As I soak in my contemplative existentialism, I often have to remind myself of how our daily tensions result largely due to the structural shifts our systems are currently experiencing. We are pulled forcefully on either end and ripped into shreds which are then piecemeal auctioned off to the radical future and familiar past respectively. In rebuilding systems with these pieces, we are compelled to re-evaluate our social, ethical, and moral norms. This holds even when we examine the mechanics of information, news, and media today.
The dynamics of the way we create, consume, and share information are changing and have been since the rise of the World Wide Web. While the internet creates pathways for the democratisation of information, it also opens up spaces for lack of accountability. Thus, the transparency of the internet is countered by the shirking of responsibility. Forums like Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram have enabled almost everyone to share information. Subsequently, we have begun to move away from traditional forms of data dissemination such as newspapers, radio, and television. This new configuration has introduced a new player – artists. While artists have been proactive voices in the landscape of social change, in the earlier days, their work was restricted to journals, the last page of a newspaper, and art galleries. Access to their opinionated artwork was restricted to a niche group of people who would seek it actively.
BlueJackal is a collective currently led by Shefalee Jain, Shivangi Singh, and Lokesh Khodke which seeks to reflect on issues in alternate ways, using multiple visual tools to create a dialogue with their viewers. They said, “we publish comics, but we are equally interested in picture books, zines, drawings, and short animations which we also regularly publish; various forms of visual narration or combinations of word and image. We did not want to be constrained within the boundaries of a particular form, because then one quickly tends to fall back on established rules rather than trying to expand the scope of that form or switch to a more relevant visual form that helps us speak about specific concerns… BlueJackal’s visual narratives on political & social issues may not always manifest in the direct language of visual reportage. Instead, we have been trying to bring together multiple kinds of effective visual languages on a single platform to talk about issues that compel and demand our attention. We feel this helps bring in fresh perspectives and nuances to the issues we want to talk about”. Examples of this variety of forms ranging from the poetic to the journalistic are accessible via their website, Ek Philistini Shayad Kahe by Shefalee Jain, Laila-Majnun by Sharvari Deshpande, Promises of the Constitution by Shivangi Singh, as well as Chudail, and Ulat-Pulat: On a Mission to Free Safoora by Lokesh Khodke.
Laila Majnu (2020) by Sharvari Deshpande, a frequent collaborator with BlueJackal
Credit: Blue Jackal
Ryan D’Costa’s entry for the BlueJackal open call in 2015
Credit: Blue Jackal
There are several points of entry through which artists can develop their politically charged niche. While some enter it with deliberate intention, many find themselves in that space as a result of an unconsciously cultivated tangent. Poorva Goel of Holycowmics says, “my earliest motivation to create such work was to observe and reflect on the irony in everyday life, juxtaposing handwritten text and line drawings. It was a means of catharsis for me. When I started, I did not think of my work as political per se, not because I was shying away from the label, but because it felt natural to me to see politics as a part of every day and not separated from it. As they say, the personal is political”.
Although the risk of flattening a narrative is a constant threat when sharing information via social media platforms, Appupen hopes for viewers to shoulder the responsibility of informing and educating themselves. Appupen is a Bangalore based artist who is also one of the curators of the collective Brainded International which shares the work made by independent creators to elevate visual literacy while expanding our understanding of the prowess of animation and illustration. He says, “we are giving people things for free, into their hands and so they are looking at it. We are spoon-feeding things, that is why they are taking it. It is a last-ditch effort, it is the last stand. All the issues are complex, you cannot simplify them into one line”.
One line, one like, and one click. We live in an economy of information that allows quick and effective self-gratification, where one can easily succumb to its mindless tricks. The ease of being able to sign a petition against the destruction of a national park may be a positive act in itself, but being unaware of its varied implications – including one’s carbon footprint could result in more harm than good in the long term. Armchair activism is increasingly revealing its dangerous ramifications, as we show support for causes that we do not fully understand.
Goel examines the rise of neocolonialism in the country
An expression of what “development” looks like in India
While each artist works with different motivations, the intention for most creators when delivering critique through a public platform is to be able to create availability of plural perspectives and provide accessibility to the narrative of the other. Viewers often mistake the consumption of such information to be the first and the last step in developing awareness. However, the role of the artist very rarely plays out like that of an educator or a problem solver; her role is limited to placing emphasis or shedding light when shadows and darkness shroud the facts. Appupen says, “people have a very short attention span. What we can do is highlight certain things and hope that they will go and research to find out more. This is not a solution or anything… And please, if anybody thinks that comics or art is going to save the world, please get off that boat and jump in the water straight away. It is a big farce, we are all doing things for ourselves. I say things that I want to say, and I make sense in some way – that is the end of it. The rest is all fantasy, that it will spark some real change and all. That is completely a prayer and I don’t believe in God”.
In a socio-political environment where independent sharing thought or anti-establishment opinion is a radical and risky move, those advocating for the unheard, unseen, and intentionally oppressed are vulnerable to onlookers who like pelting stones. Goel shares how she navigates around hate speech from online viewers, “one is undoubtedly at the receiving end of a lot of backlash when one criticises a leader who despite his series of failures is so widely adored and deified by a majority of the country’s population. On my social media accounts, I get the occasional “anti-national”, “are you funded by Congress”, “how dare you mock the Supreme Lord” etcetera, followed by a string of sexist slurs and empty threats. A year ago, I would find myself extremely infuriated. It is with time that I have learnt not to dignify them with a response. When the critique is valid, I am all ears and willing to indulge in a dialogue. With all the constant feedback pouring from all sides, what I find most challenging, as someone in their early twenties, is cultivating my voice and staying true to it. I am constantly questioning my belief systems and, in the process, trying to refrain from echoing the narrative of the self-righteous left who are just as dangerous as their counterparts on the other extreme of the ideological spectrum”.
In 2020 so far, according to statistics laid out by Reporters Without Borders, seventeen journalists globally have been murdered in cold blood as a result of their bold, investigative journalism. This includes Kanpur based Shubham Mani Tripathi who was reporting on illegal sand mining and unlawful land grabbing activity in Uttar Pradesh. India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has dipped significantly since the rise of the NDA government, as a result of a spike in numbers of journalists imprisoned and killed. Tripathi’s killers have not been caught yet.
Rashtraman is a series which takes a satirical look at the common superhero narrative
Rashtraman on sexism in India
In this developing democracy of information, much of the onus in terms of navigating and steering in the right direction falls upon us. We choose our reality and our values with every page that we decide to follow online. Within a multitude of narratives, reality and truth are subjective. Propaganda is a two-sided coin and we are ultimately enmeshed in our self-oriented, egoistic narratives. Due to the lack of transparency and accessibility that has enabled the existence of systemically oppressed voices, the issue of accountability presents itself as a major obstacle that we must negotiate. Accountability toes the line between freedom of speech and censorship, and it is at the crux of the issue at hand. Ultimately, to pursue this crowd-sourced, community propagated way of disseminating information, accountability lies less with those who create and share information, and more with those who consume and believe in it.
Shraddha Nair is a writer and curator based in Bengaluru, India.