Issue 17

Photos: What’s Stopping You From Rediscovering the Natural World Near You?

Nature yearns to be noticed and appreciated. The lockdown has made us cherish its ceaseless charm and hear its overwhelming cry for help before it’s too late.

Photo Credits: Aditi Singh

Photo Credits: Maitreyi Sreenivas

The gift of nature photography is that it explores nature, the backdrop to our being that we often gloss over. What’s stopping you from rediscovering the world?

Photo Credits: Vijayaditya Singh Rathore

Photo Credits: Udayan Mehra

These photos first appeared on Caperture’s Instagram page. They have been republished with the permission of Caperture, Tarang and the photographers.

Issue 17

Kapur & Miyazaki: Wild celluloid connections from the 7th Century CE to 2022

Yet another Kapoor in film? 

At about the time, a second generation of the Kapoors were becoming a hit in Hindi cinema, animation films were getting packed movie halls in Japan for the first time. The oil from a camphor tree, was being used to make film stock. All three from the 1950s.

Camphor, from the kapur family was a key ingredient in the making of celluloid. So yes, yet another kapur is in film.

Celluloid, or cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Hailed by some as the first industrial plastic in the late 19th century. Early still photographers and filmmakers through the 1920s to the 50s, found it extremely moldable. Until acetate replaced it. 

While the jury is still out on which is better, Indians have known about the natural and artificial version of camphor, for several centuries. The 7th century Ayurveda work, Mādhava Cikitsā, advocates its natural variety for treating fever. Egyptians embalmed their dead in it. Both civilizational lands continue to value its fragrance. As Karpura in Sanskrit, Hindi and several Indian languages. 

In colloquial North Indian use, some shorthand it to kapur. This slow growing tree is a Taiwanese and Japanese native, with many species of its evergreen variety found from India to Egypt, Mongolia to Vietnam and China to Southern United States.

Camphor, actually references the species, Camphora. For the chemical in the oil, found in the tissue of the tree. Used by modern organic chemistry eventually, to also make film. The East Asian avatar is still used to make both insecticide and perfume. Indians currently find it handy for moth-free cupboards, while many cultures still treat it a like noxious weed.

In Japan though, it remains pretty sacred. An 1890 article in the Scientific American, reminds us that some of the best camphor exported to the rest of the western world back then, came from Southern Japan. Hayao Miyazaki, film director and co-founder, Studio Ghibli, featured it like a body guardian presence in his 1988 anime, My Neighbor Totoro.

Isabel Stevens, writing in the November 2021 issue of the film magazine, Sight & Sound, evokes this connection, “Miyazaki’s film is true to life in acting like a guardian to the girls, whose mother is in hospital, just as it does to shrines across Japan. Throughout the film, the tree is tenderly observed in many different shades of watercolor. All manner of green by day, ink black, grey and purple by night, and dappled with yellows at sunrise.” Stevens also points out that the oldest version of this tree still alive in Japan, is said to be 1500 years old. Another one, she speaks of, survived the atomic bombing at a Nagasaki shrine.

Resilience, clearly a quality of this tree also surfaces in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films, through a variety of protagonists. Who navigate uncertainty or change. Young girls go on adventures and come of age in some significant or quirky way. While creatures drawn from Japanese myth, simply help pause or protect. Shape-shifting, between the supernatural and the wild. 

Take Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the highest grossing film of all time in Japan, when it released in 2001. It had a mountain witch and part of the film’s name in Japanese, implied a hidden deity, kamikakushi. A folk tale reference there. Where when a girl was lost, the Japanese were prone to suggesting, she has gone to the kamikakushi. This is invoked in the film’s story as well. 

Miyazaki’s fantasy, as a comfort food offering also speaks to his own youth. When Japan began modernizing quickly in the 50s, his placement of protagonists in rural settings, protected by folklore, was as much to connect the young, as a touch of staying rooted. Himself.

