With the ability to engage you, reduce stress and get a few laughs, art has now recently discovered a new-found potential - the promise of bringing about societal movement, and inspiring change. The canvas of democracy has been splattered with colours of injustice, ruthlessness, sensationalism, extremism and propaganda. While art has often been considered a soft form of expression, it has begun to attain the power to change mindsets and beliefs. Bingedaily spoke to artists who sculpt a liberal ideology through their work, address deep-rooted social issues and let the masses think for themselves.
“Art is powerful, the reason why governments have restrictions on it” - Dhruvi Acharya
With her canvas propped for another masterpiece, this visual artist based in Mumbai says her work is a visual diary where she draws her experiences, thinks things through and gets a better understanding of life, death and everything in between. “My work is figurative, but not realistic. In my paintings, human forms morph to match their mental state, comic book-inspired empty thought and speech bubbles convey ineffable emotions. My paintings are psychologically and visually layered, and often have dark humour.”
“Women are judged by their looks, made to feel invisible if they are old or overweight.”
With a strong background from the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art in the USA, Dhruvi Acharya highlights how art has the capacity to influence one’s thinking. Life experiences serve as subjects for this artist. “My work has always been about my experiences, be it homesickness while living in the United States for 9 years, pregnancy and childbirth, parenting, the deaths of my father and husband, life as a woman, or my fears about the environment.”
With her artworks now on display at galleries such as Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai and Nature Morte in New Delhi, Dhruvi emphasizes that when people experience art, it affects them consciously and subconsciously. “They mull over things in their minds, discuss it with others, and then change can happen from within. They may begin to think or feel differently about things.”
“Art is powerful,” says Dhruvi, citing this as the reason why many governments have restrictions on it.
In one of her works, ‘weigh’, Dhruvi has portrayed the ageing female body. This, to draw attention to how women are judged by their looks and made to feel invisible if they are old or overweight. “It is destructive to women of all ages to hold themselves up to an impossible photoshopped beauty standard.” If you look closely at the art, you will see written in fine print, words, that are in fact what women are referred to as, in society. “Too often, women are judged not by their accomplishments but by their gender and their looks, when it should be precisely the opposite, just like it is for their male counterparts.”
“For art to create quantifiable change it must extend and reach beyond people who already believe in the ideals I hold dear” - Armaan Yadav
Albeit speaking up against injustice at every chance he gets, Armaan Yadav says driving change through art is a challenge, as merely addressing issues is not enough. Armaan was the first Indian rapper to rap for Sway Calloway of Sway In The Morning (belonging to Shade45 by Eminem) and since then has worked with artists such as Aditi Athreye (Saffron Ablaze artwork), Ved Uttam (Articles of Faith artwork), Gaurav Wakankar (Zulm, Catharsis & Bad Blood artwork) “In order for art to create quantifiable change it must extend and reach beyond people who already believe in the ideals I hold dear,” is what he believes. “It must be moulded in a way that even people who disagree with me can see where I am coming from.” This is a challenge Armaan is still groping with tackling.
Music of political disagreement is all the rage these days, being easier to consume and engage with. Pushing for communal harmony and vocalising to the tunes of dissent, according to Armaan, “pushes people to think and reach beyond their comfort zones, thus making it a good medium to get my message across.”
“Art appeals to sentimentality, and is likely to bring about a change of action.”
“If mainstream media isn’t doing its job of communicating urgent public issues to the masses, I try and do that as an individual and an artist. My art is a mixture of both external and internal influences.”
While a strong believer in the absence of 'absolute' injustice, Armaan says recognising relative injustice helps us realise that we too are unjust to many around us because of our privileges and position. “The damaged system benefits us but also jeopardises us in many ways. Recognising relative injustice allows one to think of themselves not just as 'good people' or agents of change but rather flawed beings with a responsibility to change themselves while also bringing about systemic changes.”
One of the artists to speak about social issues, Armaan is of the view that since art often appeals to sentimentality and emotion, it is more likely to bring about a change of action than mere facts.
