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Friday, August 19, 2022

Reading the Signs

The protest poster is where art meets agitation, poetry meets politics. In India, it was born during the freedom struggle, and grew up through post-Independence struggles against inequality. With the anti-CAA protests, it embraces a new digital life.

CAA protests, CAA protests posters. Jamia protests, Jamia protest posters, Jamia violence Design by dissent: A protest against CAA at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi (Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

In a poster held up in the recent protests in Mumbai against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a young girl is leading Dr BR Ambedkar by the hand. She holds a placard that reads, “No CAA, no NRC.” In popular iconography, Ambedkar holds the Indian Constitution, which he drafted, in one hand; the other hand is raised, his index finger pointing to the path that the nation needs to take. In this poster, however, Ambedkar needs help from his little friend. Artist  Shrujana Niranjani Shridhar, 27, who designed the poster, says she chose a child to lead Ambedkar because young women have emerged as the faces of the ongoing protests against the CAA and the proposed nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The Mumbai-based artist co-founded the Dalit Panther Archive in 2016 to document the Dalit Panther movement of the 1970s and believes that the CAA signals a quantum leap towards a “Hindu Rashtra”, which will be a body blow for the rights of Adivasis, minorities, women, transpersons and Bahujans. “There is no doubt Babasaheb (Ambedkar) would be heartbroken to see this depraved attempt to undermine the Constitution. The Constitution is what granted Bahujans rights that were otherwise denied by Brahminical society, and any attempt to dilute its provisions is a direct attack on us,” she says.

Posters such as Shridhar’s have become the signs of our times as nationwide protests continue against the CAA. The flood of posters at various marches and gatherings has evoked what Vladimir Mayakovsky, agitprop poster artist of the Bolshevik Revolution, proclaimed in 1917, “The streets shall be our brushes — the squares our palettes.”

The protest poster is where art meets agitation, and where, sometimes, poetry meets politics. Its history in India dates to the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Freedom fighters wielded posters that asked Indians to boycott British services, or asked the colonial rulers to simply go back. In post-Independent India, various struggles led by Left parties, the Ambedkarite movement, feminists and the LGBTQI movement have kept the art form alive. In the Hong Kong protests last year, too, agitprop art saw a resurgence of sorts, with designers making memes, posters and infographics under pseudonyms.

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The current anti-CAA protests remains leaderless, but its voice is the poster — argumentative, witty and outspoken. The posters tap into many inspirations — Bollywood, regional poetry and pop culture. In one poster by Mumbai-based artist Mohini Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visualised as the Amul Girl. But instead of a buttered toast, he coyly hands out the CAA. The slogan reads, “Utterly Butterly Barbaric”. A poster popped up in smoky Delhi with a sharp criticism of Narendra Modi’s second term: “PM 2.0 is worse than PM 2.5”. Poet Rahat Indori’s lines were emblazoned on many more, hurling the challenge: “Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hai.”

All art is political, but some art is more political than others. “If you are a creative person, your politics is bound to reflect in your work,” says Goa-based artist Orijit Sen, 57. At one protest in Delhi, people were seen holding up Sen’s work, with the slogan “Roll Back The Citizenship Amendment Act” over a sea of red faces. Some of the faces, however, were singled out, painted green, and in the crosshairs of a gun — a reference to what many see as the bias loaded into the CAA and NRC against Muslims. Sen’s work comes out of his anger at political Hindutva. Often, he doesn’t sign his works — because “a poster is a voice for the protestor”.

anti-CAA protests, CAA. NRC, narendra modi, Amit Shah, indianexpress, SundayEYE, EYE2020, russian revolution, freedom struggle india, ambedkar, constitution, jami protests, independence struggle, anti constitution, muslims, minorities, india, JMI, police crackdown, A poster by Shrujana Niranjana Sridhar shows a young girl leading Ambedkar (Shrujana Niranjana Shridhar)

Jo Rippon, author of The Art of Protest: A Visual History of Dissent and Resistance (2019), says a poster pasted on a building or held aloft at a rally conveys a sense of urgency. She says, “The message may be complex, but posters, in their simplicity, mean most of us have the means to speak out — they give us a voice.”


A protest poster is also art. It owes some of its more artistic foundations to “agitprop”, which comes from a combination of agitation and propaganda. Agitprop posters were initiated by the Russian Telegraph Agency (ROSTA), a news agency of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917. The posters weren’t just pasted on walls but also ferried by trains across the country. Some of them were recruitment posters, demanding that people sign up as volunteers in the revolution. Mayakovsky had said, “It meant the (Workers’ and Peasants’) Red Army men looking at posters before battle and going to fight not with a prayer but with a slogan on their lips.”

The posters weren’t just declaring war on the rulers. They were at war with elitist notions of “high” art. The Bolshevik aesthetic was a practical one. Their posters used a limited colour palette, and favoured geometry to realistic depictions. The red-black-and-white combination in protest posters today can be traced there.

Unlike the Russian Revolution, it is relatively difficult to pinpoint locales or ateliers of protest posters in India. The artists, too, often remained anonymous.


