In the spring of 2002, up to 2,000 Muslims were killed and some 150,000 displaced in a rash of Hindu-led riots—allegedly carried out in retaliation for a train fire reportedly set by Muslims—in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Shortly thereafter, social activists Monica Wahi and Zaid Ahmed Shaikh founded Himmat (Courage), a collective comprising female Muslim survivors living in refugee camps in Ahmedabad. Many of the collective’s members are widowed, and all lost family during the violence. Veteran painter Vasudha Thozhur, based in nearby Vadodara and already involved with projects in the area, began working with six teenage daughters of Himmat members in 2005. She helped organize workshops teaching the girls how to make artwork in a variety of mediums, including painting, silkscreen, photography, video, embroidery, appliqué and batik. Alongside large oil paintings Thozhur herself created in response to the riots, an exhaustive array of works by these young Himmat members was recently on view at two venues in Mumbai under the title “After Pain: An Afterlife.” According to the exhibition statement, the project is meant to address “a range of issues from personal loss to displacement and the possibility of mobilization and economic revival through the use of visual language.”
Given the context, one might have expected reflections on the violence inflicted upon women during the riots, on the incidents in which women were gang-raped, assaulted while pregnant or burned alive. Instead, the show was filled with brightly colored and good-humored expressions of frustration with daily life in the aftermath. On entering Project 88, one encountered a series of painted and embroidered banners recounting how the Himmat girls wrestle with obstacles like illiteracy and obtaining drinking water in the camps. In another room, multipanel scrolls told of the hassle of securing family death certificates to receive insurance payouts and government aid. Some of the works originally served as backdrops to theatrical sketches that dramatized these and related topics (and that were documented in videos shown at Project 88). Others had been displayed for public view in community centers and local art spaces in Gujarat. The draftsmanship was crude; however, coupled with the straight-from-the-can enamel palette and the forthright personal stories, it was not only charming but forcefully articulate.
At Sakshi Gallery, the work by the young Himmat members was less narrative and thus less compelling. There were gossamer abstractions created with embroidery and appliqué. There were black-and-white silkscreens based on photo-collages made out of old magazines and newspapers, the product of a workshop on media and advertising critique. There were also color posters reproducing compositions of collaged fabric scraps and vegetable prints. Unlike the Himmat members’ other works on view, their silkscreens and posters were, and continue to be, for sale, with proceeds going largely to the collective.
Thozhur’s oil paintings, though technically accomplished and visually striking, were generally less effective than the Himmat works. They included a seated portrait of a refugee of the riots; still lifes of memento mori like animal skulls and burning candles; and a diptych showing a langoor (a ubiquitous local primate) with its tail burning and, in the other panel, the proverbial three wise monkeys. Thozhur is a master colorist, and her moody purples and grays provided a nice contrast to the cheery boisterousness of the Himmat work. Yet it was clear which mode of expression—naive narrative versus academic allegory—better suited the subject matter.