The Defaced Walls of Shaheen Bagh Still Sing of Revolution

Drawing graffiti on walls is human nature. In the pre-historic period, we first learnt to draw on the walls of caves and then we learnt to speak. From caves to canvas, coal to colours, hands to brushes — the journey of expression has been witnessed by walls.

Such wall artwork was in the spotlight during the months-long protest against the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Shaheen Bagh.

The 101-day movement ended on March 24 as protestors evacuated the site in the wake of coronavirus outbreak and Section 144  was imposed in Delhi. The area now looks like a war zone – dilapidated, ruined, ransacked and abandoned.

The police have now removed every art installation and painted the walls white.

Nevertheless, the walls remain an expression of political dissent.

According to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a ‘sign’ gets its meaning only in relation to or in contrast with other signs in a system. Saussure believed that semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. Walls communicate through its visual vocabulary based on the signs painted on it which the observer perceives through a cognitive process.

At Shaheen Bagh, they carried anti-government murals – acting as an impetus to nationwide protests. While some were (and still are) provocative, some were also patriotic.

Art took centrestage at the movement. While protestors believed it to be a strong metaphor of resistance, the government identified it as vandalism. Murals, graffiti and paintings can be ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the government but to the civilians, it is simply a medium to awaken conscience of the public.

The subversive power of graffiti, in my opinion, lies in its ability to prompt introspection both at social as well as political level.

Also read: The ‘Peepal’ Tree at the Hauz Rani Protest

Most of the graffiti at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia were hand-drawn, stencilled and spray painted. These included poems, slogans and the names of the victims who died due to communal violence. It is reminiscent of the ‘war poets’ during the civil war, the Vietnam war and the Cuban revolution; who used to write and re-write – every single night.

At protest sites, the walls scribbled with expressive graffiti were mostly anonymous. They were both symbolic and pleasing to the eye; aesthetic but also opening doors for semiotic interpretations.

Colours too played an important role – red symbolised ‘blood’ and black signified ‘anarchy’.

Artists believe that questioning the government is a moral obligation. And dissent needs wall art besides sloganeering, demonstrations, hartals – because art is both peaceful and resilient.

Why did the authorities deface the walls? If there can be an entire street dedicated to art at Delhi’s Lodhi district, what’s wrong with the walls at Shaheen Bagh?

The answer, artists say, is simple: it was to simply ‘erase’ the movement.

Art in times of revolution succinctly chronicles public opinion and perspectives. It gives voice to the mute and eyes to the blind by simply documenting the ongoing political crisis. When the world sleeps, walls stay up. Even when a movement dies, these walls remain a souvenir of resistance – maybe not in physicality but in the minds of the people.

These walls sing revolution.

Talha Mujibi is a postgraduate student in English literature at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

Featured image credit: PTI