“Our art cannot break the injustice, but we can contribute to the process.” - Saswata and Susruta Mukherjee
In a time of political and economic uncertainty, the role of art and expression has never been more important. In this attempt to address social issues, artists and twin brothers from Bengal, Saswata and Susruta Mukherjee create art out of things they see and those they don't. “If any art reflecting the socio-political climate in our nation makes people look up the internet on what's happening around and causes them to think, that can be the starting point of significant change.”
Putting out their own helplessness and hopelessness generated by a society that doesn’t seem to let go of its narrow mindset, the duo express this through their art often layered under humour. Ask them if their art can drive change and transform the stubborn mentality and they laugh. “We trust men to hold on to their misogynistic/sexist ideals for another 200 years at least, if not more. We as artists, however, will keep addressing these social issues through our work. It's us men, who have created the bloody mess, now it's our responsibility to attempt to clean it. Art alone cannot help break the injustice in society, but we can contribute to the process.”
“My work aims to urge people who generally play neutral, to pick a side” - Aditya Panikker
Art was but an excuse to get out of classes for Aditya Panikker but soon went on to be his voice against the misnomers in society. From a therapeutic after-work hobby, let’s just say it took on a more serious role during the lockdown. This ‘artist’, though he refrains from calling himself one, began work on video content and came out with ‘To A Lover Of Everything’ - a visual poetic expression. Having gotten some much-deserved attention, Aditya intended to use this newfound voice to speak on socially relevant subjects.
“The #BlackLivesMatter movement was gaining impetus at the time, and I noticed a number of liberals raising their voice against racism. I felt it impertinent to remind people that if there’s injustice overseas that they can voice their angst against, they should do it closer to home, in India too.”
We get started on Aditya’s rise to fame with his videos, and he’s ready with a modest retort. “My videos do not aim to bring in a revolutionary change of sorts, but rather to be something people can watch. The intention,” he says “is to share my learnings and motivate people to then make up their mind on complex issues.”
Trying consciously not to sound condescending or have some sort of moral high-ground, is what he focuses on. “While art by itself cannot change the world, it sows the seed of intent in a person, which can then go on to change the world.”
The ‘Black lives In India’ is anything but a preachy script highlighting the wrongs or rights. It is a simple, concise piece of thought articulated by a man, who believes we are products of learning and unlearning, and there is scope for betterment. Aditya, with this video, wishes to touch upon casteism. “We are privileged,” he says “I am the last person to be affected. But this same privilege is the reason someone else is being oppressed. My intent is to speak up, make a noise, and then let the oppressed take it from there. This would perhaps create the momentum needed to fuel a movement to support the Siddhi community, which is a tribal one and requires to be spoken about.”
The video does not hold the answers to every question in the book but does provide a clear understanding of why your voice can make a difference in the quest to bring about a change.
“People don’t fear voicing their dissent anymore and their most powerful tool is art” - Smish
“Art can truly channelise people’s emotions and become a medium for them to express their angst, anger, sadness in a visual way. An image is a powerful tool to help put a point across without really explaining oneself,” says Smish, as she goes on to talk about her work. An artist based out of Mumbai, her page on Instagram is her getaway to a world where freedom of expression is not a murky territory and art is a response to the crap. Artists’ voices are beginning to echo loud against the backdrop of social issues. Having worked across disciplines within the field of design, in New York, New Delhi and Mumbai, Smish says what is deemed as too radical to be expressed by people due to the fear of the government, is now being expressed through the language of art.
“People aren’t scared anymore to voice their dissent and their most powerful tool is art.” Her work has been featured in various news outlets such as Times of India, The Hindu, Vice India, The Quint, Gal-dem magazine (Singapore), The Vibe (Asia). Cut to the backstory of what pushed her to discover this side of herself.
“I have been labelled as a political artist, but I’m just channelizing my angst.”