An artist, who stood out for his work, was Chittaprosad. Having dropped his “upper caste” surname, Chittaprosad joined the Communist Party in 1940. In 1943, he was deputed by the party to cover the Bengal Famine, which culminated in his illustrated eyewitness account, Hungry Bengal. He also made propaganda posters for Communist art activism in India, borrowing from the Soviet Social Realists to create larger-than-life, muscular figures, localised to an Indian context.

anti-CAA protests, CAA. NRC, narendra modi, Amit Shah, indianexpress, SundayEYE, EYE2020, russian revolution, freedom struggle india, ambedkar, constitution, jami protests, independence struggle, anti constitution, muslims, minorities, india, JMI, police crackdown, An untitled “anti-imperialist and anti-fascist” work from 1952 by Chittaprosad (Courtesy: DAG)

His critique continued well after India got independence. In some of his posters, politicians are anthropomorphised as dhoti-kurta-clad crocodiles. In a 1946 poster, Chittaprosad turns the muscular body of a farmer into a military air base and ammunition storage. The poster was titled, “At The Cost of Lives”. The oppressors, whether British or Indian, were always portrayed as caricatures; the oppressed, such as the Indian peasant, were depicted realistically. “Chittaprosad was active in the decades immediately following Independence, when both state and citizens wanted to present a heady picture of the future, and artists were part of the celebration. In the euphoria, those critical of the state were unlikely to enjoy the patronage of a new rising order, so Chittaprosad found himself an outsider in the new order of things,” says Kishore Singh, head of exhibitions and publications at gallery DAG that manages Chittaprosad’s estate.

Some Indian artists were commissioned to make posters by parties. Nandalal Bose, for instance, was asked by Gandhi to create posters for various Congress conclaves, most notably the fifty-first one held in 1938 in Haripura, Gujarat. Called the Haripura Posters, they depicted scenes of rural life and figures such as bull handlers, hunters and musicians — all intended to stir nationalistic fervour. They were recently part of the Venice Biennale 2019.

In recent years, much of the focused protest poster production in India has come from the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) in Delhi. Their first poster was printed in 1989, soon after the murder of Safdar Hashmi, a playwright and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He was a staging his play, Halla Bol, near Delhi, when a mob led by Mukesh Sharma from the Indian National Congress attacked him. Hashmi passed away the next day, on January 2. The first poster showed a scene from Halla Bol, the enactment of which was completed by Moloyshree Hashmi, a few days after her husband’s murder.

Over the years, many artists have designed Sahmat posters. One of its most famous ones was brought out soon after the demolition of Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Thousands of copies of a poster designed by Parthiv Shah carried the text: “Aaj koi naara na hoga, sirf desh bachaana hoga (There shall be no slogans today, our only task is to save the nation)”. These were plastered across walls in Delhi and also distributed as newspaper inserts.


Leftist activism and agitations have given life to the protest poster through the decades. In 1987, Uttam Ghosh, a 57-year-old Mumbai-based cartoonist, was commissioned to design a poster by the Mumbai unit of Bhopal Action Committee. The committee of lawyers, civil rights activists, trade unions and Leftists, of which he was a part, was fighting against a proposed monetary settlement with Union Carbide, the company behind the deadly gas leak in Bhopal in 1984. Ghosh created a poster that showed representatives of Union Carbide, the Supreme Court and the Indian government poring over a coin bank, much like three witches over a cauldron. “About 2,000 copies in English and Marathi were printed and then pasted by the committee across BEST bus-stops, railway stations and mill walls,” says Ghosh. The posters also came up around the Union Carbide factory in Chembur, Mumbai.

“Without posters and slogans, protest marches would not be half as lively as they are,” says writer, publisher and activist Urvashi Butalia. The feminist movement has added substantially to the protest poster in India. Butalia recalls the late 1970s and early 1980s, when members of the women’s movement made protest posters by hand, sitting in parks or people’s homes. “Often we’d use newspaper, chart paper or screenprint them ourselves. We spent many nights on the roads of Delhi, with a bucket of glue and many brushes, putting up posters all over. Even to think of colour [posters] was an issue, for printing in colour was very expensive,” says Butalia. Most of the posters against domestic violence, unequal property laws and rape, were made by activists, but some were also made by artists, such as Sheba Chhachhi and Chandralekha.


ƒDo Not Speak, a 1980s’ poster designed by artists Sheba Chhachhi and Jogi Panghaal against discriminatory personal laws (Courtesy: Zubaan)In 2006, Zubaan, the publishing house which Butalia founded, initiated an archive called Poster Women to map the history of the feminist movement through posters. Today, the archive has over 1,600 posters. Butalia obviously finds it hard to pick a favourite, but if she had to, she says, it would be one from Hyderabad, made in 2011 by Neelu Jadav. “It shows a woman reclining in her home with her feet up, watching television, reading a book, a glass by her side that could contain anything — tea, wine, whiskey. We call the poster ‘the right to leisure’ — a right women barely ever have,” says Butalia.

