Echoes of Imagination: Navigating Dark Times through Art and Hope with Sunil Shanbag

Uday Dandavate
5 min readFeb 10, 2024

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit in the audience during a speech delivered by theatre director, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker Sunil Shanbag. The occasion was the 37th Arvind Deshpande Memorial Celebration.

The timing of the lecture was significant; it was being organized just a week after a group of activists from the right-wing Akhill Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) shut down a play staged by the students of Lalit Kala Kendra at Savitribai Phule University, Pune, claiming it disturbed their religious sentiments. Subsequently, students and the entire arts community raised their voices condemning the violence and supporting the freedom of creative expression for students.

As Sunil referred to this incident in Pune, I could feel a gush of anger in the audience, comprised of individuals belonging to progressive/experimental theater, movements for social justice and women’s rights, and various progressive initiatives.

Sunil posed a question to the audience, “What are we as artists to do in these dark times?” He followed up this rhetorical question by citing the doyen of Marathi theatre, G. P. Deshpande: “Doing theater is to discover that it is creating one’s own world in a situation of no tolerance. It is trying to create a little meaning within a hostile world.”

As I heard these words, I said to myself, “Bravo! Nobody can deny us our right to create an oasis in our imagination that can keep us going, no matter how hostile the environment around us. We need to protect our right to imagination.”

Next, Sunil did something I have never seen done in a gathering of political activists. Instead of lashing out at the perpetrators of violence in Pune or condemning the current atmosphere of intolerance and hostility, he decided to take the audience on a journey of imagination. Using an approach similar to Plato’s Symposium, he began to narrate an imaginary conversation between a gathering of great minds from the past who may never have met in real times. He narrated for us a dialogue about self-doubt, loneliness, isolation, imagination, resistance, memory, and hope.

In this imaginary dialogue, Robert Frost says, “In pursuing his perception of reality, he (an artist) must often sail against the currents of his times." This is not a popular role….”

James Baldwin, an African American actor and author, adds, “Perhaps the primary distinction of an artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men avoid: the state of being alone… The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest so that we will not lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more humane place.”

As I was listening to this imaginary conversation, I began to feel a reaffirmation of my own recent realization that design (of the future) begins in social imagination and, therefore, a change-maker must dedicate herself to participating in co-creating an alternative imagination of a better future.

The American writer, filmmaker, professor, and activist Susan Sontag joins the dialogue possibly with an explanation of what is happening in India today: “The community takes revenge on those who challenge its contradictions.”

I was beginning to find a new explanation for what is happening in India today. Those indoctrinated in the ideology of the RSS have let their organization steal their imagination. They have lost their ability to explore possibilities in their imagination. They repeat from the talking points, they preach what goes against nature’s foundational principles of creativity in diversity, and when faced with those who have not surrendered their imagination and have not subjected themselves to the prison of indoctrination, they feel jealous, angry, and want to rob others of their freedom to imagine and express without fear.

Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political scientist and philosopher known for her critical writing on Jewish affairs and her study of totalitarianism, adds, “Totalitarian domination as a form of government is not content with destroying the public realm; it isolates and destroys private life as well.”

The authoritarian ideology gaining a foothold in India today is not just bent on replacing democracy with authoritarian rule, replacing secularism with Hindutva, nor is it just satisfied with surpassing collective dissent. They want to rob us of our imagination and make us feel empty, alone, incapable of caring for each other, and surrender ourselves to the mercy of the almighty rulers. The activists of the ruling party do not realize what they are angry about; they have lost their ability to listen to the inner voice of reason and compassion and to navigate their imagination.

Novelist Toni Morrison offers a few words of hope, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding….This is precisely when artists go to work… we speak, we do language. This is how civilizations heal.”

For the past eighteen months, I have been traveling, conducting dialogues with everyday people as well as with eminent professionals from different fields to understand the state of their imagination. I have been recording these dialogues under the theme “The legacy of India’s imagination.” I am learning that the current atmosphere of anger and hate is not a sustainable state for a nation to live with for a long time. Nature has made us evolve through healing. It is time we engage artists to invite a broader population to an alternate imagination and heal.

James Baldwin adds, “They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. They panic when asked to change.”

Change is inevitable. Those enslaved in indoctrination need help with reclaiming their imagination so they can feel comfortable with their ability to survive in the wake of ideas that seem radical and threatening to them while others seem to be enthused by those ideas. That is why they ridicule any expression of ideas that champion diversity, accommodation, and creativity as blasphemous. The point is not to convert them but to free them from their imprisonment and to show them the possibilities that await them when they are free to imagine alternatives to their own indoctrination.

Historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt reflects this perspective when she says, “Why is imagination dangerous to people in power?" …it is because imagination has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

Vaclav Havel makes a case for hope in a concluding remark when he says (hope is) “not a conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Sunil, thank you for taking us on a journey of imagination that strengthens our own courage to imagine a better future, no matter what the immediate reality is. You did help me spread my wings and feel better about my current reality.

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Uday Dandavate

A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.