A Black Friday and the Spirit of Sharmila: Protest Art of North East India
by Moushumi Kandali
“Her face is the face of Manipur, our hope personified…” Thus spoke the Neo GENE artists when I met them on 6th April, 2012 in Imphal and had a discussion about the complex dynamics of art, aesthetics and politics, artistic responsibility and role of protest art in terms of a turbulent history and volatile socio-political situation like Manipur. “The face of Manipur” which those artists referred in this context was that of Irom Sharmila Chanu the "Iron Lady of Manipur" who is a civil rights- political activist and poet. She has been on the world's longest hunger strike for more than 11 years, (since 2nd November 2000) to demand that the Indian government repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, (AFSPA, 1958), which she blames as the source for violence in Manipur and other parts of India's northeast. She started this strike in protest against the massacre at Malom (about 15 kilometres to the south-west of Imphal in Manipur, a brutal response to the failed attack by insurgents on a patrol party) killing ten civilians waiting for bus at a waiting shed including one eighteen year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner. As observed by Sharmila and the human right activists all over the world, the force behind the horrendous massacre was AFSPA, a special power deployed to the armed forces that allows a police personnel to arrest or shoot any person without any administrative approval, thereby giving licence for many heinous crimes. Since the initial days of AFSPA in force, the conduct of the armed forces have always been stalled in controversies over unjust incarceration, suspicious disappearances, rape and killing in the name of enquiry (as in the infamous case of Manorama), fake encounters killing more civilians than insurgents and violent torture of the innocents. The last decade, violent protestation, that includes Manipuri mothers parading naked, complementing the cause of Sharmila's struggle, have rocked the state. The artist community in Manipur has too reacted with numerous instances of protesting through art or art reflecting acute political reflexivity in various individual and collective levels. One of the significant among these was the exhibition named Spirit of Sharmila about which we shall discuss here.
However in this regard, we need to contextualise the entire socio political history of north-east to understand the complex strands of protest art in the region. But it would be beyond the scope of this limited space to discuss the overall dynamics of protest art in the entire north- east as this is a vast geo-political space with problematic complexities specific to each particular individual state. North-East has long been in the periphery of national mainstream imagination as an 'exotic- other' for mainstream theorists and their interpretations. While interpreting the dynamics of identity about this region the mainstream theorists have formulated a classical framework centred mainly around the problematic of economic distribution/re- distribution often sidetracking the cultural factor and the issue of ethnicity as a result of which new social movements in form of ethno-nationalism and identity assertion have sprang up as interventional strategies against the hegemonic socio-cultural domination. The north-eastern states evoke a sense of socio-political-psycho-cultural suppression, marginalization, turmoil and disturbance with regard to the existential/ circumstantial contexts encompassed by the common legacy of colonization, a hybrid, eclectic culture and history unique to this specific geo-political space. The land and the people of the north-eastern states can be seen as a unified, homogenised entity, segregated from the rest of the Nation by a “chicken neck” called Siliguri corridor though it can never be counted as a homogenized whole in the Hegelian sense of the Absolute. This sense of segregation, alienation and marginalization had translated into an acute separatist tendency (mostly in the post independent time) leading to extremist militancy declared as liberation movements for sovereign statehood in places like Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Tripura etc. It could be seen as repercussion of deep political negligence and apathetic attitude of the central machinery and the homogenizing tendency of the Nation-state in its aspiration to construct a National-Identity. The political furore, turmoil and instability that the major political liberation movement brought forth need no further mentioning as almost all the politically conscious people are aware about this crisis. The issue of ethno-nationalism had become the undeniable reality of the post colonial world which is the substratum of identity formation in the collective sphere of the culturally distinctive geo-political spaces like north-east based on language, history, memory and many such other factors.
