The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989

February 14 – June 9, 2013

Slogans for Communal Harmony

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."

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 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

Ever 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.

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).


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


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.

Free public programs

Opening Reception
February 13, 2013, 7–8:30 pm

Voices of Change
February 16, 2013, 2 pm

Film Screening:
Disrupted Divas, Conflicting Pathways
February 16, 2013, 4:30 pm

Educator Evening
February 18, 2013, 5–8 pm

Family Day:
Books for a Better World
March 2, 2013, 1–4 pm

Curator Tour
March 23, 2013, 2 pm

with William Mazzarella and Angie Tillges
April 5, 2013, 12 pm

Family Day:
Postcards for Peace
April 6, 2013, 1–4 pm

Art on the Move: Party at the Smart
April 11, 2013, 8–10 pm

Celebrating 100 Years of Indian Cinema
Adoor Gopalakrishnan retrospective and symposium
April 11–13, 2013

Third Thursday
April 18, 2013, 5:30–7:30 pm

Political Cinema in the Era of Sahmat:
May 7, 2013, 5:30 pm

Political Cinema in the Era of Sahmat:
Jai Bhim Comrade
May 14, 2013, 5:30 pm

with Rebecca Zorach and Leela Gandhi
May 17, 2013, 2 pm

Concert: Shubha Mudgal
June 9, 2013, 2 pm

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February 13, 5:30–7 pm

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