In the wee hours of January 17, after a night-long process that involved a mechanical crane, a 35-foot tall, over two-tonne, all-metal map of India was hoisted in the middle of the Delhi-Noida highway on the stretch that passes through Shaheen Bagh.
It became the latest addition to a burgeoning collection of graffiti, banners, and installations that have adorned the road which has become the epicentre of the nationwide anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, led by the women of the locality. Their day-night vigil is now into its second month.
Pawan Shukla, an alumnus of the Jadavpur University, is part of the group involved in the India map installation.
He explained the idea behind the art, “From every side there have been popular voices saying this is what India wants, that is what India wants. Who is this popular voice? These voices are definitely not ours. None of us are saying we want NPR [National Population Register], NRC [National Register of Citizens], CAA or that these things are in national interest. That is definitely not the case.
“Those that want these things are may be 28, 30 35 percent [of India’s population], but what about the rest of the voices? We want to represent the rest of us. So we are attempting to put the voices of others on the map of India. This is not just
Shaheen Bagh’s voice but of the rest of India as well, from wherever opposition voices are being raised against those who are trying to break us,” Shukla told CNBC-TV18.
On his motivation behind joining the protest, he said: “No one from the art world was taking a stand. Art is a medium that sets a narrative through its various forms. We try to show how art sees the current national landscape and interact with the people through art; away from the chaos that has been created.”
Shukla, a visual artist, said that the installation is an attempt to take India away from the clutches of those with a monolithic understanding of the nation and their aversion to anyone with a different opinion.
“Currently, the map has been held hostage by some people. They are saying this is [the idea of] India, my [idea of] India and everyone’s [idea of] India as well. That is not the case. Through this installation we are saying this is yours as well as ours and you can’t suppress our voices. Even if we were a minority, which we are not, our voices too have to be heard.”
The structure is adorned with the inscription, “We the people of India reject CAA, NPR, NRC” in Hindi at the front and in English at the back. A basket of onions have been kept at the front. Shukla says it is to illustrate how we are being led away from the real issues.
The installation was entirely funded through donations.
A few metres behind the giant structure lies a 10-foot cardboard replica of India Gate. Where the real India Gate bears the names of the Indian soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the First World War, its Shaheen Bagh replica remembers the anti-CAA protesters who fell to police brutality across the country. From Sam Stafford in Assam to Mohammed Wakeel in Lucknow, all 31 names have been documented on the structure.
Another installation is a detention camp big enough to house half a dozen people.
A short distance from these installations, a nearly 100-metre stretch of the road is adorned with graffiti, decrying the new law, depicting political themes as well as prominent scenes from the anti-CAA protests from across the country.
Kauser Jahan, an art student at Jamia Millia Islamia, and Ashish Tondak, a JMI alumnus, were part of the four-member coordination team that oversaw the making of the graffiti on January 12 after artists ordered a public call on social media platforms.
Tondak said that the medium was selected for the ease with which it conveys the message. “There is no barrier of language and it instantly compels the curious to take a look,” he added. Jahan said that a deliberate call was made to stay away from abstraction and create artwork which connected to the common people.
Among the easily understood and yet well-layered is a piece that depicts a student being beaten by a masked man while a blindfolded policeman looks away. The student’s voice blurb says, “I am blind”; the masked man’s says, “So am I”; while the policeman says, “Hum dekhenge” (We will just watch). Prime Minister Narendra Modi is depicted watching the whole scene unfold in his now-famous solar eclipse Maybach sunglasses. The caption next to Modi reads, “Sab changa si” (Everything’s alright).
Another one shows a game of snakes and ladders but the snakes are replaced with issues plaguing the country like the NPR, NRC, while the ladders are hands joining in solidarity.
Mohammed Zaid, a first year art student at JMI, drew a piece showing AMU, JMI and JNU vice-chancellors disinterested in what was happening in their university premises. The graffiti is all in red. “Everywhere you look it’s all red now. Blood everywhere,” he explained.
Poetry Poetry, too, has found an indelible space at the protest site. From Bertolt Brecht’s immortal lines: Kya zulmaton ke daur me bhi geet gaaye jaayenge Haan, zulmaton ke daur ke hi geet gaaye jaayenge [In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times.]
To Bashir Badr’s couplet:
Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane me Tum taras nahi khaate bastiyaan jalane me [People lose their all in building one house You don’t show remorse in burning down communities]
There are a plethora of poems and couplets adorning the buildings and the foot over bridge near the protest site.
Vishal, an art student at Delhi University, has worked on the banners. He said that there are plans to work on more pieces that show how the methods of Mussolini and Hitler and what’s happening in India fall in a straight line.
“Age-old institutions like BSNL and HAL are being sold. A government institution HAL, which has a long history of making fighter plans, is completely overlooked and a startup, Reliance Aviation, gets the Rafale deal. Fascism is an ideology, yes, but there is a socio-economic angle behind it which enables it. We are working on illustrating themes like these,” added Vishal.
With each passing day the Shaheen Bagh protest is becoming bigger in number and livelier with art.