Every year, with the change of weather, birds journey from one hemisphere to another. To move freely is what defines us as being alive. Being human is not just the ability to push the limits of our imagination, but also to be able to move, irrespective of any constraints, beyond social and geographical boundaries.
In the mobile art installation, “Untitled” (2008-09), a metal gate swings back and forth, hitting the wall it is suspended upon. Eventually, with the impact, the wall cracks and starts breaking. The artwork is about the persistence of movement and the impossibility of containing aspirations. Even though barriers are built, they are constantly being defied. This work was first shown in 2009 (Lyon Biennale), and then, last year, it was part of the Venice Biennale.
As a republic, we have been free of colonial rule for a while now. However, how free are we truly as individuals? We are still bound by our biases of caste, religious prejudice, class and profession. We bow down to wealth and status, treat with contempt, or just do not acknowledge those who have menial jobs (such as waste picking), are less educated or appear less like us. With such a sense of entitlement, can we call ourselves free? On that matrix, it appears that we are regressing. The pain of the less advantaged in the management of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is an example.
Political freedoms — of speech, action, or choices — cannot exist in isolation to freedom from deep biases. Freedom and democracy are intertwined. Being free is about tolerance, dignity and respect — we are as free as we allow others to be free. And so, freedom is more than a right; it is a way of being.
A society with complete freedom is an illusion. Too much control leads to dystopia and too much freedom towards anarchy. It is important to have a fine balance, which humans have failed at most of the time through history. To attain this, it is important to be free from the notion of ‘us’ versus ‘they’. Since ages, different forms of religion, nationalism, race, caste, class inflicted this notion for their own gain. It is important ‘we’ — humanity should remain paramount — to be able to rise above all distinctions and be free from all notions. In this uncertain time, even as we are fighting an unknown virus, disparity is evident. For instance, the migrants are being blamed for spreading the virus, whereas they themselves are victims of the ill-implemented lockdown. Their struggle, among others, has made this time exceptional and historical.
Freedom has several manifestations and means different things to different people at different stages. At the age of 11, when I ran from my home in 1999 and arrived at the New Delhi Railway Station, I remember feeling this sense of freedom in being able to do what I wanted. When trains with Delhi as the final destination would stop, children would head to the pantry to eat food; there were no worries, it was a very liberating experience. Initially, when I was taken to a shelter home, I suddenly felt it had too many restrictions, it’s only now that I realise that some rules are for our own betterment.
There are several restrictions that we face today — we have become a slave to technology and corporate culture that requires us to work long hours with no work-life balance. We should aspire to occasionally step down from the rat-race and do things that we enjoy. I am sharing a photograph from the series “Street Dreams”, where I photographed children on the streets in Delhi in 2005 to 2008, capturing their spirit along with their circumstance.
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