The art of resistance: Take a peek inside the new graphic novel on Shaheen Bagh
For anyone who visited Shaheen Bagh during the anti-CAA protests in the winter of 2019, certain scenes are unforgettable — the women handing out hot chai, sitting on the roads covered in blankets, holding up placards pointing out that, in a country where winter caps go missing every year, it was going to be unjust and impossible to expect people to dig up paperwork from half a century ago to prove their status under the terms of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
Through the winter, for almost four months, the protestors stayed put, taking turns to keep the sit-in going and to demand the repeal of the new clauses. Covid-19 forced them to disperse in March 2020.
Already, by that time, graphic artist, researcher and one-time Shaheen Bagh protestor Ita Mehrotra, 31, was working with Yoda Press on her first book, a graphic novel on the movement. In dramatic black-and-white artwork, 200 panels capture scenes from the protests in Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection (released in February 2021). The art represents the angst and anger, but also the camaraderie and kinship that formed at the protest ground. Excerpts from an interview:
Why the graphic novel form?
It is one of the ways to convey, strongly but anonymously, the peoples’ voice. There are others, such as music and street theatre, that are extremely powerful. But to me graphic novels are also sensitive to people’s sensitivity and privacy.
This book is about the little moments, what stays with you the most from the evenings spent at Shaheen Bagh. So, when the reader moves from one panel to another, they are actually moving between those moments and are left to connect the dots, imagining what happened in between. All this makes it a very interactive medium too.
What was your experience of Shaheen Bagh?
In mid-December I was at Jamia (Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university), protesting the police violence that had occurred there. Many protestors were going from there to Shaheen Bagh, where I had not yet been, so I tagged along. The situation was very different at Shaheen Bagh. There women were the centre of the protest. This was still early days and people weren’t talking about it as much yet. Back then, there was space to draw posters (about the scenes there), which I would then circulate on social media. At the time it had not been recognised as a women-led protest. But the action of Muslim women coming out on to the streets was unprecedented. Within weeks, the protest grew, and then there was artwork, poetry and music.
How did the book come about?
The publishers approached me with the idea in mid-February 2020. By then I had had long conversations, with protestors and with people who had grown up in the Shaheen Bagh area. It would have been nice to have had a few more conversations, but what with the pandemic and lockdowns, I decided to rely on what I had.
To have Ghazala Jamil (an author and assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University) write the foreword was very important to me as well.
How did you come up with the characters?
It was important to me to root the narrative in voices from Shaheen Bagh, and in the people who were a part of the movement from the beginning and to whom it meant so much. They had come out of their homes and were shouting slogans, singing, calling out a sharp critique of not just the CAA but also of demonetisation, unemployment.
One of the women I talked to at Shaheen Bagh during and after the protests, and on whom the character Shahana is based, is an architect who has lived in the area almost all her life. The movement shifted the idea of the space completely for her and her friends. To hear what it meant to her to have a sense of ownership of the city as a young Muslim woman, to have the shift in perspective of claiming a right to India publicly, a right to the future as an Indian citizen, was very powerful.
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