As the government continues to push its celebrations of India’s 75th year of independence as “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav”, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or Sahmat collective, has organised an exhibition in New Delhi that looks back at the milestone events in India’s freedom struggle.

Several projects undertaken by the Sahmat collective in the last 30 years have been put on display at the India is Not Lost exhibition at Delhi’s Jawahar Bhawan, in an attempt to have “moments of public courage and sacrifice in the long struggle for freedom remain palpable and edifying for generations to come”.

Playwright and political activist Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by goons allegedly linked to the Indian National Congress Party on January 1, 1989, during a street performance in Ghaziabad. Hashmi succumbed to his injuries the following day. In the aftermath of his death, artists and activists came together to set up Sahmat to “resist the forces threatening the essentially pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression”.

The artwork displayed at India is Not Lost exhibition covers different parts of India’s freedom struggle, like the 1857 mutiny and the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and goes up to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. spoke to Ram Rahman, a contemporary photographer and a founding member of the Sahmat collective, about the motivation behind the exhibition.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Tell us about the idea for and the inspiration behind the exhibition.

There are many celebrations happening around the country to mark the 75th anniversary of our independence, and most of them are from the government, or fairly official. The Sahmat collective thought that this was a good time to look back and bring out our old artwork on the history of India’s freedom struggle.

The exhibition is meant to serve as a reminder of the reality in the context of the rewriting of the history that is happening now. We want people to commemorate all of the freedom struggle – not only the Gandhian and other peaceful parts of it but also revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, Udham Singh etc who participated in it and were more militant in their engagement.

Credit: Sahmat collective

What was the inspiration for the title of the exhibition?

The title of the exhibition India is Not Lost is actually a quote that was said by Gandhi when he visited Noakhali (now in Bangladesh) after a spate of communal riots in the area. Gandhi had said that if Noakhali is lost then India is lost, effectively communicating that if communalism wins in the country then we are lost as a nation.

The point that we are communicating with this exhibition is that India is not lost, and that we still have that resistance and culture against communalism, inclusive of every belief and every culture.

How is India is Not Lost relevant in the country’s current political and social situation?

One of the main reasons why we decided to bring back old artwork, which goes back 30 years, was to prove that a wide range of artists in India, from seniors to very young artists, have always engaged creatively and positively with the whole notion of culture that the national movement had spawned. The point is to emphasise that connection, and to show that the strand between cultural workers and creative people has never been lost in India. In terms of cultural imagination, we have not yet been defeated by communalism or majoritarianism.

The exhibition is on display at Jawahar Bhawan in New Delhi, placed in such a way that murals by painter MF Hussain are directly over the artwork. The setup is remarkable because Hussain was often targeted by extremists for his paintings depicting themes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Credit: Sahmat collective

What has your journey with Sahmat been like?

Sahmat has very much been a collective from the start – inspirations for all our projects have always come from many people pooling in their ideas and promoting creative engagement. I am only a part of the group, and we must acknowledge all other artists, actors, etc that have worked to make our projects successful.

I was among the founding members of the collective in 1989. For me, it was a very personal engagement since I had known Safdar [Hashmi] and had worked with him before he was killed. He was a wonderful, incredibly creative, and positive human being, and his death was a terrible event. But, looking back 30 years, we can also say that the incident that happened was in a way a harbinger of what we have ended up becoming now. Attacks and killings of this kind have become so much more common.

Sahmat believes in standing up for “art against communalism”. How do the recent incidents of communal hatred affect the creation of art in the country?

The current situation that we are in has been coming for a long time. Communal attacks, from the Babri mosque demolition in Ayodhya to attacks on Hussain for his work, or recently, the targeting of [actor] Shah Rukh Khan’s family, have a negative effect on artists because they promote the practice of self-censorship. People nowadays are wary of subjects related to mythology or religion because you never know how somebody can twist something. It has an impact on what artists, filmmakers etc create because no one knows what they might be targeted for.

This is a very sad thing because we are losing a huge aspect of our culture by restricting the imagination of our artists, filmmakers, writers, and poets, which is ultimately harmful to art itself.