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In Baroda, Art Is Used To Challenge Hindutva Politics

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Art does not exist in isolation. In its truest form, it arises out of dense social realities.

At first glance, the city of Baroda, in Gujarat, seems to be captured by a certain hue: with saffron flags being hosted at major junctions of the city. 

It looks as if there’s no scope of struggle against the status quo… As if the city has complied with the forces it is ruled by and has given up a huge part of itself for them to take shelter in. Seemingly, there remains no diversity to explore.

At a second glance, though, one will find that the city has not lost its soul entirely, yet. There are individuals striving to preserve, although in smaller portions, whatever little part of this city that is still eager to struggle for its own people.

During times where even the slightest forms of dissent are immediately met with severe consequences, art assumes the role of protest in a subtle manner. Artists cannot protest directly, but they can raise questions that aren’t “supposed” to be asked.

People’s Theatre Initiates A Dialogue

Such art might not set out to influence many people at once. Rather, it aims to attack individual conscience, leading all spectators of the art to connect the dots and become a part of the realisation that our being is collective.

To know that staying silent while oppression takes place somewhere else is nothing, but a form of privilege we have individually. And, individual existence is a myth—we are only here because our existence is fuelled by factors other than ourselves.  

With this very objective, began a well-known theatre group of Baroda: “People’s Theatre Laboratory” (PTL). It was founded by Shakti Bhatt and a couple of his friends while he was pursuing his Masters in Performing Arts in Baroda.

Working with various cultures and different indigenous groups, they didn’t want to limit the group at all. With the realisation that theatre holds immense power as an art, they took efforts to not reduce it to just a form of entertainment.

It is named PTL because in a very literal sense, it aims to work with the people.

One of the productions was an adaptation of the short story “Toba Tek Singh”, written by Saadat Hasan Manto and was performed at the faculty of arts, MSU (the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda).

A poster of the People’s Theatre Laboratory’s production of Toba Tek Singh.

“The two main goals of PTL have been to work with individual and social consciousness and to thereby raise questions in regard to social concerns. All our productions tend to shed light on these social concerns,” said Chaity Bhatt, daughter of Shakti Bhatt, who now helps him conduct theatre workshops and is an active part of all PTL productions.

My Experience At A PTL Production

As someone who regularly attended their workshop for around a month, I was given space to express my being and see my individual existence as a part of a greater reality.

We were asked to work on separate monologues and eventually had to connect all these monologues to one string—making it an interconnected narrative about the individuals and the collective.  

In the workshops, issues are raised and questions are asked, not because these issues are seen separate or beyond our daily rituals of existence, but because they are acknowledged to be an intricate part of everyday struggles of man.

Another production, Ultiva, aimed to depict contemporary issues of the country through the medium of different art forms like music and poetry.

Ultiva was a PTL production that connected contemporary issues with forms of art and initiated a dialogue around it.

The aim of the production was not to stir a big commotion, but to ignite a spark within the audience’s mind and make them begin to engage with the questions raised. 

Standing Up For Art And What It Represents

While back in the day, Baroda was lively enough to host different views on matters, all opinions seem to be painted in one colour now. Art is something that has, however, always been a means to explore diversity.

Home to a beautiful fine arts college, Baroda has witnessed and continues to witness different forms of art intimately and with the passing of years, has been known to express itself through this medium.

The students of the city genuinely believe in and stand up what Art represents. In 2008, Srilamanthula Chandramohan, a student of MSU’s faculty of fine arts, had created a painting of a Hindu goddess, that stirred a controversy back in the day. 

With an old tradition of inviting the public to be a part of the jury, many people came to the exhibition and some walked out with objections to the painting.

Back then, protests were held all around the country and especially in Baroda. A group of students and artists came to stand up for both Chandramohan and the defining idea of art that it is meant to be free.

Students of MSU fine arts covered the faculty building with black sheets as a sign of protest. Photo credit: The Wire (Akansha Rastogi and B.V. Suresh, via the students of the faculty of fine arts).

Since then, many things have changed. Now, even the thought of standing up for something and staging a protest can be threatening, especially when surveillance in the state is so strict. 

At a time like this where it is not possible to show up on the streets and raise our voices- a dialogue is initiated between the artist and the audience through the form of artattempting to make the latter question everything, from the world they are looking at to thoughts in their very own mind.

Role Of Public Spaces In Letting Freedom Bloom

Apart from these small forces trying to attain liberation through the medium of art, Baroda has made some space for the different kinds of people who call it their home. While it might be difficult for the people of the city to find spaces to express ideas and opinions, there are tons of material space that the city offers instead.

Baroda has an abundance of gardens and libraries. With a rich history of its ruler, Maharaja Sayaji Rao, who focused on creating these gardens and libraries to ensure that his kingdom grows progressively… Often the very sight of these places is comforting.

In these settings, a subtle kind of protest develops—where lovers are able to roam around in the gardens freely, without any fear and in libraries, which offer empowerment through the knowledge it hosts along with a certain warmth to the reader.  

This is how, in small but powerful ways, Baroda has sustained parts of its culture by believing in its people. And art, as a tool, be it in university spaces or by people in Sayaji baug (garden) making portraits of the sky while sitting on the grass, has helped let some freedom bloom at a time where there has remained no scope of any.

Just as Bertolt Brecht answers the question, “In the dark times, will there also be singing?” and reminds us, “Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”

Featured image is for representational purposes only. All images have been provided by the writer.

The author wishes to remain anonymous to protect their privacy.

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