The Sahmat collective galvanizes artists across India to create work that resists divisive politics. For 24 years, famous and fledgling artists alike have painted portraits, designed posters, performed on city streets, and more. A retrospective exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art tells their story.
It was January 1, 1989, in Sahibabad, an industrial area on the outskirts of Delhi. With municipal elections approaching—and mayhem in Indian politics on the rise—34-year-old Safdar Hashmi and his acting troupe assembled near Ambedkar Park to perform the politically charged play Halla Bol! (Raise your voice!).
Hashmi, an activist, actor, playwright, and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was the creative force behind the play, which supported labor mobilization. A crowd gathered and Halla Bol! began peacefully—until a large group of men connected to the rival Congress party arrived, intent on stopping the performance.
One of Sahmat’s first exhibitions, Images and Words, drew the participation of more than 400 artists, photographers, poets, and writers who created 11-by-11-inch works on canvas. The pieces, which grappled with India’s rising sectarian violence, were mounted on jute cloth and bamboo sticks. The exhibition traveled to 30 cities followed by a tour of approximately 40 locations in Delhi—universities, schools, street crossings, and city squares. (Panels from Images and Words, 1991, mixed media. Left: Work by (from left to right and top to bottom): Vinod Tiwari, Javed Akhtar, Medini Choudhry, Chandrakant Devtale, Phal S. Girotia, Anuradha Banerji, Jagdish Nandwana, Chanchal Chauhan, and Hema Joshi. Right: Work by (from left to right and top to bottom): Nazeer Banarsi, Naveen Sagar, P. Sachidanandan (Anand), Ratan Parimoo, Samar Jodha, Rajat Kumar Ghosh, Rajinder Kaur Bagga, Harcharan Singh Bhatty, and D. P. Pattanayak.)
When Hashmi spoke with them, the men turned back, but it was “a feint,” remembers Hashmi’s wife in a recent interview. “They had retreated only to get their iron rods and other weapons.” As the actors scattered away, Hashmi was caught, dragged to the performance area, and struck repeatedly on the head. He died the next day, sparking widespread outrage and a funeral procession of approximately 15,000 people.
Hashmi’s murder also sparked the formation of Sahmat. The Delhi-based arts collective—artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, activists, and academics—is the focus of The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism since 1989, a Smart Museum exhibition running through June 9. Although well known in India, says Smart associate curator of contemporary art Jessica Moss, the collective has been “very unrepresented in the States.” Learning about Sahmat from a colleague several years ago, Moss became intrigued. While doing initial research, she was introduced to Ram Rahman, a Sahmat founding member. He had organized the collective’s 2009 20th anniversary exhibition in New Delhi, a starting point for the Smart show—the collective’s first US retrospective, cocurated by Moss and Rahman. Because Sahmat has been a platform “for every kind of cultural production,” says Moss, the exhibit’s range is broad—paintings, children’s book illustrations, posters, an installation of an inverted boat with built-in wheels and handles. Each piece reflects the collective’s founding purpose: to defend freedom of expression and combat intolerance in India.
On the third anniversary of Safdar Hashmi’s murder, Sahmat invited Delhi rickshaw drivers to participate in a contest, “Slogans for Communal Harmony.” Hundreds of drivers created or selected poems and emblazoned their vehicles with the text. The Smart show includes a replica of a prize-winning rickshaw as well as images of other vehicles in the contest. The poem on the rickshaw above reads, “India is a golden bird. India my motherland is great. May it shine like gold.” (Documentary Photograph of “Slogans for Communal Harmony,” 1992, Hand-Painted Auto-Rickshaw.)
Sahmat—Hindi for “in agreement” and an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust—had start-up support from the Communist Party, explains Rahman, a photographer and MIT-trained graphic designer. “But the best thing that happened with Sahmat was right at the beginning, we decided that it would have no affiliation with any political party. … We didn’t have to follow any party, political program, or dictate. And actually, that’s been the best part and that’s why the group has survived these 24 years.”
Collaborations have crossed class, caste, and religious lines and have included much of India’s artistic community. Although a small group of core members organize the collective’s activities, hundreds of artists across India participate, including, Rahman says, “some of those same artists who are showing in big international galleries, etc., but this is a manifestation of their work in a completely different context,” since Sahmat initiatives showcase art with a theme of political action.
Throughout the past decade, Sahmat organized marches, symposia, and exhibits in defense of the late M. F. Husain, known as the Picasso of India. A Muslim artist who had painted images of Hindu goddesses for decades, in the 1990s Husain became a target of Hindu groups who took exception to his bare-breasted depictions. He went into self-imposed exile in Dubai. In 2009, almost two years before his death at 95, Sahmat held a tribute exhibit, Husain at 94, for which Veer Munshi created Hamara Hanuman (above), referencing the Hindu deity known for strength and perseverance. The piece was a “tribute to Husain,” writes Munshi, “who I felt was like a Hanuman of the art fraternity, victimized by the right wing and denied space in his own country, yet carrying a lantern (light) like an athlete to wherever he was destined to go.” (Veer Munshi, Hamara Hanuman (Our Hanuman), 2009, Digital Print.)
The Smart exhibition follows those initiatives and the historical events that inspired them. Around the time of Hashmi’s death, says Rahman, Indian “politics as practiced was becoming more and more violent. And it was becoming almost accepted that there would be violent clashes between political groups, some of which took a sectarian color.” Resisting this sort of sectarianism—called communalism in India—became one of Sahmat’s main goals. A pivotal event for the collective, says Rahman, was the December 1992 destruction of the 16th-century Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) by an angry mob. The site in the ancient city of Ayodhya had long been controversial: many Hindus believed a temple marking the birthplace of the deity Rama had been destroyed by invading Mughals to make way for the mosque.
In the years before the mosque’s demolition, organizations with a strong Hindu identity, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, propagated the “idea that this was originally a Hindu temple and that they must reclaim from the Muslims their own heritage,” says Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton distinguished service professor in history and South Asian languages and civilizations. What was billed as a peaceful demonstration on December 6 turned into an “army of people” taking pickaxes and hammers to the mosque. Within five hours, all three domes had been destroyed.
Madan Gopal Singh, scholar and musician, performs at the February 13 Sahmat Collective exhibition opening. A Sikh, Singh performs in the Sufi tradition of Punjab. Sufism, a branch of Islam based on mysticism and emphasizing music and poetry, calls for “reaching the divine through the individual,” says Ram Rahman, the exhibition’s cocurator. (Photography by Jeremy Lawson)
Sahmat responded with a yearlong series of events, including an exhibition that merged academic text with artwork to examine Ayodhya’s multifaceted history. Conceived as a kit of portable panels—some on display at the Smart—the exhibition sparked controversy when the text on several panels was declared blasphemous by Hindu organizations and seized by Delhi police. Rahman later brought the exhibit to the United States, where it continued to provoke strong reactions. During a 1993 symposium at Columbia University, he remembers, two dozen Hindu-nationalist sympathizers rushed the stage, resulting in a brawl and drawing campus police.
Sahmat stood firm amid the controversy. The point, says Rahman, was “to bring in a certain dialogue about that issue, about that city, and talk about its multicultural history. The idea was that you show how every little piece of [India] is totally multicultural. It doesn’t represent a single group of people or a single religion or a single social set.” That inclusive philosophy is reflected in Sahmat’s broad participation, which extends to those who wouldn’t traditionally be considered artists, such as the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh rickshaw drivers who painted poems on the backs of their vehicles. The collective’s work, says Moss, is an example of how citizens can come together “to fight for something they believe in—and to stand up for each other.”