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Group exhibition explores India's culture wars, adds new chapter to the global history of activist art
Interior of performance tent, Safdar Hashmi Memorial, The Making of India, January 1, 2004.

CHICAGO, IL.- In 1989, playwright, actor, and activist Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by political thugs while performing a street play outside of Delhi. His death led to the founding of Sahmat, a vital platform for contemporary art in India and the subject of a new exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Through a mix of art and ephemera, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 (February 14 – June 9, 2013) uniquely situates two decades of contemporary Indian art within the political sphere while meditating on art’s capacity as a force for change.

“For the American viewer it may help to see these works in the context of the ‘culture wars’ as they are playing out in India,” said co-curator Ram Rahman. “Sahmat’s projects also reflect the camaraderie and community spirit of the Indian art scene, where artists of different generations and philosophical outlooks still have a close-knit sense of community and purpose.”

Sahmat is both an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and the Hindi word for “in agreement.” Based in Delhi, the group pursues a mission of resistance against the forces that threaten “the essentially pluralist and democratic spirit of creative expression in India.” To this end, Sahmat has engaged a broad base of collaborators—from celebrated artists and scholars to writers, musicians, and rickshaw drivers—to create and present works of art that defend freedom of expression and battle intolerance within India’s often divisive political landscape. The exhibition introduces Sahmat to the United States by examining key projects from 1989 to the present day, including street-based mobile shows, large cultural sit-ins, performances, and conceptual exhibitions. In addition to surveying Sahmat’s multifaceted history, the exhibition assesses the impact this unique—and sometimes controversial—collective has had on contemporary Indian society and artistic practice.

The Sahmat Collective is co-curated by Jessica Moss, Smart Museum Associate Curator for Contemporary Art, and Ram Rahman, a photographer and independent curator.

Exhibiting artists
The Sahmat Collective includes works in a variety of media from over sixty artists including Manjeet Bawa, Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Zarina Hashmi, Rummana Husain, Bharti Kher, Pushpamala N., Nalini Malani, Gigi Scaria, Nilima Sheikh, and Vivan Sundaram.

Safdar Hasmi and the founding of Sahmat
Safdar Hashmi (1954–1989) was a political activist, actor, playwright, poet, and founding member of the street theater group Jana Natya Manch, or Janam (“birth”) for short. Like many of his generation in India, he was deeply committed to secularism and egalitarianism—principles that drove the nation’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. He helped build Janam into a forum for democratic and accessible theater aimed at political change.

On January 1, 1989, Hashmi and Janam were violently attacked while performing the play Halla Bol! (Raise Your Voice!) during municipal elections outside of Delhi. Hashmi died of his injuries the next day. His death aroused a nationwide wave of revulsion against political violence and led to the founding of Sahmat.

Exhibition themes and sections
In the more than twenty years since Hashmi’s death, Sahmat has drawn on India’s secular heritage and an expansive group of collaborators to produce a series of projects that engage in political and social debates through both traditional and less conventional forms of art.

The Sahmat Collective is divided into a twelve case studies of key themes and projects: Sahmat’s Beginnings (1989), Children’s Books (1989–1990), Images and Words (1991–1992), Slogans for Communal Harmony (1992), Ayodha: the Demolition of the Babri Masjid and After (1992–1993), Tribute to Gandhi (1994–1995), Gift for India (1997), Art on the Move (2001), Ways of Resisting (2002–2003), Reasserting Secularism (2004–2007), Free Speech and Defending Husain (1996–ongoing), and Performance (1989–ongoing).

These projects are defined in part by their consistent stance against the threat of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism—known in South Asia as “communalism”—in public life. Collaborations have cut across class, caste, and religious lines and have involved artists, performers, scholars, and a wide array of other participants, such as the Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim auto-rickshaw drivers in the contest “Slogans for Communal Harmony.” Projects also have sought to counter political distortions to India’s history, most notably in Sahmat’s multifaceted response to the demolition of Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) in Ayodhya. In other cases, Sahmat has sought to celebrate India’s cultural diversity and democratic ideals, engaging artists to create work that responds to ideas of national history and individual identity.

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