years of Indian independence by decorating a 5-inch gift box. The resulting exhibition, Gift for India, was an eclectic tribute of painted cubes, reconstructed blocks, and creative odes to democratic society.

As UChicago art historian Rebecca Zorach argues in an essay for the Sahmat catalog: “The form of the exhibition was as important as the content of the cubes, not because it was an accumulation of gifts but because it was an accumulation of individual expressions: it performed pluralism against communalism.” In South Asia, she explains, the term communalism “refers to ethnic or religious nationalism—the political and sometimes violent privileging of one particular community. Gift for India works against this formation. Its metaphor is one of donation, but also of architecture: the cubes are building blocks of a national and international community distinct from the ‘communal’—in principle infinitely inclusive and extensible.”

Throughout its history, Sahmat has come together to resist violent challenges to pluralist ideals, such as the 1992 Hindu extremist demolition of the Babri Masjid, a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, India. “The destruction of the mosque was a huge shock for Indians,” Rahman recalls, “because it was against everything that we believed we had become as a secular democratic state that believed in the rule of law.”

Sahmat responded with an exhibition kit called Hum Sab AyodhyaWe are All Ayodhya—that was mounted in 17 cities. Among its materials was a text panel on the multiple historical interpretations of the Hindu god Rama written by ancient India specialist Romila Thapar, who holds an honorary doctorate from UChicago.

Her writings enraged the Hindu right, which accused the collective of blasphemy. The exhibit was seized by the Delhi police and incited a three-day debate in the Indian Parliament. Sahmat challenged the seizure in court, ultimately winning what would become a landmark case on freedom of expression.

Come together

True to its communal spirit, Sahmat continues to bring new voices into the fold. For the Smart exhibition, the collective enlisted Zorach, Professor of Art History, Romance Languages, and the College, and William Mazzarella, Professor of Anthropology and Social Sciences in the College, to write essays in the sweeping 300-page catalog that accompanies the exhibition. Other faculty members participated in workshops prior to the show’s opening to help shape its direction. 

At a February exhibition panel, Voices of Resistance, ethnomusicologist Kaley Mason, Assistant Professor of Music and director of Undergraduate Studies, discussed his research on performance and social change in South India, while various Sahmat members shared their work. Visual artist Gigi Scaria talked about his rendering of Delhi in the site-specific piece, City Unclaimed, which graces the Smart lobby, while veteran musician Madan Gopal Singh performed a song “about old people like me.”

Highlighting activist art across multiple modes and disciplines, the event and exhibition epitomize the nature of the Sahmat Collective itself. “I think you got a bit of the spirit of madness this is all created out of,” Rahman said, concluding the February program. “Together, we are India.”

This article originally appeared in UChicago News.