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Shooting from the margins

Over the years Ram Rahman has become synonymous with the Delhi-based organization, Sahmat, that he co-founded with artist Vivan Sundaram, theatre director Habib Tanvir, writer Bhisham Sahni and actor/director M.K. Raina—Sahmat is named after Safdar Hashmi, the playwright fatally attacked by thugs while performing in a street play in 1989. Perhaps his sense of irreverence, which sometimes gets riotous on his Facebook page, is, in a way, the courage behind Sahmat’s work as a voice of dissent and bold activism in protest movements across the country along with other brave, sustained voices within the arts. Rahman takes artistic freedom seriously—as much on a personal level as the national one—to the detriment of friends and right-wing extremists alike.

Of secular lineage, born to a Muslim father, architect Habib Rahman, and a Hindu mother, classical dancer Indrani (Bajpai) Rahman, he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Yale University in the US, lived in New York for almost three decades before returning to New Delhi. Trained in photography, Rahman’s eye fell on the everyday and immediate—his personal world is peppered with well-known faces and he just happens to be at events and dinners to “make pictures". Which is why his talks are so engaging—he crisscrosses between the personal and the public and the ceremonial and the unceremonial. His emphasis on the making of pictures comes from a formal training that keeps his eye alert and his gaze on the periphery, even when he is part of inner circles and events.

In addition to his own practice, Rahman is also a curator, exhibition designer, and an activist. He took time out to expand on the issues facing Sahmat and his practice as photographer and archivist. Edited excerpts:

Rahman at Chemould Prescott Road. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint
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Rahman at Chemould Prescott Road. Photo: Nayan Shah/Mint

Not true. It is only true of Bombay (Mumbai). Since 1999, no one has had the courage to host any Sahmat programme in Bombay, especially after we began a series of programmes and events in support of (the late artist) M.F. Husain. This was because of the fear of the Shiv Sena. Given what happened to Husain and his forced exile, perhaps it is not surprising, but people in Bombay are not aware enough of the censorship which exists in this city. We have had many exhibitions over those years in Delhi and others, which keep travelling as travelling shows. Four years ago, I curated Image, Music, Text, a huge retrospective of Sahmat’s 20 years at the MF Husain (Art) Gallery at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. We tried very hard to bring that to Bombay, with no success. A version of that show opened at the Smart museum (of Art) in the University of Chicago earlier this year, and it is now at the Ackland Art Museum in (The University of North Carolina) Chapel Hill. We can show that exhibition all over the US but not in Bombay.

Art and activism exist actively. Amar Kanwar’s work, for example, highlighting the mining controversy in Odisha, is on permanent display at Bhubaneswar, and has been widely seen in India and abroad. Alfredo Jaar, Olafur Eliasson are others, engaged both politically and socially with issues around them. Sahmat has a multidisciplinary approach, but it’s the posters that endure. Could you tell us something about their genesis, the artists behind them, how you choose the national events to focus on?

A misunderstanding of Sahmat’s engagement is that it only does exhibitions. That has been our interface in the art space. But Sahmat has a huge publishing programme, publishing books in Hindi, English and Urdu. There has been a strong ongoing programme of symposia on history, culture, and human rights and justice issues. Our symposium two years ago at Teen Murti in Delhi on the Progressive Cultural Movement—Ipta (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and the PWA (Progressive Writers’ Association)—presented first-rate, new research on the period with a terrific exhibition of original archival material. While artists engage with political issues in their art, and Sahmat has mounted such exhibitions in a gallery context, much of our art engagement has been in the public sphere. Travelling exhibits are mounted by student groups in universities on a regular basis. We have come to understand that it is more important to mount exhibits in the context of educational institutions where you are able to communicate with a younger audience and gain a much wider audience. The gallery speaks primarily to the art audience, which is very important, but much, much more limited.

Your art practice is about the immediate world around you. Has founding Sahmat influenced/changed your own art practice in any way?

Sahmat has been important to all who have been involved with it by providing a platform to interact with different groups of creative people across disciplines, so artists, musicians and actors have had access to historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists—both in formal settings of lectures, discussions and symposia, and more informally in the adda, which is the Sahmat office in Delhi. These have impacted on all our practices—often opening up collaborations which have been path-breaking. Prabhat Patnaik’s essay on this is important to read in the book The Sahmat Collective, which was published with the exhibition in Chicago.

Your talks on photography, most recently ‘The Photograph As Document: Making a Visual Archive of a Culture’, often are a political retread of India’s coming of age. But what is unique is the personal histories you pepper them with, often irreverent, that are an audio archive in themselves. Have you thought of oral histories being an avenue that Sahmat or you could explore as an archival venture?

This has been done to a certain extent in the book mentioned above with interviews with artists on their perspectives. They have also done a wonderful set of videos, which are a video archive of our 25 years, which you should look at. These have many interviews with artists who have participated over many years.

You came late to social media. What impact do you think it has in a crowd of dissent? Tell us something about Sahmat Avaaz Do (their Facebook page)—an art project for the 25th anniversary of the Safdar Hashmi Trust. What’s the ‘avaaz’ (voice) you hope to raise?

Sahmat’s “Avaaz Do" is a return to a more activist art and text project in response to the spectre of Hindutva politics raising its profile once again. This is designed to be a street travelling show and is not a gallery project. It is important to keep the artistes and writers’ community aware and give them a space to express their voice against communal mobilizations. We will use the Web and social media more extensively in this project, but also have a simply mounted exhibition, which can be reproduced as multiples and sent across the country.

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