After all, Japan has worn its own past-continuous animistic tryst with nature and spirit life, like a second skin. Be it Japanese literary references of ghost foxes, going all the way back to the 11th century work, Genji Monogatari. Or the more zombie-in-a village-graveyard anime hit, Jujutsu Kaisen, in the Japan of 2021. 

While Indians can watch both My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away on Netflix. Miyazaki’s own tripping the light fantastic has created an enduring following, both at home and abroad. This September, when the Academy of Motion Pictures finally opened USA’s first proper Museum of Film, they celebrated with a Miyazaki retrospective.

In another American hat tip to a wider and younger Japanese anime creativity, nature and film touched base in a new way. Seven of Japan’s anime studios got their hands on some unexpected material. To reimagine the Star Wars connections.

On an open invite from the US franchise. The New York Times pointed to this landmark east-west sharing. ‘It is the first time outsiders from any country have been given this sort of access to the themes, ships, characters and even signature sounds of the Star Wars franchise.

Each anime studio worked its own style and story. Making a rock opera, a family centric reflection and an ecological tale. Nine shorts by nine individual directors. All of them available on Disney Hotstar as a collection called Star Wars: Visions.

In fact in a curious case, the one US state to get the first Disney hotel dedicated to Star Wars in 2022, is Florida. Where camphor also happens to be a native tree. The hotel conceived apparently like an immersive spaceship experience, speaks to a younger Miyazaki. Whose early sketches were not of humans in anime. But planes in flight. 

Now readying to feed the fantasy of a different OTT generation, navigating uncertainty and change in a pandemic. Who perhaps use celluloid as a shorthand for film itself, like some Indians do kapur?

Tisha Srivastav teaches Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).  

Issue 9

Democratizing Art: How the Pandemic Has Transformed Art Spaces

While excitingly going through the crown jewels in The Met Museum’s American Wing, I wonder if I could get a look at the souvenirs in the gift shop to take something back with me. I unfortunately cannot. I am met with the same experience while exploring the British Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The experience of looking at paintings and artefacts from my computer screen in pyjamas rather seems impersonal. The enthusiasm of dressing up to explore the majesty of Art Institutions gets lost when one has to do so sitting on their sofas at home. Things are near and yet so far.

For an industry that thrives on in-person connection and networking, the lockdown has been especially hard-hitting on both Artists and Institutions. Virtual Tours, prior to the lockdown were created by many Institutes to allow better in-person access and experience of the galleries. However, during the lockdown, virtual tours became the only means of experience that people could have access to. Several Institutions designed their own virtual tours, giving a 360° view of the most visited sections of their galleries, while smaller institutions relied upon Google’s Street View, to make their experience available virtually. These tours were considered far more useful than paper maps, during in-person experiences, however, with a worldwide pandemic, can virtual experience and tours replace the experience itself. 

Any analysis of whether the experience of galleries and museums would yield an affirmative response. The exploration of these spaces are sensory experiences that stimulate individuals’ hearing, sight and smell. For when one is exploring New York Botanical Garden’s Spring Bloom, they not only look at the flora but also smell it in the air, while hearing the chatter of the fauna it coexists with. The murmurs of the people make the whole event a collective one. However, with virtual tours in place, it is only the sight that gets to partake in the process, making it terribly one-dimensional. For an experience that was created to help people tackle the isolation of being at home, the Virtual Tours are dreadfully isolating and lonely, due to persisting images of empty halls of the galleries, corridors and gardens available to the visitors. They take away the intimacy of being in a space and experiencing its physicality. Moreover, the paintings, artwork, artefacts in a virtual tour, become mere objects that one gets to see or know about. You do not get to understand the intricacies of each and every artwork, like the purpose of the painting, the placement of it in a particular collection and so on.

The Louvre, Paris, France.

Virtual Tours and Experiences have made Museums and Galleries a more democratic space, opening doors to people all around the globe, to explore the history that they could not have done earlier due to economical, social and cultural gaps. However, simultaneously it has also raised questions about the ‘commodification’ of historical artwork and artefacts. Does art need to be confined to the four walls of the museum? Should some people have to pay to participate in the process of experiencing history, that should be equally accessible to everyone? 

