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On the inside, the footbridge is filled with art by children from the locality. (Photographs by Paroma Mukherjee/Hindustan Times)
On the inside, the footbridge is filled with art by children from the locality. (Photographs by Paroma Mukherjee/Hindustan Times)

Shaheen Bagh's revolution highway

The protest site has seen an explosion of public art, including posters, photographs, graffiti and paintings, with ideas from local residents and students as much as artists

Perhaps the most inspiring and inclusive thing about a city is its residents’ ability to reinvent its socio-geographic landscape. Following the attack on students of Jamia Millia Islamia in December, the women of Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, a little-known locality just ahead of the university, decided to stage a peaceful sit-in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019, blocking the Kalindi Kunj-Shaheen Bagh stretch.

The road outside Jamia had begun to see daily protests in the second half of December and posters by students against the CAA could be seen plastered on walls. Shaheen Bagh, however, was about to give the Capital a remarkable, historic movement of public art that came from within its narrow, dusty lanes and big heart.

On the main road, a tent was set up to house the women protesters and their children. Further down, on the footbridge and by the sides of the shops, posters, blow-ups of photographs, graffiti and paintings on walls started to appear almost as if by magic.

“The road has become its own public art gallery," says Malini Kochupillai, an urban researcher and artist. One of her photographs, which has been blown up and mounted on a street sign, has a group of people singing protest songs in a tucked-away corner, just behind the tent. The spirit of the image seems to have resonated with the protesters; a steady number line up to take selfies under it through the day. “There is a fresh sense of possibility, a true indigenousness to the protest in Shaheen Bagh, and the immense diversity of creative expression is what works," Kochupillai adds.

One can’t help but notice the artistic range and the kind of spaces the art has occupied on that main road. Even the otherwise dull footbridge has posters hanging down its sides. A particularly striking one by the Progressive Artists’ League, reminiscent of artist Chittaprosad’s drawings of stark human suffering, bears Bertolt Brecht’s iconic lines (translated into Hindi): In the dark times/ Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing/ About the dark times.

It isn’t just the pillars and walls exhibiting illustrated posters and photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and others, but also the road that has become the primary canvas for this astonishing public art movement. “I was taken aback by the scale, form and composition of the enamel paintings on the road, given that the surface is flat," says Ram Rahman, an artist, activist and photographer, who is also one of the founding members of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) in Delhi.

Protest art now makes up the façade of the footbridge at the protest site of Shaheen Bagh.
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Protest art now makes up the façade of the footbridge at the protest site of Shaheen Bagh. (Photographs by Paroma Mukherjee/Hindustan Times)

What is truly inclusive about the art in Shaheen Bagh is that professional artists have not appropriated public space. The ideas have come from the local residents, and students make art as much as the artists who have been camping in Shaheen Bagh for over a month. “The collaboration is spontaneous, and ordinary people have found the perfect balance of text and graphic to express their dissent using wit and humour. The creative expression, which is irreligious, has arisen from a basic attack on the right to citizenship," says Rahman.

One of the early installations on the road was an artwork comprising hundreds of paper boats shaped to form a large heart, with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge printed in Urdu on each one of them. “I invited people from the locality to make paper boats and arrange them into this shape," says Arif Naeem, the artist behind the work.

It is the collaborative nature of creating public art that makes this movement unique and personal to each protester. “As an artist, my dissent is peaceful, creative and void of personal digs at politicians. My paintbrush is my biggest tool of protest," says Naeem.

The ephemeral nature of public art also allows for different visual expressions each day. About two weeks ago, a huge map of India was constructed in mild steel, welded by local ironsmiths through the night to stand tall on the other side of the footbridge, in what now appears as an alternative, inclusive reading of the nation with anti-CAA messaging on it. “Art and resistance are entwined, and the Constitution has been the primary theme of public art here. As an artist, one feels inclined to keep changing their own practice in Shaheen Bagh," says Shaunak—they didn’t want to share their full name—a curator who has been helping with ideas and coordination at the site. There’s also a mini-India Gate structure made of plywood—like India Gate itself, the installation is a popular site for photographs. This is not a martyrs’ memorial like the original, but more a homage to the Constitution.

An unsettling mock detention camp tent set up by the protesters under the bridge as a statement, and the Fatima Sheikh & Savitribai Phule library (housed inside a bus stop), are the more permanent fixtures. A walk on the footbridge, full of drawings about constitutional values, equality and citizenship by Shaheen Bagh’s children, is immensely moving.

It is now hard to imagine what Shaheen Bagh will look like when traffic resumes on the road. Public memory has been altered in a manner that has changed the visual imagination of this locality forever. The historic movement here, which has paved the way for similar resistance sites in the country, is also now part of India’s contemporary art history.

An inclusive, self-curated, local practice and the autonomous mutation of formal art spaces—this may well be Shaheen Bagh’s contribution to India’s largest expression of creative dissent since the independence movement.

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