A stroll around the campus and one’s eyes would definitely shake one’s thoughts through the graffiti and wall paintings that adorn the school buildings here. Let us explore the ‘Art’istic dimension of this place, its widely-known politics, and the lesser-known people who speak only through colours.
Use of politics in art and of art in politics has been an activity bearing origins since ancient times. Paintings, posters, poetry and all that could manage to speak up in the form of works of artists have been found to initiate and continue the culture of seeing art as contributing to constructing a new political and social consciousness in society. When one talks about art and activism, again, modes of popular visual culture have been the carriers of resistance.
Historically, one major instance in which art was used to give shape to new political ideas and entities was in the aftermath of the French Revolution when artists like Jacques-Louis David and Jean Auguste Dominique used political art as the mortar for building a new and modern France. In India, while the pre-independence era saw the emergence of collectives like Progressive Movements in Indian Art, the post-independence period has seen modernity and politics acquiring strokes of identity issues by groups such as the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association and SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust).
The position of these groups has been largely reformist. Although majority of them bear ideological origins in the left-leaning philosophy, but artists, as their works do, have continued to represent no specific side but just a voice—a voice screaming loud from a silent canvas.
The Brick Canvases Scream in Style
As old as the red bricks of this institution are, just as old is its culture of art and politics. Till today, the walls of the school buildings have not only maintained their structural strength but also their artistic courage. With paintings, posters, graffiti, and unique sculptures, JNU is an abode of arts and artisans from diverse arenas. The dominance is however held by the party-specific wall-paintings with different ideologies writ large on them. Perhaps these walls are the only spaces where parties as different as AISA and ABVP can speak and be listened to at the same time.
Starting of a School
The most recent to join JNU’s collection of world-renowned schools is the School of Arts and Aesthetics, which was established in 2000. With the aim to institutionalize a curriculum in the subject of Arts and equip students with adequate theoretical knowledge to understand the arts and its forms, the school offers three programmes, that is, Visual Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies, and Cinema Studies, besides other optional courses. Each course is designed to give students an in-depth insight into the world of arts through the aid of exhibitions, visits, lectures, seminars, film screenings, and prestigious collaborations. Since its inception the School has gone on to acquire great fame and recognition in the academic arena and has produced a number of talented artists, curators, exhibitionists, film-makers, and the like.
The feature that distinguishes this Arts institution from the rest is its aim of analysing art in the context of social forces rather than just as an object in isolation. The parties in JNU attempt to do just that: study, use, and portray art in the public domain amidst various social forces.
The Colours of Politics
Not many know about the ritual of 4 May. Or is it 5 May? Every year, the political parties of JNU come up with new posters to put on display in campus. After all, it is these colours of politics which distinguish JNU from other universities across India.
“After discussion with all the parties on campus, a date is decided upon. Usually it is 4 or 5 May. On the concerned day, members from all parties try and reserve as many premium places as possible. This also leads to minor tiffs and scuffles as some are left with not many good options but it is understandable, considering [that] every party wants the best spots for itself”, said Chintu Kumari, present member and former General Secretary of JNUSU, while explaining the annual poster-making exercise JNU undertakes to maintain and renew its distinct collaboration between art and politics. “People work really hard. Our comrades both from within campus and afar contribute so much. Many belong to Fine Arts background and do it on a voluntary basis. After the party takes a call on the agendas and issues to be presented, they design the posters. The spot reservation helps in deciding the sizes of the same. The entire summer vacations are spent in these”, she added. Before she leaves, Chintu says the two powerful words which form the perfect answer as to why politics needs poster-art to make an impression: “Walls speak!”
Space for Everybody?
Sonam Goyal—DSF (Democratic Students’ Federation)
For DSF member Sonam Goyal, it is a highly contested space and also not very convenient. “Usually it used to be the midnight of 5 May when members of different parties would compete to reserve the spots. But last year, members of bigger organizations took their positions from the morning of 4 May itself. It led to a huge fight. Even though certain parties offered us some space later, but then that was not the solution either. We do not have as many people and plus it is such a waste of time and energy to go their early, sit and then wait. In 2012, when DSF was formed, we did suggest for a chit-system hoping for a more amicable process. After all, we want this campus to be a space for everybody and every party but the idea was bulldozed by the larger parties who argued that, that could lead to emergence of fake parties.”
As for the creation of artistic mouthpieces, DSF is a self-sufficient unit. “For a small organization such as ours everything comes from within the party. So, we raise funds for paints and charts. A group of people work on the content. Mainly we categorize the issues into National and International, and accordingly search for cartoons, poems, illustrations and designs. I work primarily in the execution part. However, the ideation is a combined effort of all team members”, added Sonam.