It is rather the ‘fetishization’ of the exhibition that museums and galleries bank upon. The increasing tendency to sell the place, rather than to experience the artwork, has also allowed Institutions to charge a high entry fee. This is also exaggerated through aggressive marketing campaigns about the grandiosity of the collections that the places are exhibiting. With things going virtual, people from all walks of life are getting to participate in the experience, which has raised the question, whether the experience of art should be sold as commodities in exchange for monetary value when the intent behind these creations has never been, financial benefit. Art is considered to be an extension of the self, an expression of one’s emotions, desires and inhibitions. Thus, when these artworks are displayed in exhibitions for consumption especially against a price, they are reduced to mere objects. Most people do not visit the Louvre to learn about the history of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the mysteries that underlie the process of her creation, but rather to gain bragging rights of having seen and experienced the painting in person.

The attitude of the majority of the people towards artwork is what has given Museums and Galleries a leeway into selling experiences as commodities. This has also facilitated some museums, with resources to climb up the ladder of popularity by conducting annual charity events with celebrities for advertisement. The virtual tours, therefore, are not only a threat to the revenue that these places generate but also to the exclusivity that these places create by including only economically and culturally niche groups of people.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Looking at the capitalist approach that Museums, Galleries and Art Institutes are taking, is there any scope for understanding the reason behind it. When analysing the financial position of these Museums during the pandemic, it is revealed that several museums have incurred heavy losses due to the lockdown. The Met Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Duomo, to name a few were expected to incur losses of over 150 million dollars in 2020. Money is required by these Institutions not only to maintain the space but also to pay a large number of employees, from restoration artists to museum guides to the general support staff that would otherwise be laid off. Moreover, since each painting and artefact is unique, they require special care and maintenance which require a huge financial investment. However, this cannot justify the expansive commodification of experiences. The need is to create a more inclusive and democratic space so that people get to experience the same things in person that they did sitting at their desktops in pyjamas. Virtual Tours have opened up the field of Art History to the larger population, however, what lies ahead this road is Museums’ efforts in continuing to do so.

Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Can Banksy Bring Dadaism Back To Life?

The explosion of different street art movements comes from the combined effort of various artists who practise hybrid forms of graffiti to make a mark by any means possible. But if there is one player who grabs the spotlight beyond the art world, it’s Banksy. 

A professional prankster, Banksy is a street graffiti artist and a global sensation. Banksy’s flair for street art combined with the proclivity for mystery, drama and danger ensures that every new Banksy piece ends up making headlines. Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism. 

Dadaism or the Dada art movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1910s. In pre-war Europe, the movement emerged as a form of protest art with congregations of artists, intellectuals and writers expressing different forms of subversion in the wake of World War I. The European avant-garde movement aimed to ridicule modern life, apply absurdity to art and question the values held by the bourgeois. 

The movement was based on some key ideas. Elaborately explained by thoughtco., three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos.

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) wrote that literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as God. Everything has illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony.

A pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, incorporated these ideas of the movement to critique establishments that decided what art ought to be and how it ought to be created. In doing so, he combined spontaneity, negation and absurdity and came up with what some consider the first piece of conceptual art ever created, Fountain

Fountain is a standard white urinal that was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black. It is a part of Duchamp’s series of work called readymades where ordinary objects would be designated as works of art. Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and a classic example of dada. By submitting an object like a urinal that is bought in the plumber’s shop as an entry for an art exhibition, he intended to test what people thought of as art. He wanted to change the idea of what was conventionally considered art and assert that the artistic expression was of greater significance than the object of art created. Thus, the dada movement was one of the first art movements that challenged the foundations of art. 

Although the movement did not represent particular styles of art, it favoured collaboration, spontaneity and chance in the process of creation. As traditional dadaists intended to reject traditional forms of artistic expression like painting and sculpting, they worked on ready-made objects, created photomontage and made use of non-conventional mediums. 

