“In dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing, about the dark times.”
German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s words echoes and remains relevant, particularly in South Asia, as underscored by prominent artists at Resisting Together: Art and the Artist in South Asia, a recent online gathering.
The discussion, organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network (Sapan) highlighted how the arts and resistance shape each other especially as the region’s regimes drift towards authoritarianism.
The deliberations highlighted how political turmoil and violence have catalysed creativity with many artists grounding their work in response to the challenges.
“There is an artist in each one of us,” asserted event host Kavita Srivastava, a human rights activist and feminist in Jaipur.
As revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz once said about the artists’ role in time of turmoil: “Even though I run no state, I command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper, and my brother is my whole mankind.” said the well-known revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, talking about the role of the artist in resisting injustice.
Faiz felt closest to those who were “the insulted, the humiliated, homeless and the disinherited, the poor and the hungry and sick at heart.”
Faiz’s daughter, noted artist and educator Salima Hashmi shared his words during her presentation to the meeting. She demonstrated how art is not about a product, but engaging with and critiquing where we live, how we live and what we can do.
Her own evocative painting Poem for Zainab emerged in response to a horrific case of domestic violence in the 1990s in which a woman was violated by her cleric husband.
From Kathmandu, art curator Sangeeta Thapa of the Siddhartha Art Gallery said: “South Asia is an ancient culture but we are also new nations, and that comes with its own trials and tribulations. The Maoist insurgency was a time of great sorrow, but also marked the beginning of a new age of artivism and collaboration.”
The upcoming Kathmandu Triennale to be launched on 11 February aims to touch upon indigenous voices.
From Colombo, the Sri Lankan artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara said that Sri Lanka’s 30-year long civil war had physically ended, but many issues remained unsolved and questions remained unanswered.
He also spoke about the misuse of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act to stifle freedom of expression. The struggle within the arts for a new language led to the establishment of the Heywood Institute, now the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. “Without changing mindsets, we can’t go forward”, he said. “Artists must respond to the politics of hate, religious extremism and militarisation.
Artist and cultural activist Lubna Marium in Dhaka talked about the difficulties of surviving as an artist “without ever subscribing to any political party or any regime”. She has been engaged in this struggle for 50 years in Bangladesh, where she runs one of the largest dance companies in the country.
A Sanskrit scholar, Marium is deeply involved in researching and understanding arts and aesthetics, and is part of a Trust that manages Shodhona: A Center for Advancement of Southasian Culture.
“Resilience is necessary but it is not necessary to be always resistant,” she said. “The concept of resilient subjects as apolitical subjects overlooks the ‘transformability’ of resilience, which in part is about innovating and sowing the seeds of transformation”.
Eminent vocalist T M Krishna in Chennai highlighted the problem with focusing only on resisting the state, often at the expense of important and difficult internal conversations. An exponent of the rigorous Carnatic tradition of India’s classical music and public intellectual who regularly engages on socio-cultural issues, he stressed the need to introspect and ask difficult questions.
“We need to step back and look at the ugliness in society — whether it’s caste, gender, ethnic othering,” he said. “It’s the people who are on the margins who ask the difficult questions about social and political structures because their conditionality makes it difficult for them to remain silent. Meanwhile, those who are privileged, the middle class and upper classes, aid and abet every form of violence in society.”
The link between art and resilience as well as resistance was highlighted also by eminent feminist activist and theatre and dance exponent Sheema Kermani who joined the session from Karachi. Simply performing classical Bharatanatyam and Odissi in Pakistan was “an act of defiance, an act of resistance, to the kind of suppression of these arts that we saw during Zia ul Haq’s regime”.
In solidarity with the struggle of the Afghans, the event featured a brief clip from a poem by Ghani Khan, the late prominent Pushto poet, philosopher and artist and son of the highly regarded peace activist Abdul Gaffar Khan. Human rights activist and physician Dr Fauzia Deeba from Quetta introduced the musical rendition by the singer Sardar Ali Takkar.