In the last 20 minutes on the last day of the 12 edition of the India Art Fair (IAF) the police entered the booth by the Italian Cultural Embassy Centre. They stopped a musician performing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge while the artists of The Wall: Community Art Building Mural were holding it up for all to see.
The police were acting on the trepidations of PCR call by an anonymous bystander who felt the activities at the booth promoted anti-CAA-NRC by hijabi women resembled the Shaheen Bagh protestors and were writing couplets in Urdu calligraphy on the mural.
The police, however, left after having found nothing “inflammatory”, when a suitable explanation was provided for the presence of the word ‘Shaheen’ in the couplet, here denoting an ‘eagle’ – tū shāhīñ hai parvāz hai kaam terā tere sāmne āsmāñ aur bhī hai (You are the great Falcon, your passion is flight. Look ahead, there are more skies to transcend). But, the IAF cordoned the booth, and took down the mural, which, five days later, is yet to reach the Post-Art Project, the multidisciplinary arts studio by artists Gargi Chandola and Yaman Navlakha – organisers of the ‘community’ mural painting at the booth.
The mural in question is a collage of 15 panels by 10-12 artists stitched together with threads from a temple and a Sufi shrine, to form approximately 5ftx4ft; each panel commenting against the violence on women, LGBTQ+ rights, the trans bill, marginalised communities, and also celebrating the artistic unity across diverse communities. Myna Mukherjee, who co-curated the mural with Davide Quadrio, claims that the IAF is in the possession of the mural, but it yet to return it because, then, IAF will have to acknowledge that they confiscated it in the first place.
“Eyewitnesses and our artists have said very clearly they saw people from the art fair put it [the mural] in a plastic packet and move it out of Gate No. 3. If they didn’t, then who took it? It’s easy to check because every single time an artwork was brought or taken out from the venue, you were given a pass. Also, look at the CCTV footage. The police have said they’ve not taken it, and I know that because they left in front of me. So, the big question is, where is the artwork? Any artwork missing from the fair is the fair’s responsibility.”
When this writer approached IAF about the mural’s whereabouts, the publicity manager issued a reply, “India Art Fair does not have the artwork. The responsibility for the artworks in booths lies with the respective exhibitors. It would be appropriate to direct this query to the Italian Embassy Culture Centre.”
We did. Andrea Baldi, Director, Italian Embassy Cultural Centre says, “We have asked the IAF about the artwork over a formal email and a telephone call. It seems for the moment, they don’t know where it is but they are cooperating with us to find out where it is.”
Both parties, the IAF and organisers of the activities at the booth, have issued a series of statements. In one statement, the IAF said they were not informed about the detailed schedule of activities held at the booth over the four days of the fair. Mukherjee dismissed this saying over 600 postcards with the detailed schedule were dropped at the Art Fair office, and subsequent reminders about the events at the booth were sent as WhatsApp messages to the Fair Director.
“On the morning of February 2, I informed her that I’ve invited artists from Shaheen Bagh and Jamia for the live mural-making,” before sharing screenshots of the same with The Morning Standard.
Baldi adds, “I had approved the programme and sent it to the art fair. We had told them [Post-Art Project] that we cannot mingle with any political issues here in India. I was at the booth, saw the mural but I couldn’t understand because it was written in Hindi or Urdu, but I didn’t feel anything strange, and even the police didn’t find anything political.”
Indranil Roy, who was interrupted while performing Faiz, also believes the mural is with the IAF, and should be returned. “It is a temporal work, but it is our intellectual property as many artists were involved in making it.”