While the lifespan of the dada movement was known to be short-lived, Banksy’s creations and artistic stunts have brought this movement back to life. In one particular stunt, Banksy made use of an invention of the dada movement, auto-destructive art. The dada notion behind auto-destructive art comes from the idea that it aims to either redefine art or ridicule it.

In a 2018 Sotheby’s art auction in London, Banksy’s famous image Girl with a Balloon, which depicts the image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, was sold for $1.4 million. A few moments later, the picture started shredding and sliding down in strips. Sotheby’s claimed that it had been “Banksy’d” through the use of a hidden shredder in the photo frame. The act is viewed as a dada act because it was an attempt to critique the pretentiousness of the art world and show how easy it was to transform what people considered precious art into strips of paper. 

From critiquing consumerism and capitalism to calling out social absurdities, the elusive graffiti artist is often critiqued for falling prey to the cultural system. The stunt of shredding the image Girl with a Balloon led to its increase in value in the art market. Thus, a stunt of provocation ended up being co-opted into an exhibition. While past movements have influenced the future trajectory of art, it is important to remember that cultural sensibilities and audience interaction with art are as important as the art itself. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Black Artists on Instagram

Art is a powerful tool of expression. Not only does it appeal to the visual senses but it also consolidates powerful pictures. It brings to life realities that we often hear about. To celebrate Black History Month and keep alive the spirit of the Black Lives Matter, here are a few black artists you should follow on Instagram:

  1. Lauren Harris: @loharris_art
Image Credits: Instagram @loharris_art

Lauren Harris is a Brooklyn based digital artist, who specializes in illustration and motion design. She uses bright and vibrant palettes to create artwork that embodies kindness, joy, confidence and humanity. Her artwork revolves around the everyday life of women, with a special focus on the lives of African-American people. Through her artwork, Harris also aims to contribute to various social justice initiatives.

2. Nikkolas Smith @nikkolas_smith

Image Credits: Instagram @nikkolas_smith

Nikkolas Smith is a native of Houston, Texas. His speciality lies in children’s books illustrations, movie poster design and digital painting characters. After working on several film posters, and authoring children’s illustration books, Smith has been interested in Artivism that is Activism through Art. As a person of colour, he wants to create artwork that initiates important conversations around social justice and brings about a meaningful change in the world.

Issue 7

This One Summer

This One Summer, by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is a gorgeously illustrated graphic novel that tells a coming-of-age of two ordinary friends. The book explores the ups and downs of adolescence in this sweet summer novel, set in a lazy beachside town. What really captured my attention was the art style that exquisitely revives the bittersweet nostalgia of summer, heightened by the monochromatic moody blue color palate used throughout. 

The prose that accompanied the illustration is warm enough to bring out all the little things that happen over the summer. The story of this graphic novel follows a young girl Rose, who goes to a beach town for a summer break with her parents and befriends another girl from the town named Windy. As the story progresses, we see Rose go through struggles of growing up as a girl and keeping up with the changes in her life that this vacation brings in the form of troubles in her parents’ marriage, and her own life.  The language used in the book is rather interesting as it very well captures the dilemma through the eyes of Rose, who is old enough to understand what is going around her but not mature enough to care or significantly contribute or even comprehend the troubles and trauma she is going through. 

The attention to detail in the illustrations, coupled with the delicate prose makes this combination of panels a beautiful story that weaves together a story of two girls who try to navigate their way through a repulsive adult world filled with domestic drama with teenage troubles, in what is an otherwise languid summer. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

Activity, Art and Activism: Anjali Dalmia’s Experiences as an Environmental Activist

Anjali, why did you choose the environment over everything else that might have come your way?

I have realized over time that this question of why did you choose to work in the environment is actually a privileged way of thinking about it. We are privileged to be apolitical. And it’s the same thing with social or environmental work – social and environmental justice, in general, is very tied together. I would say in that perspective, it’s not a choice, it’s something that we all at this point need to be working towards because it is impacting everyone yet only a handful of people are working for it.

You talked about environmental justice and that brings me to my next question: environmental justice and sustainability are terms that are often thrown around. If you were to define these terms, how would you do so?

