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The Gulabi Gang Art Project: When Art Meets Activism

S. Aijaz
31st Jul 2014
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Aruna Chandrasekhar
Aruna Chandrasekhar

Two things happened on my newsfeed this week: The Fearless Collective and a sentimental story about female bus seat privilege in India with the bold and deceptive headline: Humanity over Feminism. Like all things cultural, it foolishly forced the baggage of morality, ethics and humanism only over female shoulders. The dichotomy was ruthless. On the one hand, there was a deeply misguided understanding of feminism that reduced it to male hate/female privilege, on the other hand, The Fearless Collective was engaging in the most nuanced, humanised and accessible exercise in feminism through visual art.


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The brainchild of Bangalore-based artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, The Fearless Collective started as a humble endeavour to put paint on paper with the sole purpose of taking personal narratives of everyday feminism forward. It took the dialogue from something as simple as the right to walk fearlessly down the market to cultural self-determination on your own terms. For centuries, art has spoken in ways more damaging, provocative and thoughtful with, both, subtle refinement and vulgar blatancy – in ways the best orators and littérateur have failed. Fearless Collective doesn’t keep the conversation locked and inaccessible in the annals of high criticism and dominant French radicalism of glossy textbooks. It takes it to the people – to the women and men we know, see and are. Right off the bat, Aarthi let us know that the Delhi gang rapes provided the impetus to begin this social nisus. With its beginning nearly 2 years prior, the effort was the result of all the reading, sharing and discussing of pertinent issues that still plague women and society in India. ‘Shilo, in her own space, made her own posters as an affirmation for herself. Because, at that point, we were telling each other we shouldn’t go out, I’ll drop you home, and why don’t you stay over, etc. So, it was with those conversations that the posters were brought out. Then, it spiralled into her putting a call out for other designers to share their posters. And that kind of exploded – it was unprecedented. We had no idea it would become this, actually,’ says Aarthi. Their newest adventure is The Gulabi Gang Art Project that sees the collaboration and partnership of Recyclewala Labs, a Bombay-based organisation that blends art and cinema to battle what they consider ‘inert and regressive thinking’, ‘and make a meaningful contribution to the zeitgeist.’

We caught up with Ruchi Bhimani of Recyclewala Labs and Aarthi Parthasarthy of The Fearless Collective to share their unique stories.

Samidha Gunjal
Samidha Gunjal

When Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang out came out in 2012, it was the sort of socially-conscious cinematic expression that appealed to Recyclewala Lab – literally right down their alley. It was another matter that the movie was released only in 2014 in India, but when Gulabi Gang did de-construct the revetments that safeguarded the stereotype of the Indian woman, the moment was climacteric for Recyclewala Labs. ‘We’ve been engaged with creating off-beat content,’ says Ruchi. ‘Gulabi Gang was a film that we felt really needed to get seen not only for the powerful content, but also for its manner for story-telling. There’s powerful content all around, but Gulabi Gang had such amazing elements that one would always want in a fictional film, like suspense and drama and murder. ‘We really felt that supporting this movie would bring a shift in how people view and consume cinema; because, I think, the appetite for cinema is really sort of frivolous. I had the chance to see it in Bombay, a year later. I was completely taken by it, and was excited by the opportunity for us to be part of it, distribute it, support it, give it a platform for it to be something more than a film –  it was an extension of the conversation we were having.’

Puneeta Shukla Rai
Puneeta Shukla Rai

The frivolity of a lot of Indian cinema brought us to the other Gulaab Gang: sterilised, white-washed (quite literally, too) and a heavily botoxed glamorisation for the urban palette… Compensation cinema where poor execution is indemnified by star power. ‘Well, I haven’t seen the film. I’ve seen the trailer, and it’s not really enticed me to watch the film. But, I think that’s what Bollywood does, so I don’t begrudge it. It masala-fies whatever content there is to bring it to people for consumption.’ Aarthi adds, ‘Bollywood caters to the common denominator, and in doing that it oversimplifies and creates something which can’t really engage with issues.’ Both the Fearless Collective and Recyclewala Labs were awestruck by the sheer creative genius and strong story-telling in the Gulabi Gang. It appealed to both in terms of art, cinema and activism– it seamlessly blended their work together. So, it made even more sense for them to team up. ‘We loved the way Shilo communicated her excitement about the project. We got talking about it and we decided to launch the Gulabi Gang Art Project. I wanted it to have more involvement socially for it to reach out to a larger audience.”

Kalyani Ganapathy
Kalyani Ganapathy

‘What’s a DVD anymore? You can just download things. So, I wanted the DVD to be a collectible. And, so, I just saw the perfect ally in Fearless Collective,’ says Ruchi.

‘The Gulabi Gang Art Project is an open call for art inspired by the documentary. It is a platform for people to come forth and express their views, and lend their voice in support of women’s empowerment by using art as a tool for communication. This could anything ranging from an illustration, painting, photograph, or even a short Hindi poem. We’re looking to take this dialogue forward by displaying this art on multiple platforms – online on blogs, Facebook, Instagram etc., where we hope for this exchange and dialogue to continue. Out in the real world, we are working out the possibility of doing wall art on walls and pillars in various cities to further this dialogue in a more inclusive manner. The Gulabi Gang DVD cover is one such platform on which this art will be displayed. The packaging has been designed to accommodate multiple entries. A collage of all the art received, if you will.’

Aarthi understands the larger implications of a movement like this. It’s something that goes well beyond the Gulabi Gang phenomenon. These are ideas that have come together from men and women working across India – coordinating and adjusting to timezones. The effort to take the art initiative to different cities speaks volumes about the seriousness of their cause, and its long-term prospects.

