Published: 17th August 2021
Shaheen Bagh lives on in this graphic novel by this young artist from Delhi
Visual storyteller Ita Mehrotra is doing her part to amplify the voices of Shaheen Bagh in her new graphic novel. We chat with the artist about protest art, the art of protest, democracy, and more
"Protests don't just end. The space of dissent doesn't close when physical spaces close," says artist Ita Mehrotra, author of Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection. On December 15, 2019, a group of protesters, largely women, largely Muslim, gathered at Road Number 13A in Delhi's Shaheen Bagh. They were taking a stand against the proposed National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act that essentially aimed to provide citizenship based on religion and would alienate, and potentially put in detention camps, scores of possibly undocumented Muslims and Muslim refugees.
Shaheen Bagh soon became a symbolic rallying point for the voices that were raised against the CAA and the NRC. "Public spaces were being owned and overtaken by Muslim women. They got on stage, they spoke and they ensured that their voices were heard. I went the first day, stayed until late and then just kept going back. One could not not go," says Ita, who was there with her sketchbook, making posters as a call for action on social media in the nascent days of the Shaheen Bagh protest.
The protests continued through February and until March 24, when the protestors finally had to withdraw into their houses because of the first of many pandemic-induced lockdowns. "In February, I realised I wanted to learn more from the women on why they wanted to protest, what they thought of their identity as Muslim women in the country, the ideas of country and citizenship," says Ita, a 2017 MPhil graduate from the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. That's when Yoda Press approached her about a graphic novel on the protest and the stories behind it.
Excerpts from the graphic novel | Pic Courtesy: Yoda Press
The lead character in the book, Shahana, is based on a young woman Ita met at the protest. "Atia Khursheed's grandfather moved from Bihar to Delhi. They'd bought land and settled in Shaheen Bagh when it was just an agricultural area," shares Ita. Atia has been living in Shaheen Bagh since the early 1990s. For her family, the move from Bihar to Delhi was a feat that invoked a sense of pride and achievement. And for Ita, it was discovering a different identity of the city she had grown up in.
A 2015 Master's graduate in Philosophy and Visual Art from Delhi University, Ita is currently the Art Director of the platform Artreach India
While women and leaders, young and old, delivered moving speeches, Ita would record them in her realistic comics and sketches. Between the grey lines of these visual notes, Ita captured moments that she says have changed how Muslim women are perceived in the community and also changed how concepts of nationhood and citizenship are conceived. "Yes, the law is still there, but women like Atia have left their mark on this country. The women of Shaheen Bagh have inspired the women participating in the farmers' movement today," says Ita.