I don’t want to say that I have a very strong definition or a complete understanding of either of them. To address them or to start de-tangling them is like reorganizing the entire world from scratch. I think that’s why they are loaded terms. 

The way I have been trying to navigate environmental justice for the past few months has largely been tied to social justice. Who is the justice actually for? What does it mean for different communities? The term justice itself is very subjective – it means extremely different things to different people. For example, certain communities’ rights over the Commons is justice for them, but when you look at it from a caste angle, Commons are a place where there’s a lot of caste discrimination against Dalits. That is not justice in that case.

Overall, if I were to think of the term, it would largely mean local governance and self-determination of how people would like to use their surroundings, their resources and how they would shape their community. Another important part of environmental justice is looking at our economic structure, which is left out very often but it’s very much a root of our behaviours and the way the world functions right now. Looking at human desires and behaviour is also, I think, a very important part of environmental and social justice. That’s how I would begin navigating it, I wouldn’t say that’s a definition. 

When it comes to sustainability, it’s a term that I am trying to figure out because it brings into question – what it means to sustain and at what level does that sustenance happen? Sustenance for different groups of people are different, depending on their socio-economic, cultural background etc. and in many ways, I do feel that sustainability is a large buzzword. For example, sustainable development is another term to make ourselves feel good about the development that we are doing. I am not a hundred percent convinced by the word, so I don’t prefer to use it that often. It’s the bare minimum that we do to feel like we are working towards something, which is also good.. I think sustainability works at a largely individual level to that extent but it doesn’t address the fundamental socio-economic – class, caste differences. 

What motivated you to start Yugma Network? How is it different from other organisations working for environmental justice?

Yugma wasn’t something that any of us ever intended to start. The Environmental Impact Assessment Movement that we undertook is really what set off the plan for Yugma. We worked towards translating information and discussions into local languages with the help of young people in different regions, to have a broader reach. We realized the dearth of environmental organisations in local Indian languages since most of them are in English and only reach a small section of society. We met amazing people that genuinely wanted to contribute to the environmental movement and we decided to continue working even after the EIA movement. For us, the goal is always to bring out the voices of those people who are directly affected by a lot of the projects that are happening. 

To answer your second question, I think it goes back to the model of scaling-up versus scaling-out, not in the sense of within the organizations but as collaborations. I want to move back to doing things smaller within the community, forming strong bonds with people who are also doing related work. That is a value we try to imbibe in Yugma.

Mobilisation by youth organizations to ensure environmental justice has significantly increased over  time. What do you think inspires these movements?

One part of it is the community spirit. Secondly, I think a lot of it is awareness –  that motivates young people, especially because they feel they’re making a difference. The biggest thing for me and a lot of young people is the concern for the kind of world that we are going to grow up in. When you start internalizing it, it does get scary sometimes. There lies this concern for our rights, our present as well as our future, for other humans and non-humans both. Especially in recent times, I think a lot of movements have been shaped by a gradual disappearance of democracy in the country and I think there’s a lot of anger around the way that our rights are slowly being taken away; it has led people to mobilise and act on it. 

Why do you believe people look at the environment as an ‘issue’ distanced from their daily lives?

I think people fail to see the connection between their human conditions and the environment.I think a lot of it is shaped by common discourses, media and marketing in general. 

In people’s minds, cutting a forest is much more of an environmental issue than for example, destroying a wetland. And it’s just because we have grown up seeing the forest or the tree as a symbol of the environment. Even though destroying a wetland may have way more of an impact perhaps on the local ecology of that area. To answer what is an environmental issue, you also have to ask the question of, whose perspective are we looking at? Who is defining this issue? Discourse is shaped by those directly affected by it, and by what the media itself chooses to focus on. 

Yugma Network recently became a member of YAStA (Youth Action to Stop Adani), which had largely declared the week (27th January – 2nd February) as the Global Week of Action. Could you tell us a little bit about how Yugma got involved in the project?

