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Contesting Authenticity

Sahmat’s work imputes the idea that no negotiation of culture, religion, or ethnicity can ever remain reduced to simplistic binaries.

By Arts & Culture

While commenting on the genealogical precedent of artist’s collectives and collaborative practices throughout the 20th century, curator and critic Okwui Onwezor notes that, “collectives tend to emerge during periods of crisis, in moments of social upheaval and political uncertainty within society.” This statement holds true for the wealth of collaborative practices and artist’s collectives that took place across the world during the mid-1980s and early 1990s — many operating in response to socio-political turmoil and resulting crises in national subjectivity. Such circumstances in India prompted the creation of the Delhi-based artist’s collective Sahmat. Making their first museum appearance in the United States at Chicago’s The Smart Museum, their retrospective The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 (February 14 – June 9, 2013), documented the group’s protean output of street festivals, art exhibitions, protests, lectures, public poster campaigns, symposiums and debates, while mapping their past 24 years of work with a history of conflict in the political, social, and cultural landscape of India.

Sahmat’s artistic output is only intelligible when contextualized as a response to the countless socio-political and cultural crises of the postcolonial Indian state. Much in the same way that any analysis of a social, political, economic, and cultural context requires an attention to specificity, Sahmat’s address of crises through artistic practice and collaboration requires a equally nuanced frame of reference. This distinction is especially evident in their confrontations with Indian nationalism and cultural ‘authenticity’ through various projects, which intend to sway public affect for the goal of societal amelioration. Though the actual efficacy of such measures is highly speculative (as the case with all ‘socially engaged’ forms of artistic practice) each collaborative project serves as a sustained effort in a fight against the ongoing public influence of exclusionary (frequently violent) nationalism, and their correlation with ideas of Indian “authenticity” and imbalances of state power in India.

SAHMAT (Safdar Hasmi Memorial Trust), a pun of a Hindi word which also means “in agreement” or “compact,” was formed as a response to the death of Safdar Hashmi, a Marxist political activist, playwright, and performer who was murdered by a gang of thugs associated with a then prominent right wing political movement. To use Onwezor’s turn of phrase, Sahmat has always operated as a socio-politically progressive “networked collective.” In “networked collectives” the artistic production of the group is not singular in authorial intent or generated purely from the group members themselves. It instead functions as what founding member Ram Rahman dubs, “a platform” to complete various initiatives with a constantly shifting roster of collaborators, artists, and performers who hail from differing religious, ethnic, caste, class, gender, and cultural identities. Even in some of their earliest, and arguably some of their best known projects, like 1993’s “Hum Sab Ayodhya,” “Anhad Garje,” and “In Defense of Our Secular Tradition,” Sahmat responded to the overwhelming presence of cultural, ethnic, and religious antipathy (especially the frequently antagonistic relationship between Indian Hindus and Muslims) by mobilizing the political potential of various “Indian” cultural signifiers in conjunction with artistic collaboration and public engagement.

Hum Sab Ayodhya from Smart Museum of Art on Vimeo.

Within 48 hours of the 1992 destruction of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) in Ayodhya, at the hands of a Hindutva (Hindu Nationalist) mob that claimed the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, Sahmat disseminated around 200,000 inserts in newspapers and as posters on the streets of Delhi which bore the phrase, “Aaj koi naara na hoga, sirf desh bachaana hoga (there shall be no slogans today, our only task is to save the nation).” With the Hindutva sympathetic government largely unresponsive to the calamity of this event or the massive communal violence between Muslims and Hindus that immediately followed it, Sahmat organized the exhibition “Hum Sab Ayodhya” (We Are All Ayodhya). The project was an attempt to contest and recode the Hindutva ideology that went into the symbolic violence committed against the mosque and the actual violence it initiated against India’s Muslim population. “Hum Sab Ayodhya” was an experiment in historiography and pedagogy that brought together interdisciplinary research from US and Indian historians, scholars, and architects to unearth the multi-faceted ethnic, religious and cultural history of Ayodhya for public presentation. This project was one of the first to incorporate a crucial aspect of Sahmat’s conceptual apparatus—the retrieval of the historical co-existence and intermingling between ancient Sufi (Islamic mysticism) and Bhakti (Hindu mysticism) traditions on the sub-continent. Sahmat uses this invocation of Sufi-Bhakti history to claim that Indian culture and history is inherently or “authentically” hybrid and impure. Arguing that Sufi-Bhakti tradition makes up the “truly secular fabric of Indian culture” Sahmat defines their tactical utilization of these historical narratives as “the recovery of the authentic in Indian history and culture.” This is a claim that stands in direct opposition to Hindutva ideology, which conflates Indian national identity, Hinduism, and a false sense of cultural purity for a rationalization of social antagonism.

