NEW DELHI — On Sunday in New Delhi at India Art Fair 2020, Post-Art Project, a studio founded by Gargi Chandola and Jefrey Yaman, was displaying a new “live community artwork,” The Wall: Community Art Building Mural (2020) at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre booth. Then twenty minutes before the close of the fair, the police arrived.
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The India Art Fair takes place every year in a temporary structure in the Govindpuri area of New Delhi, attracting wealthy collectors from across the world and the subcontinent. But this year, the mood had shifted. Not far from the fair, in Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly-Muslim area, a historic protest movement was entering its 50th day.
Political tensions in India have been escalating rapidly since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection last May. In early December, nationwide protests erupted after the announcement of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a bill that grants citizenship to migrants from neighboring countries but notably excludes Muslims. Many fear that the bill, along with the National Citizens’ Register (NRC), which will force Indians to provide documentation to prove their citizenship, will pave the way for the disenfranchisement of the country’s 172 million Muslims and further the ascent of Hindu nationalism. In Shaheen Bagh, a group led by a steadfast bastion of Muslim women of all ages has been holding a sit-in that has garnered widespread international attention.
The Delhi police came to the India Art Fair after hearing that some of the art dealt with the recent political turmoil. “We received a PCR call that some paintings depicting the CAA were being exhibited at the fair,” an unidentified senior police official told the Press Trust of India. “A police team was sent to check it, but no such painting was exhibited.”
According to an Instagram post by Post-Art, the police said that they were “responding to an anonymous complaint made about ‘artwork being prepared by someone wearing clothes resembling the women of Shaheen Bagh.’” The post also says that the police took issue with the inclusion of lines of Urdu poetry in one of the paintings in the installation.
The art at the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre booth featured paintings and songs, along with poetry recitations about the strength of women in India.
“The artwork was not about any one particular protest or issue. It is about women of India. We had together created a space to celebrate women. It was purely in solidarity and celebration of the resilience and strength of the women in India,” Chandola told the Press Trust of India. “This was in no way political. We don’t know what the problem was. The audience was very receptive. But, someone complained.”
Pranav Sawhney, an artist who was present at the art fair, witnessed the incident and posted a video of a police officer arguing with a crowd of attendees while standing over the artwork. “Delhi Police are the latest art curators at @indiaartfair,” the caption reads.
Sawhney said that the police had clearly been acting on a complaint from an individual, and “couldn’t quite understand what was wrong.”
Sawhney also captured a video of a young man sitting at the booth with an acoustic guitar singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge,” an Urdu protest song that has experienced a recent resurgence in CAA protests. “That song has also been ruffling feathers,” Sawhney said. “So the Urdu, Muslim women, and that song put together was ‘inflammatory’ according to the India Art Fair.”
The fair had been explicit about its ban on “banners or sloganeering” at the fair. A sign near the entrance stated: “We are aware of events taking place across Delhi NCR and the country. We recognise and support art as a means of expression. However, our license is related to the exhibition of art and related activities only. Therefore, we have a zero-tolerance policy against banners or sloganeering at the fair.”
But according to Sawhney, there were no banners or sloganeering. “The art was representative of the people’s movement without mentioning anything to do with the protests,” Sawhney said.
“The fair officials intervened to ensure that the police officers on site were allowed to conduct a thorough investigation in accordance to Indian laws,” a statement from the Italian Embassy said. “The police concluded that the artwork/performance was not political in nature and the complaining visitor had misinterpreted the work that was being exhibited in the booth.”
After the police left, the art fair organizers requested that the work be taken down and cordoned off the booth. The organizers of the art fair claimed that this was not due to the political content of the work, instead accusing Post-Art of skirting protocol by failing to share details of the contents of the artwork with them in advance. “Our contract with the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, consistent with others, required them to share with us the details of all activities which were to take place at their booth over the course of four days of India Art Fair,” a statement from the fair organizers said.
“We were not informed about the activities at the booth. In fact, post the incident, the fair director spoke with the Italian Ambassador in New Delhi who confirmed that they too had not informed of the activities taking place in their booth,” the statement said. In their Instagram post, however, Post-Art denies this, saying that the details of their live event were “repeatedly and clearly shared with the India Art Fair by the curator.”
“We expected to have some space to explain ourselves,” Myna Mukherjee, the curator of the booth, told The Quint. “But the Urdu calligraphy and rising Islamophobia just ensured we couldn’t.”
“India Art Fair organisers don’t seem to have a spine whatsoever. Police were more fair to us than the organiser folks. We deferred to the fair’s rules. There was no sloganeering. We talked of unity, resurgence and solidarity, and women’s leadership,” Mukherjee said.