‘Fearless Collective started out with posters that talked about a personal understanding of what it meant to be fearless. Then, Shilo moved into all these very public spaces; it was about portraying collective angst. In that sense, feminism and public art have a lot in common in how they try to reclaim and re-appropriate public space. There’s graffiti, performance, installations- they’re all elements that we engage with to enable access to public space in a different way. We’ve done murals in Bangalore, Ahmadabad and Bombay. We’ve engaged with so many different communities, and had different discussions and ideas for each space. The visual medium has an immediate reach and accessibility. And, we want to utilise that in the context of creating these conversations.’

We go back to what actually brought YourStory to Fearless Collective and Recyclewala Labs’ The Gulabi Gang Art Project: the ‘Humanity over Feminism’ criticism of women taking up bus seats from those who might need it more (the narrative cleverly absolves men of the same responsibility).

‘There’s a lot of bias around here,’ Aarthi remarks. ‘It’s very tough to talk to someone who has an ingrained bias as they’re not going to respond to facts or even someone’s personal experiences.’ Ruchi adds, ‘I don’t know if I consider myself a feminist; I don’t think about these things. For me, I think that art softens these biases. When I think art, I think all the art from the Collective. It doesn’t scream out like any so-called rabid feminism,’ she chuckles. ‘Art can’t really reject humanity because feminism is humanity.’

‘Just to clarify,’ Aarthi say, ‘feminism, by definition, is just a movement of equality. The man-hating feminist is a trope. It doesn’t really exist. I’ve had this discussion with a friend who felt all feminists were man-hating and angry. When I asked her to tell me about important feminists who promoted this idea, she couldn’t name one. If you can’t substantiate the angry man-hating feminist trope with examples, then where is it coming from?’

And, how well does the audience respond to the séance of art and feminism?

Ruchi says, ‘It’s just picking up. We got a lot of inquiries just asking us what it was,’ she laughs. ‘Apart from that, now we’re starting to get more art which we’re slowly posting. We’ve got art that is scheduled to be posted every day for the next two weeks.

‘We see people engaging with the art, making conversations, relating – it’s amazing, as a person who isn’t an artist, to see this kind of enthusiasm. It’s even exciting to work between time zones, and see the kind of collective effort in making this initiative something meaningful. We’ve received over 50 entries from all over the country, and some from the UK, US, and Australia, as well. It is heartening to see this response, particularly in India, where women’s empowerment is extremely relevant in this day and age. We continue to work on avenues, through which we can take the initiative forward and keep this artistic dialogue going.’

Speaking of the opportunity to take this initiative to those who don’t have access to modern-day conveniences like the internet (which, largely fuels this movement) to rural landscapes, Ruchi says, ‘It would have been really nice, actually, to have them benefit from this project. But, we can’t accomplish that right now. Like Fearless Collective, Recyclewala Labs, hopes to take social initiatives to the streets. That’s not achievable right now. But it is about taking the discourse into public space, and keeping it open, so everyone gets their message out.’

Fearless in Varanasi
Fearless in Varanasi

In the same vein, Aarthi continues: ‘Actually, Shilo’s done this project with the fishermen community in Koliwada, Bombay. Art has this ability to break through class, gender, caste – and we’re leveraging that. We do think about going into spaces other than cities. What I find amazing about this is how the movement isn’t limited to artists. Most of our posters are by people who don’t even identify themselves as artists. It’s just an expression of what people believe in strongly. So, we have been having exhibition in Kolkata, Delhi and we’re planning to have more in the future.

‘If you see our Facebook album, you’ll see different people bringing in different perspectives on fearlessness and feminism. It’s a more active engagement, as people respond to what they can relate to, and try to understand what they can’t. Being able to communicate with these voices can be very liberating and rewarding. A lot of artists have actually met each other through this movement, and they’re very eager to work with Shilo on murals around the city.’

India has an almost schizophrenic identity that battles between so many extremes, notwithstanding the many layers of ‘middles’. There’s a confounding complexity to what it means to be part of an Indian society. Issues of sex, sexuality and sexual education have always been part of the Indian narrative, whether as subtext, taboos or as a central theme. India is in the midst of its own sexual self-determination, playing the part of the orphan child of inherited Victorian sensibilities and deeply sexual ancient history. Debates around homosexuality, sex education and sexual liberation have become political issues that repel prissy politicians into giving pathetically regressive statements.

‘You know, before Shilo left for her residency in America, one of the posters she worked on was about her reaction to Article 377. It was something we wanted to talk about in the context of Fearless,’ explains Aarthi. ‘There are so many things that need to be addressed concerning sex and sexuality. Our work evolves from our discussions, and these issues that aren’t strictly ‘feminism’ are also part of the larger dialogue. So, eventually, we’d like to be able to make space for these conversations through art, too.’

Both Ruchi and Aarthi have succinct parting words for the day…

Cheerful about the prospects of an ambitious project that aims to work in a slightly hostile environment where even the very essence of feminism needs to be cleansed from infiltrating biases, Ruchi says,‘Like I said, I’m really excited about it- about people creating art inspired by this film. It was a really powerful film, and I’m enthusiastic about how it’s taking forward the dialogue. The film has an immersing quality with a sustaining message. I would really want people to be a part of this, and use the platform we have right now. I’d love to see people contribute to this movement, because it’s something really great.’ ‘I totally agree,’

Aarthi says. ‘It’s basically about creating conversation we’re hoping will help in starting more nuanced conversations about women’s rights, feminism, issues related, all through the medium of art. ‘I’m hoping that some really beautiful engagement can come through this intersection of design and activism.’

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Featured image Nidar by Aarti Karwayun Chawda You can check out Recyclewala Labs and The Fearless Collective on their Facebook page.

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