Artists in Exile

Image: Stanford University

By Jahnabi Mitra

Taslima Nasrin was a household idol in our family. My mother and my aunts spoke about her in the late 90’s in hushed voices. This was before I had ever picked up a book. Years later when I rediscovered her in our college library, it felt like finding a long lost friend. It was a tethered copy of Lajja. After all, our college community had a niche interest in feminist literature.

A few years later, while on a trip to the Sunderbans, a friend of mine introduced me to Jafar Panahi. “If you say you love art, you need to be crazy enough like Panahi,” he said. Panahi was not known to me, nor was This is not a film nor Guerrilla Filmmaking. However, the day I read about it, I was convinced that I wasn’t passionate enough. And as I was researching on Panahi, watching him frantically pace through his living space and dining hall at his home, I thought to myself if I would ever feel the same.

As I dug deeper, I discovered yet another gem – Shirin Neshat. The dystopian images in her films and photography feel like record of someone’s dreams. Every scene in her movies could be framed into a photograph itself. These images continue to live with me. Women without Men is one of her more controversial films. It is based on a book that goes by the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur. The book was banned and she went to jail for four years. She continued writing from the jail too. Making a film on the book is understandably a brave decision. Neshat is few of the lucky ones to enjoy the liberal environment of New York.

In all these cases, their final creative product is however vastly different. What ties them is their broader stories, their angsts, and their exiles. What stays with you is an aftertaste of rebel so deeply ingrained in every nerve of these works that they become yours.

We are talking about people who took steps ahead from the zeitgeist. Taslima Nasrin could have stopped writing and gone back to her medical practice. Jafar Panahi could have accepted his six years of ban on directing any film; sought out an alternative safer career. Shirin Neshat could have stopped trying to create any art after her ten year long artist block. And Salman Rushdie could’ve felt threatened after the death of his Japanese translator.

They could have stopped. They should have stopped.

These artists have the artist’s blood of dissent. If visual artists, Filmmakers, writers, and intellectuals of the world take their jobs too seriously and move beyond entertaining the audience, they are doomed. Political, ideological, religious differences between you as a voice and the stakeholders of society, is a sure shot way for getting into a lifelong critical dialogue with the state. However, it is never just an issue of religious supremacy. It is only an excuse. Their exiles are a timely reminder for the mass of what to speak and what not to speak.

Questioning thinkers have been ritualistically done for centuries. In the recent past, Anand Patwardhan faced too many protests and threats; Gauri Lankesh was murdered for having spoken; Deepa Mehta heckled on her film sets while shooting Water; Shahidul Alam was arrested for raising larger humanitarian question – their situation is only a reflection of regime we have been living under. We are at fault for all the choices we made. These incidents say that despite eating the same food, sharing the same holidays, wearing the same clothes, we become bloodthirsty at minor doctrinal differences. It is simply a diurnal error to predict that communal homogeneity is a sure fire shortcut to peace as much as communal heterogeneity isn’t.

Artists throughout have sought respite from routine lives. An abandon from the worries of ordinary life. But does it feel the same to create art when the state decides when to pull you away from ordinary life? Despite popular myth, it isn’t angst that drives creativity. It is their idiosyncratic patterns of thought and passion that drives it. Exiled or not, their works have the remarkable quality of it not being for patrons or stakeholders. Their works pose threat to the people in power. It represents ripples of frustration, anger and a zeal for independence. Ultimately, exile, censorship or ban are different degrees of the same agenda.


As GN Saibaba continues to write poetry from behind the bars, as Prof. Hany Babu continues his battle with state, as Varavara Rao continues to inspire us – this piece serves as a homage to the consequences of speaking faced by artists or writers or intellectuals. I was once reminded by a fellow artist, that no art is apolitical. Even when we are romanticizing love, families or nature in a work there is the other part of reality that we are rejecting; that itself speaks our politics. And the state only does its job of giving us a check on what they would prefer us to see.

Jahnabi Mitra is psychologist and researcher. She is currently working as a faculty member at the Department of Psychology, Royal Global University. She dabbles in photography and writing when not teaching. Her photographs have been represented in Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic by Zubaan Books Pvt. Ltd. in collaboration with The Sasakawa Peace Research Foundation and her writings have been published by Kitaab International and GPlus. Instagram handle: jahnabi_m


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

One thought

  1. Aren’t you an Msc applied psychology graduate?
    Why did you put up your Msc as Counselling psychologist in your linked in profile.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s