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India could have scarcely imagined that 2019 would end with such a bang. In towns and cities, the winter air rings with protests against the government’s alleged attempts to dilute the secular spirit of the Constitution. Thousands have been out on the streets almost every day since the police tried to quell protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) by storming Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh on 15 December.

Over the past couple of weeks, India’s streets have witnessed scores of placards with inventive slogans—from the darkly witty (“It’s so bad even the introverts are here") to the bleakly subversive (“Use onions not tear gas"). These messages are being complemented with graffiti, drawings, cartoons and memes. Verses by lyricist, screenwriter and comedian Varun Grover and singer Aamir Aziz went viral, alongside chants for azadi (freedom) and lines from Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Illustrator Priya Kuriyan’s poster strikes at the heart of debates over the NRC and CAA
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Illustrator Priya Kuriyan’s poster strikes at the heart of debates over the NRC and CAA (Photo courtesy: Priya Kuriyan)

Into this cultural melting pot, sizzling with dissent, artists have begun to add their voices—some as a result of being unceremoniously muzzled.

On 18 December, for instance, the space exhibiting three of the 27 works in the show, Look Outside This House, was closed at the recently concluded Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. These were part of the visual arts segment of the festival curated by artist Sudarshan Shetty. According to news reports, the offending works made “oblique references to (the) turmoil in the North East and the CAA".

One of the videos was that of the Miyah poets of Assam. The second made a terse reference to the ongoing protests against the CAA in the North-East. The third was a wall-sized canvas, where visitors were invited to leave their comments—some of them being scribbles on the CAA.

The next day, Shetty issued a statement. “I feel troubled and pained at the situation we have come to," he said. “Art spaces should be allowed to function freely and openly and must allow for a space for free speech." The organizers cited a “technical glitch" as the reason behind “shutting down" the works—they were again on view on the last day of the festival (22 December).

Illustrator Priya Kuriyan, best known for her books for children, also responded to the moment. A few days ago, she created a poster that quickly struck a chord. At once playful and deeply moving, it strikes at the heart of the debates over the NRC and CAA: how to identify a rightful Indian citizen.

“One of my favourite things to do is to capture our people with all their imperfections and eccentricities," Kuriyan says. “Despite our flaws and differences, what makes our populace endearing is its diversity. That to me is the most ‘Indian’ thing about us and any government that does not understand how to govern or respect this diversity is un-Indian."

Her poster, she adds, was an emotional appeal to people to look around at the unique beauty of this Indianness as something we need to protect with our lives and “therefore refuse to accept an Act that favours one religion over the other and persecutes the poorest amongst us".

Social media has also emerged as a powerful platform for visual artists. Rachita Taneja, the artist behind the popular web comic strip Sanitary Panels on Instagram, used her trademark stick figures and sketches. “With the CAA and NRC, I realized that people going out to protest needed material. So I created a basic design template which could be customized by them," says Taneja. Another visual artist who opened up his artwork to the public is cartoonist-illustrator Rohan Chakravarty of the popular Instagram handle Green Humour.

Outside the professional arena, too, art has emerged as a non-violent mode of expressing dissent. On 25 December, a group of artists gathered at the Latasil Field in Guwahati as part of the unique “Protest on Canvas 2019". This peaceful statement of opposition against the NRC and CAA saw members of the Gauhati University Artists’ Society creating a 5m-long canvas titled The Burning Assam.

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