What does it feel like to be a citizen of a land of free speech, a land that respects human rights and a land that upholds its institutions and its wise and liberal Constitution? And, yet where you know you are completely alone and defenceless if people, with world views and ideals opposing yours, decided to come after you. Firstly, their ‘coming after you’ would be brutal, and perhaps even fatal. And, secondly, you belong to the world that is supposed to hold the mirror up to society, the world of the arts. And it is this very image that some members of society are reacting to, the ugly face of reality, the truth that they wish to crush, hide and erase. What can you do? To find courage? What can you do to muster your community of art makers around you? To support you, to stand by your side, to have your back, to strategise, to combat this force of ignorance, banality and violence. Who can you turn to?
I was shocked to hear a highly successful and respected artist tell me recently, in no uncertain terms, that she is sure that if ever she had to face the onslaught of social policing for her work, there would not be a single person or institution from her fraternity who would support her. This chilled me to the marrow. Is this my India? Is this 2017? Is this the home I have for my 14-year-old son? And most terrifying of all, are we going to become numb to this infringement of our free lives?
And doubly terrifying is the fact that the country—the US—that has become India’s aspirational mentor is demonstrating exactly how all the values we hold so dear to us can be stripped away. Yet, people gather on the streets to give each other courage.
Two weeks ago, Sadanand Menon mentioned an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that publicly snubbed Trump’s ban of immigrants from seven Muslim countries by displaying works of artists from the very same countries, stating boldly that they were installed “to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the US”.
Sadanand brought this up while interacting with more than 35 people from the field of the arts from across the country. Provoking dialogue he said, “Obviously, the only way to resist bullying is to stand up to it; can’t think of any such creative examples from institutions here; am reminded of the sheer speed with which galleries and museums took down M.F. Husain’s works when he was under attack.” There were pockets of resilience and outrage across the country, but nothing of the likes of what we have seen in the US.
What prevents us from coming together as a unified force? A strategic move that shows our strength and opposition to the forces that inhibit all that our country stands for? Is this fear of the state, of the potential relentless harassment, or of violent public vandalism, the fear for your life that provokes this paralysis, something unique to us in India? It is compounded by the inability to trust the authorities, both the police and legal systems that are meant to protect us. Or have other countries, too, faced similar situations? Have we really done all we can as a community to strengthen our ability to face such violence?
I speak from my experience at Prithvi Theatre, where I have had to face right-wing organisations’ bullying tactics. I have had to be strategic, but have always known that I could depend on a large force of theatrewallahs who would come to my defence. This gave me a huge sense of security, for I never felt alone. I am not belittling the fear—it is very real and the damage and danger very real, too. But are we quick, strategic and united enough in our response to engage when the call comes? Engage both physically and mentally?
What is the way forward? We have to find the answer. Time is running out.