The first iteration of this exhibit consisted of a series of large broadsides containing the research on portable panels, and the second version was a smaller disseminable kit, which Sahmat promptly sent to activists, students and citizens. These panels and kits contained various historical notes on the extensive cultural and religious hybridity embedded within the city and the mosque. More specifically, this entailed texts and images addressing the influence that Bhakti-Sufi traditions had on each other, which is often asserted (and even idealized) in Sahmat’s work as a model for harmony and fluidity between Muslim and Hindu communities. For instance, one of the most controversial aspects of this exhibit, which ignited an 8-year legal battle between the group and the state government (ironically on charges ‘communal disharmony,’) was the inclusion of multiple versions of the Rama myth, which the Hindutva had originally used as a justification for the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Through multiple historical examples of intertwined Sufi-Bhakti expression in writing, poetry and painting, “Hum Sab Ayodhya” re-asserted the hybridized cultural history of Ayodhya in an effort to prove it was not a purely “Hindu” site to begin with. Recovering Sufi-Bhakti tradition as a historical counter narrative, “Hum Sab Ayodhya” takes Hindutva conceptions of ethnic, religious and cultural “authenticity” and perverts them into a political tool with a potential for changing public opinion. The exhibit’s claim that “Indian” national subjectivity was innately impure (culturally, socially and religiously) attempts to destabilize, and estrange the authoritative stability of Hindutva ideology — an ideology which sadly captivated large sectors of the public enough to create mass violence and antipathy between ‘majoritatrian’ Hindu “Indians” and all others considered ‘minorities.’

The violence against the Babri Masjid also set off an onslaught of property destruction, violence, rape, and mutilation against Muslims in countless Indian cities like Lucknow, Surat, Valod, Baroda, and Ahmedabad. This prompted Sahmat to organize numerous other festivals, campaigns, and projects in sites ravaged by this violence. Each of these works attempted to activate public sentiment for the purposes for placation, rather responding with more violence in a backlash against communal enmity. In the 1993 festival of performance, dance, music and lectures “Anhad Garje,” and the art and poster campaign “In Defense of Our Secular Tradition,” Sahmat pragmatically reinvigorated the historical legacy of Bhakti-Sufi tradition with intent to carve a space in the public sphere for a tolerant, secular attention to religious, cultural and ethnic difference.
“In Defense of Our Secular tradition” comprised an immersive poster campaign featuring Sufi and Bhakti couplets on varying topics such as social unity, accompanied by contemporary paintings by artists, like the modernist Muslim painter M.F. Husain (1915-2011). Husain and his work have often served as a rallying point for Sahmat, as he had to leave the country after his paintings, which frequently contain both Hindu and Muslim religious imagery, came under fierce attack by the then pro-Hindutva government. Utilizing the cheap reproducibility of the medium, and its political potential, Sahmat distributed thousands of these Sufi-Bhakti related posters to the public, various universities, and student organizations. In a similar vein, projects like “Anhad Garje” brought festivals of well-known Sufi-Bhakti musical performances, public speakers, and theater performances to various cities that had been most ravaged by communal violence incited by Hindu “authenticity”—such as Lucknow, Surat, Ahmedabad, and Valod.

Though the exact amount of influence the two religious sects of the Bhakti and Sufi had on each other is subject to historical debate, it is clear that many tenets of Islam in Sufism influenced Hinduism through Bhakti and this transference is evident in the eclectic music and the modes of artistic expression used by those performers and producers who claim either a Bhakti or Sufi identity. The factual question of whether the traditional legacies of Sufism, Bhaktism, or India itself, were historically secular or inherently hybrid, is not the lynch pin of these projects. It is instead the suggestions and implications created by that these claims to “authentic” hybridity, which seek to engage with the affective capacities of India’s public. Sahmat sought to reinstate Sufi-Bhakti traditional practices in these projects as “a humanized spirituality that demands opposition to tyranny,” they form resistance against Hindutva forces and their comfortable place within the history of Indian state politics.

As the art historian Karin Zitzewitz points out in a catalogue essay, there are great similarities between the Indian anti-colonial thinker and psychoanalyst Ashis Nandy’s idiosyncratic definition of secularism and that of the Sahmat Collective’s. To take this analysis a step further, it seems that Sahmat’s usage of the terminology redefines both Mohandas Gandhi’s ideas on cultural assimilation and Nandy’s similar ideas on secularism. Sahmat’s stance on Indian “authenticity” eschews Gandhi and Nandy’s particularly problematic designation of India’s cultural, ethnic, and religious hybridity as “unselfconscious Hinduism.” Post-colonial theorist Robert Young argues that Gandhi and Nandy’s concepts negatively maintain “an implicit Hinduism, even if ostensibly secular.” In Sahmat’s idiomatic definitions of “spirituality” and “authenticity” through cultural signifiers (like Bhakti-Sufism) in “Ahnad Garje” and “In Defense of our Secular Tradition,” the group removes the boundaries from Gandhi and Nandy’s theories, making hybridity much more than a facet of “unselfconscious Hinduism.” The projects of this period, and much of their later output, syncretically assemble a notion of “Indian” subjectivity predicated on hybridity and peaceful co-existence, rather than making essentializations about cultural and social identities.