Given these diverse legacies, it’s not easy to define a single visual vocabulary for all the protest posters seen in the wake of the anti-CAA movement. In Assam, where protests against the CAA started much before the rest of the nation, poster imagery includes symbols such as the state’s famed one-horned rhino, the traditional Assamese gamusa and art that highlights the opposition to CAA, across religion. Many of the posters speak of Modi as “the chaiwalla who sold the tea state”; others are even more uncharitable towards chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.


The protesters also draw inspiration from our fairly well-documented freedom struggle — the imagery, the slogans, the poetry, and, perhaps, the will to protest against a ruling government. A common chant heard at the anti-CAA protests is “Modi, Go Back”. The slogan recalls the nationwide protests in 1928 against the Simon Commission, dispatched from the British headquarters to suggest constitutional reforms to British India. Sumit Roy, a 27-year-old Mumbai-based artist and musician, has digitally altered an archival photograph of Indian freedom fighters holding a “Simon Go Back” banner. In Roy’s work, the banner reads “Shah-Modi Go Back”. This is a coming together of digital manipulation, history and politics, creating a hyperlink between past and present struggles.

anti-CAA protests, CAA. NRC, narendra modi, Amit Shah, indianexpress, SundayEYE, EYE2020, russian revolution, freedom struggle india, ambedkar, constitution, jami protests, independence struggle, anti constitution, muslims, minorities, india, JMI, police crackdown, Artist Sumit Roy reimagines a photo from the freedom movement (Source: Sumit Roy)

Needless to say, the digital means new and powerful possibilities for the protest poster. Every technology, from letterpress to offset printing to mobile phone apps, has revolutionised movements by making protest posters more democratic. Agitprop is for everyone now. Sneha Ragavan, senior researcher, Asia Art Archive in India, says that a range of digital tools has enabled people to produce visuals with ease. Think memes, Instagram stories or Facebook posts. “All these carry the potential, with circulation, to become posters. We see today how people are creating their own resources — be it of posters and infographics, photographs, reading lists, documents, etc. during an ongoing movement,” says Ragavan. A meme is made digitally, printed on paper, and photos of the meme-poster go back on social media, creating an infinite loop of meme dissemination.

“Before the internet, social media, and the digital turn generally, the task of archiving or preserving posters often emerged retrospectively,” says Ragavan. The poster, once considered ephemeral, lives forever in the new age of agitprop. Butalia says, “You no longer need to traipse around the city in the dead of night putting them up on walls, you can share them on the net. It’s very exciting.”

Today, archives for protest posters are readily available. Creatives Against CAA is a web resource by Kadak Collective, a group of South Asian women creatives who work with graphic storytelling. Visual artist Mira Malhotra, on behalf of Kadak Collective, says, “Posters are non-violent weapons. Our aim is to arm protests around the world by making, sourcing and uploading posters in one convenient place.”

At Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, which faced a brutal police crackdown, artists have been gathering on the road that cuts through the campus to create what seems like an open-air residency of protest artists. The people behind this initiative — Kaushal Sonakiya, faculty at the department of fine arts at Jamia, and artists Lokesh Khodke and Shefalee Jain — encourage artists to talk to Jamia students, families and protesters, who gather daily to show their solidarity with the anti-CAA movement. Vidyun Sabhaney, who is part of this artists’ group, says that through making these posters, they are able to listen to the individual perspectives of protesters. From 3 pm to 6 pm, the road is a gallery of posters, puppets and even lamps that protesters can use. One poster shows a young girl with the text: “Doraemon ki time machine de do, Abba ke abba ke abba ke kaagaz la doongi (Give me Doremon’s time machine and I shall get you my father’s father’s father’s documents).” Another poster has four women, one of whom says, “My hijab doesn’t stop me from voicing my opinions.”

About 48 hours after the police crackdown in Jamia, posters sprung up with the image of a young woman wearing a hijab or a dupatta over her head. They were inspired by students Ayesha Renna and Ladeeda Sakhaloon’s brave stand against lathi-wielding cops. “The advantage of digital dissemination is that an image can be shared widely, and quickly — to the point that ephemeral can become iconic in a very short space of time,” says Rippon. For instance, just hours after women drew kolams to protest against the CAA in Tamil Nadu last week, posters with the kolam designs cropped up across social media. Activism and its responding art is happening in real time.

anti-CAA protests, CAA. NRC, narendra modi, Amit Shah, indianexpress, SundayEYE, EYE2020, russian revolution, freedom struggle india, ambedkar, constitution, jami protests, independence struggle, anti constitution, muslims, minorities, india, JMI, police crackdown, Speaking out: An anti-CAA protest at Dadar, Mumbai (Photo: Prashant Nadkar)

The young Jamia students now have the same iconicity now as anti-government protester and student Alaa Salah, who climbed on a car in April 2019 to sing to the women in Khartoum, Sudan. In this swirl of revisions, the anti-CAA protests have thrown up a new poster girl — that of a woman in hijab, whose place is in the resistance.

First published on: 05-01-2020 at 06:11:15 am
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