When Sahmat was formed in the emotional aftermath of Safdar Hashmi’s murder, it was decided at the very outset that it would be an artist-run collective and not an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), although many in the founding group were Safdar’s comrades in the party. This decision has allowed Sahmat the freedom to conceive and execute innovative projects, sometimes at lightning speed, and Prabhat Patnaik in his essay writes in some detail about this unique space that the group created in the progressive left. Of course Sahmat could never have survived without the support of the CPI (M), its cadre and organizational affiliates. Its first office was located in the enclosed verandah of a flat allotted to the writers’ organization of the party, and the current office is in the garage of a CPI (M) Member of Parliament’s residence. Yet Sahmat’s independence from party diktat has allowed for the participation of people with varying political beliefs, all essentially progressive.
Art as activism in India was fostered mainly by the Communists in the 1940s. It was the vision of the general secretary of the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), P. C. Joshi, that writers, artists, and performers should be involved in direct political action, which led to the founding of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in 1936 and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1942. Both were directly affiliated to the CPI. In fact the party had set up a commune in Bombay of performers, actors, and writer members of IPTA and PWA, which functioned from 1943 to 1947-until the official ties between these organizations and the party were severed after Joshi was ousted as general secretary. The event that led to the formation of IPTA and provided the motivation for its incredible reach across India was the Bengal Famine of 1942. It was also the famine that prompted Joshi to recruit two visual artists, the photographer Sunil Janah and the illustrator Chittaprosad, to work for the party’s newspaper People’s War, and move them from Calcutta to the commune in Bombay; their official affiliation with the party also ended in 1947 after Joshi’s ouster. But those five years of intense cultural action had a lasting impact on cultural developments in India after independence. The idea of “Unity in Diversity”-of the unity of a people’s culture cutting across the multiple religious, caste, and class identities of the subcontinent-was propagated by the Communists in the 1940s. After the dissolution of IPTA in 1947 many of them moved to Delhi and found employment in various government cultural departments set up after independence, including All India Radio. It was through them that the cultural ideas of the left movement became central to the national cultural ethos of the newly independent, “Nehruvian” India.
Sahmat’s direct link to IPTA was through Bhisham Sahni, the writer, and Habib Tanvir, the theatre director. Both had also worked closely with Safdar Hashmi, and they served as the first and second chairpersons, in succession, of Sahmat. If the Bengal famine was a moment that galvanized IPTA, the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 played a similarly central role in Sahmat’s trajectory and led it into a more activist phase. It also served to broaden the base of the collective to include historians, archeologists, and social scientists. Sahmat’s Ayodhya initiatives and the attacks on them led to its national prominence, in ways it had never imagined. By staying the course and keeping up the struggle and resistance through the arts, the collective has managed to survive and remain relevant.
Sahmat likes to define itself as a “platform.” Open-ended and inclusive, it has helped to create and maintain the space for cultural resistance. It is on this platform that the historian, even the archeologist, can be a cultural activist. With right-wing politics in India striving hard to restrict cultural space and freedom from within, and the equally massive assault from the globalized economic and mono-cultural interests coming from the outside, it has become even more crucial to defend that space for resistance.
Sahmat’s January 1 memorials to Safdar have given a space to performing artists to experiment and extend the boundaries of their practices. The rock band Indian Ocean recorded their performance live at one such memorial on Safdar Hashmi Marg (Road) in Delhi and released it as their first album (Desert Rain, 1997). I remember the avant-garde theatre/political cabaret performer Maya Rao charging onto the stage carrying a dead fish, disrupting and evicting the classical singer Shubha Mudgal and her stunned musicians, while an equally shocked audience looked on. It was only as her act played out that we realized the subtext of her piece-attacks on freedom of expression. At another memorial we presented art history lectures on the artists M. F. Husain and Chittaprosad and photographer Sunil Janah in between performances of revolutionary songs, in a highly successful experiment.
This exhibition and the accompanying book have been an ambitious undertaking. To represent in a gallery the work of the Sahmat collective, which straddles so many diverse fields, was a daunting task. It is a credit to the interest, persistence, and immense hard work that Jessica Moss and her colleagues at the Smart
Museum have invested in this project, that it has been possible to expose the work to a US audience. There have been exhibitions of contemporary Indian art in the United States before, but none that has presented the interactions among contemporary art, society, and politics in the subcontinent in such a focused manner. The exhibition and book present artworks that have been shown in galleries, but also many that have been shown in vastly different public spaces. Unusually for an exhibition of art, work in other public mediums-posters, pamphlets, books, and tent banners-are also on view, mediums that have helped expand the field of contemporary art-making and that have rarely found space in the discourse on Indian contemporary art.
In its art projects Sahmat has consistently attempted to break away from accepted and conventional formats of art-making and display. As the Indian art scene has fallen victim to the globalized art market and the pressures of the aesthetic associated with international biennial exhibitions, the Sahmat platform has provided a space for showing and making art that speaks to more personal and local concerns. The art in the Sahmat archive and the pieces kindly loaned by our collector friends present a journey of contemporary Indian art over the last two decades-a journey in which many artists shifted from figuration to more conceptual installation and assemblage. Sahmat’s projects also reflect the camaraderie and community spirit of the Indian art scene, where artists of different generations and philosophical outlook still have aclose-knit sense of community and purpose. These projects are parts of larger initiatives that include lectures, performances, publications, and symposia. We have tried to convey that larger context in the exhibition and the catalogue.
The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 evolved out of the exhibition Image, Music, Text: 20 Years of Sahmat that I curated for the collective, which was shown at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi in 2009. Neither that show nor the present one could have been accomplished without the meticulous archiving done by the group, led by Rajendra Prasad, universally known as “Rajen.” Rajen prefers to remain in the wings of the main stage, but as mentor, ideologue, and guiding spirit, no one has wielded a more formidable influence on the artists, historians, social scientists, and musicians whose work you see here-all through the telephone in his hand. The inspired editing of the texts by the eagle-eyed Indira Chandrasekhar in all our projects has extended to this volume too.
The complexities of India’s ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic mix, as well as the nuances and complexities of the politics that form the context of this work may be hard to follow, but we have tried our best to make it easier to unravel. For the American viewer, it may help to see these works in the context of the “culture wars” as they are playing out in India, not too unlike those that have been playing out in the United States. The central position of the Ayodhya mosque demolition may also be better understood in reference to the psychic trauma caused to the American nation by the 9/11 attacks. For us, Ayodhya was the same.
Home is a queer brown body: Interview with Sunil Gupta by Gayatri Sinha
Interview with Chitra Ganesh by Critical Collective
"My journey as an artist is often through stories of people and places" by Critical Collective
Reality/Chen, Simply Being/Tse-jan, Cosmic Spirit /Ch’i: Chinese Connection by Virginia Whiles
“Distant Suffering”: Our Covid Visual Field by Gayatri Sinha
Orographers in a Photographic Terrain by Deepika Sorabjee
Chitrashalas: Ancient Indian Art Galleries by C Sivaramamurti
Objects and Their Journeys: In Pursuit of the Provenance of Things by Jyotindra Jain
Room Without a Window: On Prajakta Potnis’ solo by Zasha Colah
Violence of her Desires by Suchitra Vijayan