He was accused of criminal conspiracy.
In June 1994, members of the militant right-wing organization Bajrang Dal stormed into the Pune venue of a 20-city travelling exhibition, Hum Sab Ayodhya (We are all Ayodhya).
The exhibition, which sought to depict the multicultural roots of Ayodhya, was organized by the New Delhi-based organization Sahmat in response to the demolition of the Babri mosque. The activists had arrived to dismantle one exhibit in particular: the one that depicted the Hindu icons of Ram and Sita as brother and sister, ostensibly suggesting incest. Ayodhya had been an important Buddhist and Jain site, and this version of Ram’s story had been culled from an existing text called the Dasaratha Jataka, a set of Buddhist fables about Ram.
The exhibition was promptly remounted, but not without Sahmat and its members being implicated in at least eight cases, including that of “criminal?conspiracy”. After an eight-year legal battle, the Delhi high court declared Sahmat and its members innocent, citing the Indian Constitution’s clause on freedom of expression.
In narrating this incident, Ram Rahman, one of the founding members of Sahmat, is reassuringly composed. “I have immense faith in the judiciary. We were doing nothing unconstitutional by citing an existing text,” he says.
Clampdown: Bajrang Dal activists at Sahmat’s 1994 exhibition in Pune.
At Rahman’s studio-in-residence in north Delhi, his own photographs—largely city portraits—lie strewn about. But it is the posters and pamphlets that have pride of place. Even as we talk, Rahman is in the middle of a prolific email exchange regarding a petition protesting the demolition of a heritage structure that his father, the architect Habib Rahman, had left untouched in his design of the Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi.
Dressed in his trademark churidar-kurta, Rahman is a picture of calm. But dissent comes easy.
Rahman, 55, was brought up in New Delhi, in a milieu where culture and politics mixed freely. He was born to a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, Indrani Rahman (nee Bajpai)—a dancer who bustled in New Delhi’s activist circles. The artist M.F. Husain, for instance, was a close family friend and Rahman has known him since he was a child.
During the recent saga involving Husain’s renunciation of Indian citizenship, Rahman became a resource person for the Indian media. And a photograph surfaced as well: of a two-year-old Rahman prancing around a young Husain. Rahman has been unrelenting in his support of the artist, whose paintings incited right-wing sentiment. In 2008, Rahman organized a symposium that celebrated the pro-Husain high court judgement. In the same year, when the first edition of the India Art Summit refrained from including the artist’s works, he held a protest exhibition at Sahmat. The exhibition was attacked, but he repeated the exercise in 2009 while the India Art Summit was in progress.
Expressing political dissent through art and culture lies at the core of Rahman’s work. Considering the genesis of Sahmat, the organization’s many successes illustrate a poetic justice. Sahmat stands for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, an organization of artists and intellectuals that confronts those threatening the basic freedom of speech and religion in India. It is a community of painters, architects, designers, dancers, musicians, graphic designers, textile designers, potters, etc., who came together in memory of the playwright and performer Safdar Hashmi after he was brutally murdered in January 1989 while performing a street play in support of a workers’ strike in New Delhi.
The founding members included, apart from Rahman, the theatre director Habib Tanvir, actor and director M.K. Raina, artist Vivan Sundaram and novelist Bhisham Sahni. From a core group of 15, the organization has grown to an all-India network with upwards of 4,000 members. Hashmi was a member of the Communist party, but Sahmat has no declared political affiliation.
Sahmat wasn’t founded with any concrete goal except to commemorate Hashmi. But over time, Rahman explains, they became the spokespeople for artistic freedom, especially with the communal temperature rising in the early 1990s, around the time Sahmat was conceived.
Rahman’s tryst with dissension started early. He pursued politically charged projects even while attending the undergraduate programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he had enrolled to study physics. At MIT, his prime areas of interest were the Weimar Republic and the Russian Constructivists. Parallel to that, he began to experiment with photography. Rahman describes his time at MIT as a fantastic educational experience with true freedom to move between ideas and subjects. He graduated from the programme in 1977 to study design at the Yale School of Art, one of the most prestigious art schools in the US at the time.?It’s his account of why he despised his time at the Ivy League school that is in many ways a portrait of him:?It was “too rigid,?conservative and restrictive”.
Rahman’s art education and career were peppered by frequent trips to India. By several accounts, his studio in downtown New York—which he had for 28 years before he moved back permanently to New Delhi four years ago—had become a hothouse for Indian artists and intellectuals.
Rahman believes that it is important to tie Sahmat’s activism to the national movement. The organization has in the past deliberately staged its events accordingly. A 1994 exhibition of political cartoons, called Punchline, opened on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. And then again, on the 15 August that followed the Babri mosque demolition, Sahmat organized a grand evening of classical performances called Mukt Naad (roughly translating to “free rhythm”). Of the event, Time magazine reported in August 1993: “Rumours of violence kept audiences small…though Mukt Naad’s reverberations have yet to fade.” “We purposely wanted to link this event pegged to Ayodhya to the national movement since that had stood for something completely counter to what the right-wing forces are trying to do today,” explains Rahman.
Last year, Rahman realized that someone had filed a police complaint to take him off the voters’ list on the ground that he was a fake voter; his name was deleted. Rahman fought to have himself re-registered.
He is the same man who sold Salman Rushdie’s 1995 book The Moor’s Last Sigh—that had been “unofficially banned” by the Union government—on the streets of New Delhi. Rahman likes to speak of?this,?perhaps? because?it?espouses a spirit of protest that transcends a specific religion. Rushdie has been a target for all kinds of extremists, and that is an important case in point. Because Rahman is against censorship and clamps, no matter what their origin.