Protest Art in New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University

You realize how strong yet vulnerable young people are when you listen to them defend an idea they are charged with. You want to both protect their innocence as well as watch them go forth and discover the power of their own voice.

My first introduction to Hafsa Aman, Simeen Anjum, Mushtaq, Kulsum Sheikh, Rehan Khan, Amaan Siddiqui and Mishqat Ansari was on the video edit table where my colleagues Sandeep Yadav and Imran Khan were scrolling through the footage they had shot with this band of artists. For over a year, we’ve been creating short films for the Internet, on themes of shared heritage, socio-cultural diversity, as well as to document hate crimes and violence that are published on the Karwan e Mohabbat channel on Youtube. Last week, Yadav and Khan had gone out to film a story on protest art and had returned inspired and impressed with the camaraderie and bonding they found among young artists.

Many of them had met each other only after the attack by the police on Jamia Millia Islamia University on 15 December 2019. Some of them are students of Jamia, others are independent artists who have joined in solidarity. Most are creating art in public spaces for the first time.

“Not everyone can face the public or media or make speeches. Art is another way in which we can express our views. And we have found in the last 45 days that it does convey our message very powerfully and effectively,” says Hafsa Aman, who is from Bodh Gaya and has just completed her MBA. She lives in the neighbourhood around Jamia University and felt compelled to join the protests against the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act as well as police excesses in Uttar Pradesh and in University campuses.

Hafsa points to the gracefully pleated aqua coloured hijab around her face and says, “Wherever I go, even among my friends, I am constantly asked questions about why I wear the hijab. I am told that it is a symbol of my oppression. When the protests started, I saw people painting banners and posters. She quotes the popular lines by the revolutionary poet, Majaz:

“Tere maathey pe ye aanchal bahut hi khoob hai lekin,
Tu is aanchal ka ik parcham bana leti to achha tha.”

(This veil on your forehead is beautiful,
but it would be even better if you transformed it into a majestic flag)

“This couplet came to my mind and I was inspired. Everyday I do calligraphy on a new piece of cloth and wrap it around my shoulders. I wear what I want to share with the world.” On her Instagram feed, Hafsa has created a gallery of her art, which combines revolutionary poetry with her calligraphic skills and uses her hijab as a medium of expression.

This group of young students and artists have been visiting various sites of sit-in protests in the city and offering to paint for them. They find themselves welcomed with gratitude and supported with art supplies and hearty meals. They write Hindustani poetry and lyrics of revolutionary songs on banners. They draw the diverse faces of women and children from the crowd of protestors. They paint faces of students who have been injured by bullets, pellets and tear gas shells. They immortalize leaders from history as well as present times — Gandhi, Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, the president of the Bhim Army.

When I first got in touch with Simeen, she was at a protest site in south Delhi’s Hauz Rani area and agreed to chat with me after midnight. “Will it be too late for you,” she asked me tentatively, making me smile at her concern.
21-year-old Simeen is a student of Fine Arts and shared that while they had studied and done wall art as part of their curriculum, it is only now, when things have become personal for her, that she has experienced its transformative power.

“Most of us were in a felt very traumatized after 15 December. It was hard to understand what to do with our sense of loss and outrage. I decided to support the anti-CAA-NRC protests as an artist and use the walls of the city to express our hurt and anguish. We also paint our dreams and wishes.
“Walls are the publishers of the poor,” Simeen remembers a quote she has read somewhere. “These are our printing press and our newspaper.”

“What have you learnt about the city and yourself in these few weeks,” I ask her.
“This unity thing,” she says. “I never knew so many people could come together and offer so much support and power to each other. Our world has become so much larger now…all because of one mis-step by the government that has pushed us to act in defiance. We feel pained but we will be a lot more sensitive and empathic in future.”

Art students from other universities in Delhi, particularly Ambedkar University have been collaborating with these artists from Jamia at various sites. A regular in their group is the freelance artist, Mushtaq, who shares a poignant life story.

“I wanted to join the army as a child. I became ill as a teenager and had to undergo surgery. I felt that my dreams were shattered. I couldn’t concentrate on studies either. I would feel elated when I saw army men in uniform and then be sad that I couldn’t be one of them.”

Mushtaq supports himself by working as a commercial artist. When he saw the students of Jamia painting murals on walls, he joined to help them. They appreciated his contributions and now they meet daily and execute new works of art.

“Today I realize that it was good for me that I couldn’t join the army or the police, otherwise I would have found myself committing the same gunaah (sins) against these students. Now I can stand by them and get their duas (blessings) instead,” says Mushtaq, looking at the paintbrushes in his hands.

(This story was first published in Mint Lounge on 1 Feb, 2020.)

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Natasha Badhwar

I write to live. It slows me down, makes me see, reflect, explain, forgive. Writing is my self care. My books : My Daughters' Mum and Immortal For A Moment