Process of Inclusion and Learning
Ritika Kar—AISA (All India Students’ Association)
Like its activities, it is no surprise that AISA also dominates in terms of the number of creative artworks on campus. Quoting the famous Latin American author, Eduardo Galeano, Ritika Kar, member and artist of the party said, “‘The walls are the publishers of the poor!’ People might not read the parchas or may not attend speeches and other events, but a mere glance at these posters is powerful enough to provoke a thought. That is the power of art! Having painted for so long, I personally feel deeply attached to this mode of political activism.”
In response to whether the so-called first-come-first reserve policy is fine for taking over spaces for putting up posters, she commented, “Earlier there was not even a day or time for this, so I think it is fine. Also, we do give away major spaces to other parties and even exchange of spaces takes place. The process is quite peaceful.”
AISA manages to grab huge attention through its artworks and their diversity is sourced in the diverse artists the party has all over the country in universities such as Jadavpur University, Ambedkar University, and Delhi University. Ritika believes it is a process of both inclusion and learning. “Sometimes, we have people, who do not even know how to draw a line, filling colours in the designs. No one is paid or hired. People feel more involved in the issues we are fighting against through their contributions in the art work. We learn so much while searching for relevant quotes and poems on the contemporary issues. All of it is time consuming but as enjoyable and enriching as well”, she adds.
Style That Distinguishes from the Rest
Dipsita Dhar—SFI (Students’ Federation of India)
It is probably one of the most unsettling and forthright graffiti on campus. On the backside of the Central Library, adjacent to the Dholpur House Reading Hall, is SFI’s poster depicting a woman menstruating on a Brahmin’s head, with a baby emerging from behind. When asked to interpret this bold piece of art, Dipsita Dhar, President of SFI, explains, “It is our way of defying the stereotypes which have been built for women. The notions of purity and impurity, good and bad, and the diktats which rule women’s conduct, are being opposed.”
To the question as to how SFI manages to distinguish itself from other Leftist organizations through its poster art, Dipsita points to the unique style SFI incorporates. “There are certain themes characteristic of other Left parties which we do not support. For instance, Naxalism is one such issue. Even when it comes to linguistic diversity, you can find that we use regional languages much more than other parties do.”
Having artists called over from different universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Hyderabad Central University, and Delhi University, the JNU unit of SFI takes care of the poster-making through its Agitation Propaganda Committee. While most of the work is done on a voluntary basis, the party does take care of the living expenses of these artists who come to JNU solely to contribute. The Secretariat and Executive Committees discuss the issues to be represented and once decided, are conveyed to the painters, who have full liberty to give the content the final shape.
As for the funds, the party collects money from its members on a monthly basis. The amount for each member depends on their position as a JRF holder or a student without any fellowship. According to Dipsita, the space distribution is quite democratic despite the competition that it precedes. But she acknowledges the need to give more emphasis on the Science schools which they have not been able to give properly in the recent past.
Poster is Not the Complete Picture
Abhijeet—ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad)
As an immature assessment, one might be inclined to believe that since the campus has had a legacy of dominance by the Left, the same shows in the number of posters and paintings of different parties as well. Abhijeet, State Executive Member, ABVP, Delhi, disagrees. “It is obvious that as opposed to ABVP, since the Leftist parties are more in number, their posters can be seen in many more places. But that nowhere suggests that ABVP does not have a strong hold here. Even now, ABVP secures the second largest vote bank after AISA.” As for the space reservation too, “last year, it was ABVP which managed to occupy the maximum number of spots. However, we could not put posters in all of them.”
Negating another assumption that since students from social sciences tend to be more inclined towards political activities, their centres have more posters, Abhijeet says. The highest percentage of votes for ABVP has its source in the science stream. So that logic does not hold water. The only reason the walls of Science schools lack party-posters and paintings is because the School’s Dean does not permit them inside the buildings owing to certain academic and technical reasons.
When asked what are the major themes that ABVP focuses on to promote through its artworks, which are again made by volunteering artists from its student community, Abhijeet lists subjects like India, Women’s issues, Freedom fighters, and the like. And on whether the space-distribution method is acceptable, Abhijeet points to the biasness of other options, like how a lottery system leaves the onus to fate and a method of allotting space according to percentage of votes secured will again put some parties at a disadvantage.
But are the Posters Being ‘Practiced’ as Well?
Mukesh Ghotad—NSUI (National Students’ Union of India)
Perhaps the least visibility, with respect to poster art at the present moment in JNU campus, can be accorded to NSUI. Answering to the “why” here, Mukesh Ghotad points to “funding” being the biggest issue. “For just a cartoon, a painter charges a minimum of Rs. 500. Few of the opposition parties claim of having no parent organization but it is worth questioning as to where they get the money for these posters and parchas [pamphlets] which are circulated at a rate of almost 3000 per day.”
