Global Affairs Politics

Protesting with Color

Using Art as A Tool for Resistance at the Farmers' Protest in India.

By Aatika Singh

Amid the surge in coronavirus cases throughout India, let us look at the art that donned the protest site at the Tikri border in the outskirts of Delhi as a hopeful reminder of the enduring strength of the impoverished and the incarcerated.  

I was working on an Art Installation Project at Tikri Border titled, ‘Farmers’ Art Project’ from 16- 23 January. Tikri border lies at the intersection of Delhi and Haryana; and is currently hosting lakhs of farmers stationed on its ‘lands’. Tikri along with Singhu and Ghazipur border has become the site of farmers’ protests against the three corporate Farm Acts, namely, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020, The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. I was invited to conceptualize and execute Political Art ideas relating to dissent on the site for everyday visibility and interaction. 

The farmers’ movement in its 240th day today on 23 July with a toll of 546 and above has garnered widespread national, international support and attention with multiple unions, social groups and political organizations participating in the cause. The striking achievement of the protest has been the inward transformation and critical inquiry into the feudal and privatized world of Indian agriculture. After sustaining itself through multiple incidents of repression, fake news and state violence, and battling the heat wave sweeping the northern part, the farmers stay firm on their demands against the death order of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government. The resolve, albeit with its own caste contradictions, of the farmer is the highest indicator of neoliberal Hindutva’s fallibility. The farmers as of now are working to intensify the protest sites that saw numbers deplete due to the new waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile local leaders in rural Punjab and Haryana are keeping the morcha thriving. 

The first project I undertook centered on the representation of the oppressed in agriculture through the use of cotton cloth banners of five symbolic shades with acrylic as the primary base. The first shade I used as a canvas was Green to represent the organic relationship between land and farmers in India. This shade was also traditionally used to write poetry about various cultural heroes that unfortunately got lost with time and other political reasons. Lal Singh Dil was a path-breaking anti-caste revolutionary poetry based in the feudal-agrarian landscape of Punjab. The poetry is about a girl singing to her father, mourning the loss of their land and, as a consequence, the death of her dreams; this was chosen as the first site of the Art project. Dil was specifically chosen because the current movement lacks an explicit caste-based mobilization and therefore, it becomes pertinent to highlight the emerging solidarity among Dalit landless farmers and dominant caste farmers who are the face of the ongoing movement.

The second green canvas was devoted to Premchand. He was a prolific writer of modern Hindustani literature of the early twentieth century. In one of his verses, he asks, why is it necessary to protest and agitate? He answers the question by pointing out that it is only via protest that we can prove that we are alive and fighting. Further, the project was inspired by a short poetic verse of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian author and poet, in which he warns those in positions of power to be beware of his anger and to be beware of his hunger. No other words can succinctly sum up the present movement with thousands of revolutionaries sitting at the borders of the national capital this aptly. The fourth Green canvas represented  an intersectional solidarity-based approach to Art by writing a big No to Citizenship Amendment Act along with the famous lines “Hum kaagaz nahi dikhayenge” (We will not show our papers), written by stand up comic and writer Varun Grover.

For the second canvas, I chose the color white to highlight the contributions of farm unions in mobilizing hundreds of farmers and organizing one of India’s largest Performative Assembly of dissent demanding the repeal of the three corporate laws. The first white banner narrates Terisa Siagatonu, who is an award-winning Samoan poet and a mental health educator. She cracks open the head of colonial conquest in her powerful poetry on reclaiming land and sovereignty. The second banner espouses the cause of the farmer as the founder of human civilization, accompanied by the third white canvas that quietly floats in the winter breeze and proclaims that the government’s order has already failed since the government needs a warlike siege to implement it slyly.

Yellow in the project represented the ongoing inter-cultural solidarity and the spirit of communitarian living, which is making roots at the three borders right now. In one of the yellow canvases, the words “Modi cannot gaslight us” are spelled out in bold letters. It’s a signpost to the visitors from different universities and organizations that abuse is recognized this time. The second canvas poignantly asks the spectator, “if the corporate agenda in India was ever civil?” The third canvas exposes the thick skin of the state as it jumps on mere shadows. 

The last yellow canvas encapsulates the striking words of the Soviet-Ukranian poet Lyudmila Khersonskaya  who famously wrote, “When a country of – overall – nice people turns – slowly – fascist, nice people do not notice this transformation all at once. Nice people nod when they run into each other, and try, more and more, to lower their eyes, until finally, raising them becomes an inhuman act.”

The fourth canvas uses the revolutionary color red to bring forth the powerful  words of the famous anti-caste poet Omprakash Valmiki when he equates poetry to a harvest and metamorphoses them into a labor of love. The second red canvas points out that workers are the real sustainers of society, and hence the landless are my friend and not the corporate. The other canvas gives a lens to the gendered reality of cultivation and juxtaposes that against the heavy presence of women in the ongoing movement. The last red canvas boldly declares, ‘No to Corporate Fascism’. The color blue represents equality and emancipation. The first blue canvas exposes the reality of Indian society by fearlessly announcing where Caste is law; laws cannot be real.  The second canvas is inspired by James Baldwin’s powerful words, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” The protesting farmers could be seen emanating from the five different canvases and finding their own selves in the voices of the many marginalized.    

The second part of the project was to conceptualize and construct an effigy of the International Monetary fund (IMF).  The IMF recently issued a statement in support of the three draconian laws. Various farmers constructed the effigy under the guidance of a local ‘Raavan-maker, Jaipal Singh from Najafgarh, Delhi. The idea was conceptualized by Randeep Maddoke- who is an activist turned photographer famous for his landmark documentary film, Landless- Do the Scarecrows have their own Land, and me. Jaipal primarily uses Bamboo as the main element in all his work. The effigy became a two-way process between Jaipal and I, wherein our worlds became one, strewn together with dreams. The effigy was razed to dust at Tikri through lighting fire fueled by farmers’ righteous rage and indignation. The effigy was given the shape of a disgruntled American gentleman symbolic of the IMF. The effigy, on the one hand, holds a briefcase that carries the agenda of Indian corporations and the fascist government, and the other hand, carries a famished farmer wearing blue, indicating the caste reality of the onslaught driven by the neoliberal economy that is ready to be eaten up alive by the Goliath of modern capitalist State. The effigy is full of additional details that give the caricature a contemporary reminder of Fascism creeping up our sleeves. The shirt and the trousers of the effigy contain other fine details including the names of big corporates ready to devour the Land, like WTO, Cargill, Reliance etc. The clothes resemble the suit worn by the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, with his name spelled all over! The burning of this effigy by the farmers turned into a collective expression of triumphant togetherness at a time marked by an overwhelming sense of impoverishment amidst assertion.  

About the Author

Aatika Singh is a Delhi based artist. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her primary research is about the intersections of art history and the anti Caste movement. Her previous projects were based on gender, mental health and marginality. She has been working on a series of protest art at the ongoing farmers protest at Tikri Kalan. She finished her law graduation from National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata in 2018 after which she was employed with Navayana Publishing briefly. She is passionate about alternative cinema, resistance visuality and rural activism traditions.

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