The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989

February 14 – June 9, 2013

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Since 1989, the influential Delhi-based Sahmat has offered a platform for artists, writers, poets, musicians, actors, and activists to create and present works of art that promote artistic freedom and celebrate secular, egalitarian values.

The collective formed in the weeks after playwright, actor, and activist Safdar Hashmi was fatally attacked by political thugs while performing a street play. In the more than twenty years since, Sahmat has drawn on India’s secular heritage and an expansive group of collaborators to produce a series of projects that engage in important political and social debates through a mix of high art and street culture. This exhibition will introduce Sahmat's work to the United States through a survey of art and ephemera while assessing the impact this unique—and sometimes controversial—collective has had on contemporary Indian society and artistic practice.

About Safdar Hashmi

Safdar_240.jpgSafdar 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. He was deeply committed to secularism and egalitarianism, and built 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. The name is both an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and the Hindi word for "in agreement."

India's culture wars

UnityDiversity_240.jpgEver since, Sahmat has been at the heart of what co-curator Ram Rahman likens to "India's culture wars."

Animated by the urgent belief that art can propel change and that culture can reach across boundaries, Sahmat has offered a platform for an expansive group of artists and collaborators to present powerful works of art that defend freedom of expression and battle intolerance within India's often divisive political landscape.

Sahmat's projects (timeline PDF) 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.

Videos

In a series of videos, artists and other collaborators discuss Sahmat's history and its impact on contemporary art-making in India.

Browse all the videos below (or on Vimeo). They're also available on iPads in the exhibition itself.

Sahmat's Beginnings

Sahmat's Beginnings

National Street Theatre Day

National Street Theatre Day

Slogans for Communal Harmony

Slogans for Communal Harmony

Sufi-Bhakti Traditions

Sufi-Bhakti Traditions

Anhad Garje

Anhad Garje

Hum Sab Ayodhya

Hum Sab Ayodhya

Muktnaad

Muktnaad

Tribute to Gandhi

Tribute to Gandhi

Postcards for Gandhi

Postcards for Gandhi

Art on the Move

Art on the Move

Ways of Resisting

Ways of Resisting

The Making of India

The Making of India

M.F. Husain

M.F. Husain

Tributes to M.F. Husain

Tributes to M.F. Husain

On Performance

On Performance

Sahmat's Legacy

Sahmat's Legacy

Participating 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.

See a complete list of all those who have participated in Sahmat projects (PDF).

Tour

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
September 13, 2013–January 5, 2014

Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Ontario
July 24–October 19, 2014

Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles
April 19–August 2, 2015

Curators

Jessica Moss, Smart Museum Associate Curator for Contemporary Art, and Ram Rahman, photographer and independent curator.

Support

The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989 is made possible by The Smart Family Foundation; Helen Zell; the Efroymson Family Fund, a CICF Fund; The Joyce Foundation; and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Larry & Marilyn Fields; Barbara Fosco, The Fosco Family Foundation; Lisa and Michael Kornick; and the University of Chicago’s Committee on Southern Asian Studies.

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Presented in the Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery and the Robert and Joan Feitler Gallery.


Images:

Photo documenting Sahmat's 1992 auto-rickshaw project, Slogans for Communal Harmony. The text reads: "Call Him Ishwar, Allah, Wahe-Guru, or Shri Ram, if you will / These are but different names for the one creator."

Safdar Hashmi performing in a Janam street play, ca. late 1970s. Photo courtesy Janam archive.

Nalini Malani, still from Unity in Diversity, 2003, video, 7 minutes, 30 seconds. Collection of Walsh Gallery archives.
 
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  • Eye on India

    A unique and colorful extravaganza of Indian culture, the annual Eye on India festival honors the wealth of India's cultural heritage by showcasing the best of Indian dance, theater, music, literature, cuisine, film, traditional health and wellness and visual arts.

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  • The exhibition will be accompanied by a substantial, full-color publication that offers new interdisciplinary perspectives on Sahmat as well as investigations into India’s history, politics, and culture from University of Chicago scholars, members of Sahmat, and other specialists.

    Learn more »

    Distributed by the University of Chicago Press.

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