art and politics

From Babri Masjid to Gujarat riots: Sahmat posters are an archive of political and cultural history

The cultural group founded in the memory of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi marks his birth anniversary every year with the release of a poster.

In 1989, a simple poster with a black and white illustration of a street theatre performance declared April 12 as National Street Theatre Day. Released by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, or Sahmat, the poster mentioned another date – January 2, 1989, the day on which Hashmi had been killed.

The communist playwright and theatre artist and his troupe, Jana Natya Manch, also called Janam, had been fatally attacked by goons allegedly linked to the Indian National Congress on January 1 during a performance in Ghaziabad. He succumbed to his injuries the next day. Within a few weeks of his passing, writers, artists, poets, photographers and activists formed Sahmat to preserve the pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression. To honour his memory and the ideals he stood for, April 12 – Hashmi’s birthday – was chosen as a day dedicated to street theatre and free speech.

Sahmat marked National Street Theatre Day this year with an exhibition of archival posters and performances by three street theatre troupes – Bigul, Ankur and Abhivyakti – at its office on Feroze Shah Road in Delhi.

The first poster released by Sahmat in 1989.
The first poster released by Sahmat in 1989.

Powerful medium

According to photographer and historian Ram Rahman, a founding member of Sahmat, the annual National Street Theatre Day poster soon became a “means of progressive social communication… Since Sahmat was a collective of the creative community, art in all its aspects was our means of expression. The art in the posters was a means of getting creative work out into a larger audience and the poster was ideal for that.”

In a video created on Sahmat by the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, Rahman explains the philosophy with which they approached the posters and their evolution.

“We came up with this idea of making one poster that could be sent to all the hundreds or thousands of street theatre groups across India, but we also felt that the poster could have a greater meaning, so it evolved into a thematic poster,” said Rahman.

Every year, through collective discussions, a theme is chosen and it might be inspired by issues related to freedom of expression or perhaps a political event such as the attacks on artist MF Husain in 1998 or the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. “In all these posters an area would be left blank for the local groups to either print the information of their local performances or hand write them or paste them on to the poster,” added Rahman. “The posters, used across India by groups performing every year on April 12, are a means of linking each other conceptually and in solidarity with the ideals of Hashmi.”

The designers of the posters were artists and designers from Sahmat – Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, Parthiv Shah, Rajinder Arora, and Rahman, among many others.

The 2018 poster highlights the marches that took place in various states of India in February by farmers demanding loan waivers and higher minimum support prices for their crops from the central government. True to Sahmat’s style, it also provides context of earlier cultural responses to farmers’ crises. Designed by Rahman, the poster is a collage of images, including illustrations by political artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, photographs by Sunil Janah of the Bengal famine of 1943, posters of films like Dharti ke Lal and Do Bigha Zameen, and graphics by Orijit Sen.

Incredible archive

About the first poster he designed for the trust, Rahman said, “It was made soon after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. It contained a lot of text and visuals and was designed to raise questions and talk about issues related to that demolition and was more a broadside for people to respond to.”

The 1992 poster about the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, designed by Ram Rahman.
The 1992 poster about the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, designed by Ram Rahman.

The Sahmat posters have since become more verbose and informative. “In the Ayodhya poster, we had engaged with various histories of the national movement and cultural responses to those moments,” said Rahman. “We felt that capsule texts and information presented in a graphic format was engaging, especially to a student audience.”

Each year, the posters – most of which are in Hindi, some in English and occasionally in both – cover a variety of topics ranging from the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, to women’s rights. They also commemorate the birth and death centenaries of philosophers and thinkers who had influenced Hashmi and continue to inspire the Sahmat community.

Sahmat poster, 2017.
Sahmat poster, 2017.

An example of this is the 1998 poster, which highlighted the birth centenary of German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. A fairly simple depiction of stick figures in a street performance formation, it carries a poignant quote by the playwright printed in English and Hindi – “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times.”

MF Husain, who designed the poster in 2010, dedicated it to Pakistani Leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The theme of the poster is exile – an ode to a poet who had lived in self-imposed exile by an artist who was forced to do the same to himself. Both its artwork and its approach to the subject are striking – Husain placed words by the American scholar and literary critic Edward Said alongside his own paintings of theatre masks. The text is excerpted from an essay titled Reflections on Exile in which Said recalls an evening he spent with Faiz and Pakistani writer Eqbal Ahmad:

“To see a poet in exile – as opposed to reading the poetry of exile – is to see exile’s antinomies embodied and endured with a unique intensity. Several years ago I spent some time with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the greatest contemporary Urdu poet. He was exiled from his native Pakistan by Zia’s military regime, and found a welcome of sorts in strife-torn Beirut…The three of us sat in a dingy Beirut restaurant late one night, while Faiz recited poems. After a time, he and Eqbal stopped translating his verses for my benefit, but as the night wore on it did not matter. What I watched required no translation. It was an enactment of a homecoming expressed through defiance and loss, as if to say ‘Zia, we are here’.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.