However, a very important question that Mukesh raises is that how many of these preachy posters are actually being practiced. “Are they just meant for projecting a party’s ideology? Isn’t a party responsible for transpiring their coloured designs to reality as well?” Like a few other parties he too questions the democratic nature of space reservation in a campus which hails democracy as its prime characteristic. “Even after reserving spots, the parties fail to put up posters. Why is that? Isn’t that a waste of space?”
Mukesh believes that despite its low visibility on the walls, NSUI is committed to not only raising but also working upon student-related issues. Posters, he believes, do not represent the complete picture.
Skills that Evolved through Personal Struggles—an Artist’s Story
Gopal Shoonya—AISF (All India Students’ Federation)
When asked about how the AISF manages to occupy so many places for its posters despite being an organization with only a handful of people in JNU, Amrita Pathak, an AISF member, replies: “We may not have as many official followers, but we do have a lot of sympathizers. There are lots of people who believe in our ideology and agree to help us.” On further being queried about the talent behind the captivating designs, she calls for Gopal. On being asked whether he is the same artist whose works were up at the administration block during the protest programmes and if he is Gopal Shoonya, the answer is a bright “Yes!”
Gopal Kumar, who goes by the name of Gopal Shoonya, is a well-known figure in the world of cartoon-making. Having had years of experience in using Art to express ideas and dissent, Gopal attributes his maturity in political art to personal struggle. “In 2003, I enrolled into the College of Arts and Crafts at the Patna University. However, due to economic instability I could not complete the course. As a result, I dropped out and worked for a couple of years in Hyderabad and Bihar in different areas such as animation, film-making, TV Productions, etc. In 2009, I joined Hindustan newspaper as an illustrator. It was then that I came in contact with progressive intellectuals and started seeing how politics touched every area of society.”
Soon Gopal experienced the influence of politics in real life when he found out that the College of Arts he had again sought admission in, was being privatized. In the struggle to stop the privatization, Gopal came in touch with AISF and that is how his association began with the organization. Even after securing admission into the college, Gopal had to face severe resistance from the administration, authorities, and a segment of student community on many occasions. The prominent one was when he was alleged with obscenity for submitting artwork on erotica as part of his assignment work.
“I had to fight everyone at every level. Be it for Freedom of Expression or other issues, I challenged the College, took my case to the Human Rights Commission, filed RTI to expose how faulty the recruitment method of teachers was—every struggle led to my personal growth.” On being asked as to how poster-making in JNU began he said, “I came to Delhi in 2013 for freelancing. I eventually joined Punjab Kesari newspaper as a Political Cartoonist. Then, I met members of AISF in JNU and discovered the wall graffiti culture on this campus. It was a challenge, initially, since I had not made anything so huge until then.”
Heading the Arts team of the AISF unit of JNU, Gopal chooses different subjects for portrayal on different centres, visualizes them on the computer, and then transpires the designs on paper. But for any big poster, he says, it usually takes the combined efforts of at least 10 people. Treatment wise, he likes to keep his designs “realistic” and makes good use of “symbolism”. Among other parties, Gopal praises AISA for its good work and creative outputs. Funds are taken care of by contributions raised within the party and those made by professors and others concerned.
On the last question as to why he chose “shoonya” (zero) for his name, he explains, “I understand only two kinds of nature: Love and Violence. While I aim to propagate the first, I wish to diminish the second. And according to me, that can only happen when ego is destroyed. When ego is hurt, violence takes place. The ‘shoonya’ represents egolessness.”
The Democratic Nature of Art
The debate as to whether the prevalent space-reservation method for putting up posters is democratic or not is still on the table. But there is no doubt about the fact that Art as a medium of expression is democratic. It does not limit itself to a section of people but is available to be moulded and used, along with the aid of creativity and imagination, to represent different voices. However, while in JNU campus, none of the parties have ever faced any kind of backlash or objection for any of its artworks; it is sad that in India famous artists like M.F. Husain and cartoonists like Aseem Trivedi have had to suffer at the hands of the ambiguous forces of intolerance.
Political art is one of the strongest means to strengthen and reform the existing state of democracy. These posters and graffiti give a chance for various ideologues to reach out to many from the same dais—the dais of walls. Walls, after all, not just guard or limit; they express, scream, appeal, touch, and influence, through what covers them. We pray that it always is Art.
Vidushi Gupta is in MA (CSSS), SSS II, and works for The Informer.
Photos contributed by Sibel Guner, a JNU student in CSSS who works for The Informer.