Keeping this backdrop we can say that the protest art attempts to engage or address these issues as either against the socio-political injustices by the state machineries along with the nexus of the exploitative and corrupt power players or the hoary bloodshed triggered by both the insurgent groups and the anti insurgent forces. As stated earlier it would be difficult to discuss about the entire region and map the entire dynamics of Protest art happening in each states due to the distinct internal complexities of each and therefore we focus only the exhibition in support of Irom Sharmila by a group named “Neo-Gene” from Manipur and few new media artworks done in protest of a serial bomblast in five places in Assam (including Guwahati where again there were three serial blast within the city simultaneously) in 30th Oct, 2008, which came to be known as “Black Friday.” To quote their official manifesto in website www.epao.net, the Neo-Gene group was formed in the year 1997 “in the midst of tumultuous crises in the lives of the Manipur people, where there were feverish resistance against the onslaught of global capital and post-colonial repression by the corporate state to appropriate cultures and identities of the emerging peoples of North East India. Interiorizing the painful experience of victimhood which were forced upon a once proud tradition, these group of artists began the sensing of the genuine need to explore the aspirations and hopes of the new generation, who had inherited the tumult and thus born a wave of artistic expression, silent yet defiant of hegemony. Individual imageries are now welded into a collective of democratic resistance with a vision of their own reflecting the universal humanism of a freer world.” As part of the International Women's Day observance this particular painting exhibition entitled Spirit of Sharmila was launched at the Art Gallery of Department of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi on 8th March 2011. The fourteen paintings on canvas that were painted on the occasion of Festival of Hope, Justice and Peace to commemorate the completion of one decade of hunger strike by Irom Chanu Sharmila. The participating artists were Soram Bhubaneswor, R K Thambalsana Singh, Gandumpu Golmei, Thiyam Debendra Singh, Laishangthem Ishwor, Chandam Lalit Singh, Wahengbam Robin, Ngariyanbam Chandrasekher, and Kshetrimyum Sarat. Each of the painting depicts the central imagery of Sharmila in forced nasogastric intubation to weave around it the narration of violence and protest. The central motif of Sharmila's face transcends into a monumental iconography of peace and non violent protest in these paintings expressed in figurative narratology and woven in symbolic colours and complementary metaphors of death and bloodshed. Colours speak poignantly in L Ishwor's thick pulsating red connoting his symbolism of bloodshed and killings. If in N. Chandrasekhar's narration she is estranged in the nihilistic chaos in the decaying yellow, in Chandam Lalit's expansive pure white colouration Sharmila transforms into that picassosque white dove signifying peace. In R K Thambalsana's works if at one Sharmila envelopes the entire humane-scape in suffering almost in reminiscence of Mother Teresa while at another hovers over the globe in an angelic incarnation inside a death ring. In Denendra, Robin, Golmei, Soram and Sarat's works too we can see the spirit of Sharmila spreading in evocative and emotive manner rendered within the vocabulary of expressionistic symbolism and surrealistic idiom.
The protest art which are commemorative of the Black Friday in Assam were however not a collective expression like the Neo-Gene artists of Manipur but sporadic individual phenomenon done within the span of a month or a year in protest against that horrific event. The installation called Against Holocaust and Terrorism by Rajkumar was installed in the Dighalipukhuri paar, the bank of the 500 year old pond in the heart of Guwahati city, where the artist erected three huge door frames all burned in fire. In front of those doors in the open space few children were asked to draw something with chalk on the floor with their own imagination. It was installed simultaneously to a rally summoned by the civil society of Guwahati where people gathered to protest against the brutal killing of hundreds of people in the blast. Another artist namely Dadul Chaliha enacted another installation in the same place to commemorate the hoary incident and protest against the ruthless violence on the same day after one year. The installation was enacted with earthen lamp and paper flowers to put across the message of resistance against violence by using materials which were bio degradable. Another installation enacted along with these two was done by Dilip Tamuly within few days of the blast in the cemetery of Vasistha ashram area in Guwahati, a holy place known as Vasistha Muni's Ashram in local belief. Rendered poignantly with an earthen pot signifying the ritualistic urn used for the rites in funerals, several multicoloured threads and a stone found in the nearby forest area of the cemetery area, this work Foundation Stone of a Cemetery became the metaphorical representation of Black Friday. Tamuly also directed a performance in keeping to the subject of the installation, executed by his students of the Govt. College of art and craft where he is a faculty member. It is worth mentioning herein that Tamuly's Cerebral Corner (the first installation of the region done in 1990) was also an instance of protest art which depicted the violence attributed to common people in the name of counter insurgency operation by the nation-state referring to a horrendous incident where seven innocent village youth were tied to a motor tyre and brutally burned to death by army personnel in a place called Panka in Assam during the eighties creating furore for human right violation in the entire country.1
In fact the history of modern art in north-east is also a vibrant history of politically reflexive endeavours which can be discussed within the paradigm of protest art. The first instance of protest art in the modernist expression could be traced in the painting named Opium Eater/Opium Den (1926) by Muktanath Bordoloi who was one of the pioneering first generation trained artists of Assam. In this painting acute socialist concern is manifested through the depiction of the horrific reality of a social evil called opium consumption by the downtrodden and the economically lower class of the society which was a the gift of colonial exploitation! The catastrophic outcome had been revealed in the melancholic atmosphere of the narrative weaving within the dark shades of grey hues and forming a gloomy tonal gradation into which the three skeletal figures hungrily engrossed in consuming opium were projected. Tracing back little further to the pre-modern time in late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, in the traditional sculptural reliefs done on the walls of the Sattra, the vaishnavite monasteries of Assam in Sualkuchi, one can see interesting depictions of Krishna- Balram in Indian freedom fighter's garb and the Kamsa in British attire. Such rendering can be undoubtedly placed within the category of Protest art where acute political awareness could be witnessed in subtle manner as the unknown traditional painters raised their protest against colonialism in the masquerading vocabulary of religious art depicting the myth battle of Krishna and Kamsa!2
1.Refer my articles About Nightmares of History: Installation Art of North-East, ARTFAIR, Issue 3, 2012, Modernity at Crossroads: Two Decades Of Artistic Mediation in Assam, LKC, Vol- 45, 2002,and Death Rattle of Reason: Resonance in the art of North East, the forthcoming issue of LKA, for further investigation in political/protest art of north-east.
2.Refer my article The Colonial Impression on Vaishnavite Art Form of Assam: A Study of the Sculptural Reliefs of Srihati Satra, in the Oxford Anthology of Writings from North- East India, Ed. Tilottama Misra, OUP, New Delhi, 2011.