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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Let the Walls Speak

Artist Shilo Shiv Suleman’s mural painted with the women protesters at Shaheen Bagh salutes unity.

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay | Published: February 4, 2020 12:05:23 am
mural painting at Shaheen Bagh, protests against CAA-NRC, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, Constitution of India, Mahatma Gandhi, indian express news Shilo Shiv Suleman at the India Art Fair with a painting from the series “Buraq”. (Photo: Amit Mehra)

A young girl wearing a leopard print scarf is seen with the Constitution of India in her hand in a 40-ft mural painted in Shaheen Bagh, where protests against CAA-NRC have been on for over a month in Delhi. Her creator, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, tells us that the protagonist is based on Khushboo, a six-year-old who visits the protest site every day. When asked by Suleman why does she come there, the little girl replied, “For my grandchildren”, trying to act like an adult. “My grandfather was also barely six when India became independent. He would watch Mahatma Gandhi speak during the protests in Madhya Pradesh,” says Suleman.

The Bengaluru-based artist has spent the last week painting the mural. While slogans of protest against CAA-NRC can be heard from the nearby tent, Suleman is assisted by more than 10 women protesters and her mother, artist Nilofer Suleman.

mural painting at Shaheen Bagh, protests against CAA-NRC, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, Constitution of India, Mahatma Gandhi, indian express news Shilo Shiv Suleman’s mural at Shaheen Bagh (Photo: Amit Mehra).

Accompanying the young girl on the mural is an elderly woman, inspired by the dadis at Shaheen Bagh, and the falcon. “They say that shaheen is a falcon that flies so high above everybody that no other bird can catch it,” says Suleman, 31. Spending more than eight hours on site each day, the artist shares how the women protesters were apprehensive about wielding the brush initially, with no prior knowledge of how to paint on a wall and never having climbed huge scaffoldings.“But within minutes they were on the top. They covered the entire background in blue paint in no time. When they came down, I told them they had done an incredible job, and they said, ‘We have done jhadu pocha for so many years, it’s the same hand’ and laughed,” says Shilo. Related paintings, comprising the series “Buraq”, depicting women with wings, flying from an unsafe land to a faraway place, were on display at the recently concluded India Art Fair.

Trained in animation from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Shilo began with conducting a workshop in the tents of Shaheen Bagh, where she spoke to several protesters to understand the essence of the movement. “This is a temporal space and always under the threat of being removed, but its mythology is eternal. This (mural) is a kind of public monument, a way of keeping alive the history of what is happening now,” says Shilo. Seven years ago, after the 2012 Delhi gangrape, she started the Fearless Collective to create artistic interventions in the public space, encouraging participation from women and “misrepresented” communities in making the murals. She says, “While women are being presented all the time, it is usually other people — storytellers, media, artists — who represent them. I encourage self-portraits. It becomes self-determining.”

mural painting at Shaheen Bagh, protests against CAA-NRC, artist Shilo Shiv Suleman, Constitution of India, Mahatma Gandhi, indian express news Shilo Shiv Suleman’s mural at Shaheen Bagh (Photo: Amit Mehra).

Over the years, the artist has worked with Syrian and Palestinian refugees, daughters of sex workers in Delhi and the transgender community to create socially- relevant works. In 2014, she painted a 40-ft portrait of Bubbli Malik, a transgender, riding a motorcycle, in Rawalpindi. The mural featured the words: “Hum Hain Takhleeq-e-Khuda (I am a creation of Allah)”. Shilo says, “Bubbli had been living on that road for 35 years. In the process of painting that mural, for the first time she was invited into her neighbour’s house for a cup for tea.” In 2017, she was at Sassine Square in Beirut, painting a mural of two gay men holding each other. She shares that the government has now built a park near the mural, and installed a bench that is now popular as the “kissing bench”. “Nine years ago, two men were arrested for kissing there. Now that park has become a hotspot for the gay community in Lebanon,” she adds.

Closer to Shaheen Bagh, in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony, is her mural of two women — a young girl and her mother — with the word ‘Fearless’ spread across the wall. It was painted in collaboration with the NGO Sewing New Futures that works with sex workers and their daughters to provide employment to them. “These daughters stitch so that their mothers don’t have to engage in sex work,” says Shilo, adding, “Very often the streets themselves are a site of fear for women. Through the murals we want to reclaim the space.”

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