It was 2019 national elections when Smish completely snapped and decided to take matters into her own hands, in order to do something about growing intolerance and fascism in the country. “I taught myself to illustrate and haven’t looked back ever since. I’ve been labelled as a political artist, but for me I would say, I’m just a person trying to channelize my angst or emotions through art on my page.”
Describing the above work of art, Smish says it depicts the weight of saffronization of India on the Indian common man and how it is shaking the very core of our democratic values and belief systems. “I wanted to express the heaviness I felt in my heart, in this artwork. The ever-spreading saffron colour of the Indian flag is weighing a man down as he struggles to maintain its weight whilst standing on the diminishing green colour. I wished to send across a message using one of the most iconic symbolism, the national flag, to make it more relatable for the larger audience.”
The artwork went viral, and many even took it to the streets for the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests. Smish is firm in her mindset that it is the artist’s job to hold up a mirror to the society and be critical of injustice. “Culture is then forced to bring in positive changes through which we collectively evolve. An artist can constructively bring attention to matters that are taboo, in the form of powerful imagery.”
“Art can be the voice of migrants, the unemployed, riot victims, activists” - Ashish Bagchi
Rarely operating within the boundaries of deadlines, or briefs, Ashish Bagchi says most of his creations are ‘let-go’ moments. In the din of the majoritarian propaganda, core issues, such as crimes, rape, murder, fanatical religious beliefs, and the fight against COVID-19 are often forgotten. Ashish beliefs there is hope at the end of the tunnel. “Art can cut across barriers in a multicultural country like ours, report the facts, be the voice of migrant workers who were forced to flee from the comfort of the city to their homes hundreds of miles away. Art can be the voice of the unemployed, communal riot victims, the activists languishing in jail for speaking on behalf of the marginalised section.”
With the desperate hope for humanity to take charge once again, and admonish hate, artists like Ashish are beginning to take a stand against social issues that plague the masses. The artwork above depicts how the result of a long-drawn process eats into a healthy system (the democracy that once was), like a worm. As the infestation grows, one can only have lingering hope for a renewal of what once was.
“Art makes one take a step back and question normalized day-to-day occurrences”- Bhawna Parmar
Bhawna Parmar does not just aim to create beautiful artworks, but rather works that motivate reflection on personal biases and understanding of the world. “We tend to take certain things for granted and accept them as normal because we're conditioned to do so, but art urges one to take a step back and question these normalized day-to-day occurrences. It gets one to understand one's complicity in them.”
With the power to hit emotions, evoke a response, cause positive discomfort, art compels the public to stare injustice in the eye and question the world we live in. In Bhawna’s opinion, the most moving art is the one that makes one self-reflect, expand the minds, and question their own biases. “Art in a way holds a mirror in front of the individual and in extension, the society. When one is confronted with their own flawed beliefs and long-held stereotypes, that are actively harming the society, it makes one think. It triggers a change.”
This young artist felt frustrated with the happenings of the nation. She used this frustration to fuel her work and channelize it. Unable to turn a deaf ear to the social injustices anymore, Bhawna let this trigger her drive to change the scene.
The artwork depicts how many privileged-class youth are systemically being raised in ways that seal them off in bubbles where the only reality that registers in their hearts and minds, are their own. “The systems at play shrink the circle of human concern to the point where one only cares about people directly related to them. With this consumer culture at play, the system is fabricating wants - making obtaining things that are just within your reach, the essence of life. This traps them into becoming consumers for life.”
Bhawna explains how the need for critical thinking is subdued by the ample distractions that are in their way, making these people mere spectators and passive consumers. “The aim,” she says “is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices. And when elections are run with the same PR systems, they work the same way.” In this ever-aspirant bubble where achieving any dream is possible, what’s happening on the outside, to other people is often met with ignorance and apathy. “What the eyes don’t see or rather choose not to see, the heart need not grieve.”
As art and activism have fused, these new generation artists strive to revolutionise the mindset of the masses when it comes to social issues. One can hope that streaks of equality, justice, racial harmony and secularism once more add their tinge to the canvas of India 2020.