Yugma was part of one of the organizations who conceptualised YAStA. The larger message that we are trying to address is the general corporatisation of our lives, resources and livelihoods. It privatizes a lot of what used to happen out of goodwill or through a community. It ties into the way our economic structure is tied to environmental and social justice because it gives a lot of power to a handful of people who are accumulating a lot of profit and that becomes their main motive to do things. Our reason for joining YAStA was to raise our voices against this injustice and this taking away of our rights. Despite communities not wanting certain projects, corporates go ahead with it. Coming from an urban space, I think we do have the privilege of having access to a lot of resources and tools which we can help to put out a lot of this information.

This Global Week of Action has listed down concerts and webinars as part of the programme. How do events like this and ‘Pass the Mic’ contribute to the movement?

Sessions of music, films, and art are mediums that make it easier for people to engage with issues that might seem daunting  at first.  The other thing is that art and culture bind people together and create a community, just like protests and movements do. 

I think it’s really important to pass the mic to those who are affected by these issues. The point is to let those who are working towards the issue, or are directly affected by it, talk about what they are facing and are working towards. That is largely what we mean by passing the mic. If we have the means to create a platform, we would like to create and share that platform with other stakeholders. 

Why do you think art and activism is the way to go about it when there are already various laws enacted and jurisdictions in the direction of environmental protection and conservation?

I would say the first question to ask is do we even have laws and jurisdiction to protect the environment. When I say environment, I am including communities, people, rights, everything in this. Because if you look at a lot of our laws, for example, the EIA, it is there to assess the impact that something might have on the environment and the local community. But the purpose with which the law was put out was to ease things for businesses. Unfortunately, that’s the case with a lot of laws in India –  they’re poorly formulated, go unrecognised by many, and are rarely upheld by courts. 

The other thing is that a lot of these environmental laws are built within the economic system. So they are looking at how to 5 acres of land so that we can use the 15 over there for something else. This is where art and activism become so important. It’s the way to hold these authorities accountable. I think activism is very often taken in the wrong way that it’s just holding up signs and protesting or marching to places, but I would say that even education is a part of activism, state policies are a part of activism, even having conversations is part of activism. Activism just means being an active citizen. From that perspective, art and activism can bridge that gap in our environmental laws right now. Is looking out for our surroundings and other humans and non-humans, only the states’ job? We can’t just say “it’s in the laws, so everything will run smoothly”. As individuals, we have a large part to play in ensuring that we have environmental and social justice. Even if the laws were good, I would say you still need activity, activism, and art in any community.

Anjali is a co-founder of the Yugma Network, The Project Amara (sustainable menstruation for all), and PLANT: People’s Living Archive of Native Trees. She also works with SAPACC (South Asian People’s Action for Climate Crisis) Maharashtra & Youth and was the Environment Minister of Ashoka 2020-2021.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 5

Understanding the French Principle of Laïcité

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher was brutally beheaded in northern Paris outside his school. Days before his beheading, Paty had been receiving online death threats for showing his students controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which were first published in Denmark and then reproduced by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In France, the right to offend has always existed. Thus, the horrific murder of Paty was viewed as a violation of these rights that allow the people of France to commit acts that offend religion. The incident sent shockwaves across France because it was also viewed as an attack on education and education lies at the heart of what it means to be French. The outrage created swells of demonstrations and fueled deliberations over the longstanding French notion of secularism.

To understand the notion of secularism in France, it is necessary to examine the French principle of laïcité, under which the state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs. Personal laws, inherent in every religion, find no place in the French Constitution. Thus, there is complete isolation of religion from the public sphere. While the wearing of overt religious symbols is not allowed either in the civil services or public spaces like government hospitals, post offices and government schools, there is complete freedom to exercise religion in the private realm. People are free to attend any religious institution and follow any religious norm as long as they do so in private spaces.

This notion of laïcité, where the state adopts a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs, was not inherent to the French system of governance. A great deal of historical struggle and fighting led to the acceptance of laïcité as a principle. It is important to recognize that religion lies at the heart of all the wars in France.

