Nitin Paranjape (Abhivyakti: Media for Development)

Awakening the Artist and Activist Within

 

“Ten thousand years are too long, Now is the time.” - Mao

While thinking about Now Activism I was struck by the emphasis on ‘Now’. Immediately, the words of Chinese Leader Mao came back long after I had read them many years ago without understanding its significance then.  Now, its deeper meaning is becoming apparent. ‘Now’ seems like an urge ready to burst forth with energy for action. Action that is filled with reflection, feelings and human spirit. It’s a conscious act as a response which has increasingly become rare in the present world of globalisation and ever increasing consumerism. The result has been devastating – making us dependent on externally-provided goods and services and ignorant about our natural abilities with which we are endowed to create, feel, think and act. Dumbing us down, said John Gatto about modern Institutions, which have deceived us into accepting their domination, control and false promises. When we let others control our imagination and lives, despite the enormous resources we possess within and in our collective beings, it is a huge cost we are paying. Sadly, the power and the energy that we all have to respond to different challenges remain unutilized and the countless creative possibilities go unexplored.

 

Those of us who are in Abhivyakti, a community media organization based in Nashik, India, obviously think we are activists simply because our responses are not shaped by external considerations. It is true that the influence of global media through their omnipresent network of channels is vast, leading us to believe that their intervention is timely and right. And our roles as mere observers suit the System just fine. This is exactly what we at Abhivyakti are challenging. Through our collective imagination, we are trying to respond in as many different ways as possible.

 

Mostly, it’s facilitated by community media. Community media is embedded in the ethos of the community and is generated and used by its members to serve the interest of the community. We look at community media as part of a culture that invites people to consider themselves as artists with their unique expressions and that generates opportunities for dialogue on various issues connected to their lives and community.

 

This directly contrasts with the ‘message-driven’ obsession of other media forms produced by NGOs to create awareness, as part of some campaign or advocacy efforts. Most of such advocacy is self-invited without any significant dialogue with members of the community, for whom the advocacy is supposed to be devised. Advocacy is loaded with power and hierarchy, as it assumes to promote issues and problems faced by ‘others’, who mostly are members of the marginalized communities, whose own resources are never acknowledged. Community media is not obsessed with messages, simply because it is there to generate and deepen dialogue in the community and recognize the tremendous resources that exist within the community. The dialogue opens options for listening and formulating thoughts on issues confronting them and, at the same time, offers fresh perspectives and alternatives to reflect on their lives.

 

To illustrate: International Broadcasting Day for children, which is observed on December 10, has been limited to merely screening children’s films on TV.  Again, it is assumed that children will be happy watching. For a couple of years, we have been celebrating the day by inviting children in Nashik to make their own media by using local resources. The media is then exhibited in the evening for parents and public to view the creations, and interact on matters related to creativity, actions and how we view children and ourselves in the present world of passive citizenship. Inviting parents and children to look at their own power to create, relate and redefine their engagement with reality is one way to broaden their perspective of the gifts they have in themselves which make their life meaningful.

 

We believe that each one of us is an artist capable of diverse creative forms, and that in artists, some form of activism is present. The challenge is to activate it. We have been working in communities and working with different individuals with this idea. At first, there is resistance. How could there be an artist within? Are we capable of any creations? seem to be the common refrain that we hear. Breaking this wall of resistance is not difficult but requires engagement and raising meaningful questions about our kind of passive existence. Once the arousal to make is stoked, the next steps evolve gradually.

 

Perhaps what is required is attentive listening to their inner voice, and urging acting upon its path. The inquiry is about what is meaningful to their life and that of the community and how it defines the reality they understand, analyse and articulate. The form here is not important; it usually emerge as they grapple with the content. We have witnessed many different forms: puppets, songs, posters, masks, dance form, theatre, among others, have come from people who hardly believed that they could generate such expressions based on their own knowledge. This birthing process has been immensely empowering. The energy is almost palpable and has contributed in generating actions that have taken the mighty and powerful by surprise. Tribal children in rural Maharashtra living in state-sponsored hostel produced a wallpaper which spoke against the school authorities on the deplorable food quality and corruption. It shook the bureaucracy to look into the matter. For the first time, the voice of the children was able to make its presence relevant.

 

Becoming the centre of relevance and meaning requires one more layer to manifest. This unfolding too is gradual, but it makes the nexus of artist-activist a potent force. For the artist to reach other members of the community is a natural progression. That’s where the opportunity and space to dialogue with others abound. The connection with others assumes significance, because it is not a meeting for mere get-together sake. The dialogue is as much socio-cultural as it is political. The art is a starting point to engage in matters related to self, community and its development. While the artist creates the ‘art’ on an important aspect of the community, the activists sees the art as tools of engagement for becoming open to inquiry and action that might result from the dialogue among different members of the community.

 

For example, the ‘TV Turn-Off Week’ program emerged after dialogue with nearly 150 families in Nashik, who were willing to stay away from watching TV for a week. They agreed that their time and space was being dictated by entertainment created by others. By saying no to TV, the families were able to regain control in their lives. They spent time doing things they always wanted to like writing letters, meeting friends, eating dinners together, writing, reading and going for walks; little things as per their hearts desire. Their resistance was an act of activism — a strong, collective statement to the domination of media and other forms of external control. The families had walked on the path of their own making. A beginning had been made. Of course, there would be pressures and temptations, but the tension between external influences and the inner voice had become dynamic. By becoming aware of different paths and possibilities, the families had invited activism into their lives. They had also redefined their relationship with the mainstream media which had treated them with scant respect and as mere receivers. Now they understood the power, they had to give charge to their energies instead of sitting idle in front of the TV.

 

Sometimes the artist is swayed by their own fragmented perspectives, and the art suffers because of lack of connections. By inviting the activist who resides within to surface, the artist opens the window of possibilities. More than anything else, it is an opportunity to become a whole person by listening to others, of checking their notions of truth, assumptions and false sense of power which many times destroys us. By relating to the community and becoming one of them, the artist-activist generates hope and trust that things are going to change. They activate their own life by initiating changes in their own life and walking on the path of their own creation supported by a web of convivial relationship of their communities. This is the core of the Now Activism — unlike the mainstream notion that believes in working/advocating for someone who is vulnerable and marginalized. Most often, there is a wide gap between the self and what is advocated as change. This ‘safe’ position is the bane that affects most activists today.  Creating change in others is not the starting point for the Now Activism. If any advocacy is needed urgently, it is in the direction of the self. Making oneself the centre of the ‘change’ process would be biggest challenge before all of us. ‘Now’ is the time to do it.