Ways of Resisting from Smart Museum of Art on Vimeo.

Aside from their more explicitly public projects, Sahmat has organized contemporary art exhibitions like “Ways of Resisting” which responded to the religious and ethnic hostility following the 1993 Bombay riots which killed thousands and the ethnic conflicts in Gujarat (which killed around 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims) through a wide array of contributions from contemporary artists, all of which had experienced these conflicts first-hand. Some of the most notable pieces from this exhibition were Vivan Sundaram’s “Memorial” installations and Rummana Hussain’s “Home/Nation,” which both provide politicized insights on the nature of the conflicts and the detrimental fallout they created. “Memorial” is a collection of variously sized glass vitrines, which encase black and white photos, depicting a dead man lying in the streets during the Bombay riots, with formations of rusted nails lying atop them. Sundaram describes the pieces as, “an intervention in terms of the form of minimalism, say of Carl Andre or Donald Judd — positioning/filling an empty container from one’s own perspective.” By obfuscating the dead man in the black and white image with piles of nails, Sundaram’s pieces deny the usual function of emotive photography, such as rallying for one religious or national cause. Instead they ask viewers to realize the actual human cost of these religious and nationalistic riots through the reduction of the photographic imagery. By co-opting American minimalism to politicize their aesthetics, a move reminiscent of Paul Thek’s heated interventions between pop and minimalist art, Sundaram’s sculptures reinstate the traumatic experience of the untimely past against the Indian government’s (and many sectors of the populace’s) desire to overlook or minimize the unsightliness of these conflicts.

As a corollary, Rummana Hussain’s “Home/Nation” is a multimedia exploration of the permeable boundaries of the body, gender, and national identity. Forced to flee her family’s upper-class apartment in Mumbai due to the aggressive Bombay riots, Hussain had to reconcile with the fact that her “Muslimness” was now a moving target for a community often more than willing to stereotype and persecute. Motivated by the revelation that her maid had fearfully kept her mouth sores from HIV a secret from her employers, Hussain’s “Home/Nation” mirrors various photographs of horse shoe arch doorways, emblematic of Islamic architecture, with photographs of various women’s open mouths. By mapping the human body onto an urban landscape, Hussain’s piece interrogates the territorialization of constructed cultures, ethnicities and identities onto physical locations in India. Using the materiality of language as a point of departure, “Home/Nation” also features a collection of brown, black, and tan cubes with words like “Lucknow”, “Peel”, “Bangles”, “Bind”, and “Ayodhya” stenciled on them. This gesture illustrates the pliable, opaque and constructed nature of mythologies associated with words, in a Barthesian sense of the concept. Signified meanings like domestic duties (peel), ethnic populations of Indian locales (Lucknow, Ayodhya) and both cultural identity and femininity (bangles) are presented in no particular logic or syntax. This move allows Hussain to highlight internal instability of these cultural mythologies in an attempt to deconstruct the power relations between them— relation which contribute to the essentialization of gender and cultural identities and the persecution of others based on constructed social and cultural categories.

Though similar to many coterminous artist’s collectives of the ‘80s and ‘90s under similar dire economic, cultural, social and political circumstances, the most fascinating aspect of these groups is noting the specific ways in which they differ. Though the US collectives Group Material and Critical Art Ensemble formed against a similar backdrop of economic neo-liberalism and rampant culture wars, or the assembly of Huites Facettes and Le Groupe Amos in Africa responded to comparable issues of social inequity, contestations of national identity, and political violence, Sahmat’s constant negotiations of cultural difference and national “authenticity” used very different tactics and configurations. For instance, one of the most important and unique messages Sahmat’s work imputes is the idea that no negotiation of culture, religion, or ethnicity can ever remain reduced to simplistic binaries between the authentic and inauthentic, as the terminologies hold power, which can be pragmatically used to subvert violent, and exclusory ideology. Some critics have criticized Sahmat’s reliance on more ‘out-moded’ media forms, warned about their potential slide into heightened states of commodification for an international market, or even doubted the actual use-value and effectiveness of their actions for creating social change. While each of these issues are valid points, the most important thing to stress for Sahmat is that activity is not merely limited to objects produced from their various programs or the immeasurable successes and failures of their work. What is crucial to their enterprise is the attempted pedagogical value of its interactions, the larger platform for social resistance they make possible, and the possible awareness it propagates for observers and participants alike.

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