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Sahmat, which means ‘in agreement’ in Hindi, is a Delhi-based arts collective founded in 1989. The group was formed in direct response to the death of Safdar Hashmi, a beloved political activist, actor, playwright and poet who was mortally attacked by Hindutva (Hindu right wing) extremists in 1989. The collective’s relentless work over the last thirty years, and its ongoing activities today, aim to counter the divisive politics of communalism, the term used for politically motivated, often violent conflicts between religious groups in South Asia. Sahmat’s work unfolds against the backdrop of a right-wing upsurge of Hindu majoritarian communalism that exploded in the 1990s, and that has evolved into our times. This history is marked by key events, including the destruction of Ayodhya’s Babri Mosque in 1992 by Hindu extremists, the Gujarat riots in 2002, the governmental legislation in Jumma and Kashmir in 2019, and most recently the much contested Citizenship Amendment Act that, according to critics and legal scholars, is designed to favour India’s Hindu majority in violation of the secular principles enshrined in the 1947 Constitution.
Sahmat’s powerful combination of experimental and outreach projects span all creative disciplines. The group has organised hundreds of innovative and experimental events in the name of artistic and socio-political solidarity across farranging communities in India, its creative core fuelled rather than curtailed by an economy of means. Plurality is at the heart of Sahmat’s ethos, and the cooperative has worked across wide-ranging styles from contemporary to classical with artists, poets, singers, actors, film-makers, puppeteers, photojournalists, and others connecting to all members of India’s fractured society, whatever their caste, religious or social status. From public processions to street performances, from poetry and music festivals to puppet shows, from conferences and publications to ambitious exhibitions opening simultaneously in up to thirty cities across India, their efforts have focused on strengthening collective action, to counter division and elevate a culture of solidarity. The collective’s capacity for reacting quickly to unfolding events, as well as its dedication and resilience, makes it stand out within the history of collective and solidarity-driven practices in South Asia.
Amongst the myriad cultural activities catalysed by Sahmat, this exhibition features a selection of artists from the following three exhibitions:
‘Gift for India’ (1997)
Conceived and coordinated by the artists Vivan Sundaram, Ram Rahman and Shamshad on behalf of Sahmat, ‘Gift for India’ was a project marking the 50th anniversary of Indian independence and the life of the young nation-state. Prompted by models of mail-art, whose inherent democratic and creative possibilities echoed Sahmat’s working values, the project call received responses from nearly 200 artists from around the world and opened at the Lalit Kala Akademi Galleries in Rabindra Bhawan in September 1997. Artists were invited to use approximately 12 cm cardboard cubes as a starting point for their sculptures. The returned submissions varied broadly as the artists experimented with different materials such as paint, mud, salt, tea leaves, eggshells and hair. In addition to the selection of artists presented in this exhibition (TM Azis, Eleena Banik, Rosa Irigoyen, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Pavan Mahatta, Eric Metcalfe, Alnoor Mitha, Prashant Munkherjee, Peter Nagel, Kavita Shah, Jin Sook Shinde and P. Srinivasan), other contributors to the original project included Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, Lynda Benglis, Alfredo Jaar, Mary Kelly, Kaisu Koivisto and Ilona Lovas. ‘The care with which some of our foreign participants have conceived and crafted this small sculptural object is gratifying,’ writes Sundaram in the introduction to the catalogue. ‘The messages that have come with the boxes’, he continues, ‘endorsing the idea, Sahmat’s existence, artists’ solidarity on a common imaginative ground, makes the project truly a gift among friends.’
‘The Making of India’ (2004)
Also organised by Ram Rahman, Shamshad and Vivan Sundaram, this exhibition commemorated fifteen years of Sahmat activities. Searching for a non-linear historical presentation that examined ‘ideas, sites, cultural traditions, artifacts, architecture and social transformation through history’, the project aimed to provide a counter-narrative of national construction in the face of majoritarian efforts to undermine the plurality of India’s cultural and religious identities. The show opened in three locations – Rabindra Bhawan, Vadhera Art Gallery and Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics – all in Delhi, over the period of January to February 2004.
‘Making History Our Own’ (2007)
Sahmat launched this exhibition, conceived by Ram Rahman, to highlight the artists’s commitment to the making of a nation and its narratives, and to show how artists can witness and respond to the reality of India’s history through grass-roots perspectives. Organised in 2007 and coinciding with both the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence and 150 years since the 1857 Red Fort uprising in Delhi, an important moment in the shaping of Indian history, the project raised questions on caste, on the enforcement of one language over others, and the artificial dominance of centralised structures over smaller social groups. For their works, artists used elements of their own history as sources in relation to larger constructions of the idea of India. This multi-layering of identities, celebrating individuality within collective national imaginaries, challenged the homogenising and dominant forces advocated by the coalition of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups (under the banner of Sangh Parivar) and advocated for a collective solidarity with all facets of India’s plural society. The exhibition opened at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) in Delhi, January 2007.
Every year on 1 January, nominated by Sahmat as the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Day, an event is organised in Delhi to commemorate the occasion. A stage is erected and covered with hand-painted banners adorned with poetry from all cultural and religious groups in India, as well as words and images echoing Safdar Hashmi’s and Sahmat’s core ethos. The textiles are dyed in a myriad of colours and provide a celebratory space of distinct warmth. For the hundreds of attendees who return every year, it is a much-awaited event to reconnect with artists, intellectuals and friends who have regularly swelled the ranks of Sahmat’s rallies and gatherings. For new participants, it is a hospitable gathering and safe space in which to discuss solidarity and anti-communalism, and forge new plans. These banners operate as Sahmat’s unique visual identity. They gather thoughts by German revolutionary thinker Bertolt Brecht, Urdu poetry by the Pakistani Marxist Faiz Ahmad Faiz, quotes by the famed modernist Hindustani author Munshi Premchand, as well as images of Mahatma Gandhi by artist Nandalal Bose (a key figure of contextual Indian modernism) attuned to the finely balanced performances on stage. The banners are in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and English. They reflect various socio-political and cultural movements characteristic of India’s inherent plurality, among them the Sufi-Bhakti traditions that have survived and evolved through centuries, and from which Sahmat derives considerable source material.
Since its inception, Sahmat has published prolifically, producing numerous books, catalogues, leaflets and other printed material for public circulation in support of its programmatic activities and mission as a collective. In an introduction to one of their earliest books, Artists Alert, celebrated Indian critic Geeta Kapur recounts the atmosphere after Safdar Hashmi’s death and unwittingly sets the stage for the next thirty years of Sahmat’s activities: ‘Interrupting the routine of survival and success there are causes that bring artists together. Fortunately, there is still a sense of community and on occasion a sense of solidarity among Indian artists. This is such an occasion.’ It is just one of many seminal moments in Sahmat’s publication history, which here is represented through its books Artist Alert (1989), Art Against Communalism (1991), Images and Words (1992), Gift for India (1997), The Making of India (2007) and The Constitution of India at 70: Artists Respond (2021).