Basharat Bashir

Performance Protest and Aesthetics

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Performance art as we know it is an art form which mostly, directly or indirectly deals with some kind of protest (within oneself or any socio political issue) to bring transformation. Performance artists use their body and actions (in most of the cases without verbal communication) to express and oppose or integrate socio political changes. It can either be pre-planned or spontaneous depending upon the nature of the performance. Performance art involves four basic elements: time, space, body, and presence of the artist to create a relation between the nature of the performance, its creator and audience.  Performance art is a strong form of art executed at any space during any time period to generate a quick reaction.  In last few years we have witnessed individuals or groups using performance art intentionally or intentionally to protest and to present their demands. In some protests ordinary people generated such extraordinary performances that no one could have imagined.

Performance protest became a new way for protestors to show their disagreement for any socio political issue aesthetically. In farmer’s protest of 2017, we witnessed some extreme performances from farmers, who found no other means that could reflect their situation correctly.  They used performance in such a way that media could not ignore but to broadcast their demands.  Farmers from drought-affected districts of the southern state of Tamil Nadu used unique ways to draw attention of the government. One of the protesting farmers, Chinnagodangy Palanisamy, held a live mouse between his teeth to present the alarming conditions he and his fellow farmers faced.  In an interview published on BBC Chinnagodangy Palanisamy was quoted as saying, “I and my fellow farmers were trying to convey the message that we will be forced to eat mice if things don’t improve”.

Apart from Chinnagodangys mice in mouth episode, farmer’s protest of 2017 saw many other performances that took the media by surprise. Protesters used their body as performance artists usually does, to create a hysteric feeling among the audience.  Their motive was clear, they had to make their demands reach the higher authority who could intervene and offer a solution.  When they were denied proper coverage and government authorities tried to neglect them they used such intriguing performances to support their demands. They wore skulls of dead farmers, shaved half of their heads, slashed their hands and striped off their clothes near the prime minister’s office.  Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the farmers were among the best performances ever presented by any artist, as individually or as a group. Their protest was so unique and aesthetical that some media outlets could not resist toterm their protest as performance, but not actually as a gesture of support.

In last half a decade or so, we have witnessed a huge increase in the use of aesthetics by the protestors around the world to express their demands. Socio political protests around the world carried out some eye catching performances to gain public support and to put pressure on the authority. The role of social media has also been vital and protestors have used social media platforms to internationalize their demands so to make a universal effect.  In India during anti CAA, NRC   protests, protestors used peaceful means of protest, although it was supported by artists but many of the events in the protest carried out by commoners can be categorized as aesthetically strong performances. During Covid lockdown the ongoing anti CAA NRC protests had no other choice but to use some creative approach to continue their protest, and for that they came up with a unique performance keeping their shoes, sandles and plycards in place of their protesting site with names mentioning each protestor. Although the body of the artist was not present in their protest performance but, the imprints of there being there was aesthetically visible.

Performance artists in many occasions when they feel the need or the matter they want to express demands some extra effort in order to make people understand the seriousness of the idea they do not shy away to take extreme steps. There are many performance artists who physically torture themselves in order to express their idea. Performance artists only hurt themselves not the audience, they use their body as a means and element to complete their performance no matter how mental and physical suffering they experience or put themselves into.

In the recently concluded Farmers protest some fine examples of performance protest were witnessed.  The protest was joined by artists, film actors and actresses, environmentalists, social activists and people from many other professions. The sit ins, tractor rallies and fighiting the way  out  to launch their own newspapers against misrepresentation they faced from major news channels and media outlets, was a great performance protest ever witnessed.  The most iconic event that took place during farmers protest was when heavy rains filled up the protest site at Ghazipur border. Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait along with some of his supports kept their spot with their bodies half immersed in water. Tikait used his body as a medium to deliver a strong message to authorities and received national and international support.

In many occasions when people are subjugated to unjust circumstances and they try to demonstrate peacefully, intentionally or unintentionally protest becomes aesthetic.  In our contemporary world with access to social media activism has become global. The online deployment of protest events happening in one part of the world is supported by people from another part. There have been numerous advents in the history where people used tactical embodied behavior to press their demands or disagreements. Mahatma Gandhi in his non violent protest against British used his body as tool and as a medium of expression to mark his disagreement. The sit-in protests by the families of disappeared people of Kashmir, holding placards, photographs and names of their loved ones constitutes performance protest. The poetry recitation in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh during CAA,NRC protests and live protest art created on walls and roads are examples of protest performance. One cannot resist him/herself from creating art when subjugated to physical or emotional distress knowingly or unknowingly the response will be art. Because art itself is peaceful response to everything we regard, may it be appreciating nature, dealing social issues, changing political circumstances or approaching personal enquiries.

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