Between 1562 and 1598, the French witnessed the Wars of Religion. It was a series of nine bloody wars fought between two factions of the same religion, Catholics and Protestants.

Then, from 1789 to 1799, during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, who had exercised complete control of France between 1661 and 1715, was overthrown. A National Constituent Assembly was formed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. This declaration was important for France because it established individual rights that were protected by law. The revolutionaries declared the French Republic and stripped away special powers of the Catholic Church in an attempt to tame the Church that had enjoyed centuries of control. For the first time, the Jews, who were an outlawed community, were finally allowed to own property. In 1791, the first French Constitution was adopted and introduced the idea of freedom of religion in the land. The freedom to practice different faiths was allowed.

Between 1799 and 1905, a progressive dilution of the powers of the Catholic Church took place in post-revolutionary France. During this period, the Jules Ferry Laws were established. Catholic clerics were not allowed to infiltrate schools by becoming teachers. Thus, the laws ensured secularity in the schools of France. The systematic chipping away of the powers from the Church eventually led to the creation of secular laws in France.  

Finally, in 1905, the French law, on the separation of the Church and the State was introduced. It was based on three ideas: neutrality of the State, freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. This means that while the State maintains neutrality, it continues to exercise discretionary powers that allow it to intervene in religious matters. This was the period when the French notion of secularism emerged and the principle of laïcité was established.

When the law came into force, the State declared that the citizens of France would be recognised independent of their religious or ethnic background. Although initially, the immigrants and minority communities of the country did not face issues of discrimination, instances of everyday racism increased after the 1970s.

In the post-war era, there was a steep decline in manpower in France. Thus, France invited male immigrants from many countries to work in the booming industries of the State. While France had existing immigrants from neighbouring countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, for the first time, this wave of immigrants also included people from non-White countries like Northern Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is widespread. Leaving their families behind, due to restrictions from the French state, these immigrants lived in poor suburban communities where instances of racism and discrimination were not that widespread.

Problems started emerging during the 1970s economic downturn. Just like most countries, France was also severely impacted by the 1973 oil crisis. This led to the closing of several factories in France. By this time, the French state had reunited the immigrants with their families. Living in the fringes of society, the immigrants suffered due to increasing unemployment and the burden to feed their families. The immigrants from Europe and other white Caucasian countries were able to merge into a predominantly Judeo-Christian France. Physical differences, like the colour of one’s skin, made it difficult for the African immigrants (mostly Muslim) to assimilate into society. Communities of immigrant workers became increasingly isolated and the instances of everyday discrimination started becoming more prominent.

Although under laïcité, rights are given to every French person, these rules were made at a time when the country did not experience a wave of non-white immigrants. Religious diversity was not prominent in 1905. Assimilation of North African communities who came to live in France and the French-born Muslims, proved to be difficult. Adding to this, several disputes started arising with issues of religious freedom and the notion of laïcité.

In 1989, tense debates started growing on the wearing of overt religious symbols in France after three Muslim girls were suspended from a public school upon refusing to remove their headscarves. After years of debate, the 2004 law which banned “the wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools”, was passed by the French parliament. The Jewish skullcap, Christian crosses and the Hijab, all religious symbols we banned. Then in 2010, a law was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public, thus banning clothes like the niqab. Such laws, which have created hostility between the Muslims and the French State have only intensified due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks in France by radical-militant Islamists.  

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that produces cartoons and jokes about religious heads who promote blind belief, pokes fun at obscure existing norms and calls out forms of absurdity. After the 2015 attacks on the magazine by terrorists of militant Islam and al-Qaeda, people increasingly began looking at Islam as a religion that promotes violence, contributing to the ever-growing Islamophobia in the country.

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of a diverse range of religions. Although these controversial laws apply to all religions, the last few years have shifted the focus of discourse to Islamic practices. The complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, but growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to the French notion of laïcité. Till what extent is the State willing to go, to maintain its principle of laïcité? If a community feels marginalized, should the state alter its principles?

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

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