On Sunday, the country witnessed violent scenes of protest in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as students of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University rallied against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Soon after, two artists captured their perspective of the events in images that have been spread widely on social media.
One image, by Nithya Subramanian, showed a baton-wielding police officer ready to hit and another, by Tamil actor Ponvannan, was a depiction of 22-year-old Ayesha Renna, the student who stood up to the police during the protests. The images have been shared thousands of times across social media, becoming a symbol of resistance against the police action.
‘Identified by their clothes itself’
On Sunday, when new media designer and Scroll's visual editor Nithya Subramanian was watching video after video on social media and the alleged force that was used by police, she also came across a video of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign speech in Jharkhand on Dec. 15, prior to the violent protests.
He had said, “The Congress and its allies are making noise, creating a storm. And if that doesn’t work, they are spreading a fire… From the visuals on TV, those setting the fire can be identified by their clothes itself.”
Soon after the remark by the PM, Nithya's image of a police officer in khaki all set to land a blow, accompanied by the Prime Minister’s quote, was shared.
Speaking to TNM, the artist of the image Nithya says, “It was obviously a dog whistle, he was referring to Muslims and saying you can identify them by their clothes. I hadn't even processed what was happening and I couldn't sleep. I woke up early the next day and the idea popped into my head. It was just a quick sketch, I finished it in 10 minutes.”
(Courtesy: Nithya Subramanian/ Instagram: @nithya.sub)
“It didn't matter who it was, that's why I deliberately obscured the face. The uniform was what mattered, the police is a representative of the state. The man in the uniform was the state committing violence on its citizens,” she says about the image.
Explaining the essential role of art during the fight for human rights, she says, “That's how you reach people. The role of artists is vital. Meryl Streep quoted Carrie Fisher and said, ‘take your broken heart and turn it into art.’ So how do you express how you are feeling? You have to use whatever medium is available to you.”
Nithya also finds inspiration from the community of artists who have come together for the protests. “They are expressing themselves through inspiring words, songs and humour. All of their talent is going into something important and I see the best in people coming out.”
Following the passage of the legislation in both Houses of Parliament, massive protests broke out in the northeastern states with internet shutdowns witnessed in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh in addition to West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. While activists have cited international law and pointed out that this was unlawful, Nithya also underscores the effect it has on artists.
“Sharing your message becomes difficult during an internet shutdown. I've not experienced an internet shutdown myself so I can only imagine what it is like. For example, Kashmir has such a rich tradition of art, poetry and rap. It has all been silenced. I feel a great deal of sadness for them,” she says.
(Nithya and Ponvannan)
‘Oru viral puratchi’
Tamil film audiences know Ponvannan as a character artiste from hit films like Paruthiveeran and Ayan, but many are unaware that he is a skilled painter. In fact, one of the iconic images of the protests, of 22-year-old Ayesha Renna, who stood up to a posse of baton-wielding police officers, was sketched by him.
(Courtesy: Ponvannan/ Facebook: @Tamilsapiens)
Explaining his thoughts over the past week to TNM, the actor says, "Prior to 1947, we had no independence. After we got it and other countries also wrested their independence, there was some order and we got our freedoms. But about 75 years later, we are at a juncture where the world is fighting to preserve human value over borders. We are thinking about our humanity, about the environment and we are advancing towards these ideals of saving the earth.”
"With [the Act], we have lost the identity of India. India is a secular country. India is a country with a majority of Hindus but it is identified by its secularism. This has ruined that,” Ponvannan laments.
It was then that the actor sketched a defiant Ayesha Renna standing up to a baton-wielding police officer wearing a helmet.
“The students who have fought this have been dragged out and beaten on the streets. We can see them getting thrashed. But one girl stood up, took the blows, protected her friend, and turned to face her aggressor. In that moment, when she raised her finger to the police officer, I felt she was raising a finger to the government and the entire society. The oru viral puratchi (one finger revolution) questions the entire Indian mindset right now,” he points out.