“Inquilab Zindabad”, the most commonly used to words at protests, was coined during India’s freedom struggle by Hazrat Mohani, an Urdu poet. It became the slogan for millions, binding them together for a greater good.
In times of socio-political uncertainty, the role of art and expression — through verses, stories, images, cartoons, films, etc. — is one of the most civil ways of registering protest. It brings new perspectives to tackling challenging issues, encourages debates and discussions, and inspires people to fight for their causes.
Today, anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) demonstrators have been making music, penning poetry, drawing comic strips and writing satire and spoofs to mobilise support and organise protests. Comedians Varun Grover’s rebellious Hindi poem, Hum Kaagaz Nahin Dikhayenge and Kunal Kamra’s jibe on Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding CAA and the NRC; Assamese singer Zubeen Garg’s poignant song in memory of those killed during the ongoing anti-CAA agitations, have all got a fan base of their own.
Varun Grover’s poem,which he’d put out on his Twitter handle on December 21, was retweeted 24k times. The post, which has over 50,000 likes, was inspired by “the spirit of every protestor and India-lover,” Grover wrote.
Can art save the day?
Today, art has become a powerful and international language to speak against all forms of human rights violations, along with other activism.
“Folk artists, especially poets and singers, were in the forefront during the Telangana movement. Any agitation, protest, public meeting would start with music and singing. One particular song that you’d hear every whereback then was Gaddar’s Podustunna Poddumeeda,” recalls Rathna Shekar Reddy, founder of the theatre group Samahaara.
Delhi-based artist Tanzeela, a hijabi-doodler sharing the quirky side of her world through her illustrations, expressed her shock at the violence perpetrated on Jamia Milia students through an illustration, “A Woman in a Tricolour Hijab”, which she shared on various digital platforms. The artwork, which used Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s immortal words, “Bolke lab aazad hai tere /Tera sutvajism hai tera / Bol ki jaan ab tak teri hai”, quickly struck a chord.
Tanzeela, who has herself been following other artists and poets’ works, says, “This nazm by Faiz Ahmed Faiz has always been in my mind because it has constantly been my support. It talks about the emotion you need to stand and speak-speak so loud that it’s heard till the end of time. That sketch of mine brought me messages from people saying they related to the frustration, anger and ignorance. Art shakes people because it’s a canvas with no words and yet speaks the most, with strong, satirical and challenging messages. All my artwork revolves around anger and aggression. I am tired of all the ‘You are Muslim, so show us your patriotic sign’. This is my land. I don’t need to explain this to anyone! Period.”
For Rathna Shekar, art’s not only for entertainment and expression, but also to seek and speak the truth. “Revolutions are caused by the common man but propelled by poets. A song or stand-up can seem subtle and pointless but it forces us to look at the truth and starts discussions in a way news doesn’t. Humour and non-violence are our greatest weapons. No matter what or where the revolution, art in its various forms has changed people, ends inertia, encouraging people to stand up against authority structures, tyrants, inequality, injustice, etc.,” he says.
Art shows the way
Talking about how protests have the power to change policies, artist Ramakanth Thumrugoti shares the example of the Hong Kong Protest Art in September 2019, where mostly anonymous works of art and graphic design defined anti-government demonstrations. Art, according to him, is an intellectual tool that measures and analyses many subjects an artist transcends, including socio-political issues affecting the quality of human life. “As a result, it helps the non-artistic world refine their perspectives in the times of conflicts and chaos. While sometimes the creatives from artists might like look reactive, a closer study will reveal they’re as scientific as any other well-researched subject,” adds Ramakanth.
But democracy thrives in an atmosphere that allows dissent and opposition. If art wasn’t a powerful opposition why would cartoonists and writers get arrested?” questions Neeti Palta, who does comedy on various topics like the woman in India, daily irritants, Indian idiosyncrasies, current affairs, etc. “If a powerful slogan can win elections, it can also mobilise a common sentiment. Art is a positive and powerful tool, especially when the actual opposition is failing so magnificently.”
Art when used effectively in protest carries an idea to the masses. For instance, comedian Vasu Primlani’s most popular acts, A for Allahabad and Demonitisation 2.0 don’t just make you laugh, they make you think. “We spend so much money and effort in renaming cities, and that given the levels of unemployment, a decimated economy, air pollution that is killing thousands of Indians annually! These are distraction tactics designed to rile Indian up emotionally and divide the country,” asserts Vasu....