It was only after graduating from the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai last year that Shraddha More, 23, noticed that she had been in hiding all the while. As a student, More had felt an instinctive need for self-censorship. “I didn’t realise how Brahminical art theory is, whether it’s rasa sutra or natya shastra. There was a standard Brahminical aesthetic that you were expected to meet. There was no caste discourse and no attempt to consider it even,” she says.
Her recent work, a series of eight plate-shaped canvases titled Bhook, couldn’t have been made during her student days, she feels. If food was a theme back then, she couched it in concepts of climate change rather than taking on ritual pollution. But, on these canvases, a modest meal — of fish, rice, raw lemon and onion slices — disappears slowly.
At first glance, Bhook’s eight moments of a meal seem innocuous enough. But, the hand that works at the fish, separating meat from bone, is invisible; the mouth that savours it is off-screen. Someone’s eating, we just don’t know who. On her social media account, More writes about the work, “For Dalit Bahujan, good food means meat and fish. We enjoy it and relish it. For Brahmin-Baniya even discussion about meat and fish makes them nauseous… Caste made the subaltern eat what they eat.”
More is among a generation of young artists eager to secure a place for Dalit identities in the Indian art world. Delightful yet disquieting, merry or funerary, the works take on food politics, personal experiences, histories of discriminatory practices and more, inevitably faceting a Dalit expression in art in a country where incidents of caste violence — from social exclusion and lynching to rape and murder — are reported nearly every week.
The Indian art world has largely maintained a conspicuous silence on the subject of caste. There hasn’t been a seminal exhibition that chronicles Dalit resistance, scholarship on Dalit art is limited to a few works, such as Gary Michael Tartakov’s Dalit Art and Visual Imagery (2012), and, most galleries don’t represent practices on Dalit identity. Unlike Dalit literature, which eventually claimed its place in literary canons, art has historically played a lesser role in the Dalit movement across India. As the Dalit Panther Archive shows, in 1970s Maharashtra, for instance, art played second fiddle — as images accompanying radical Dalit writings.
It was only in the 1990s that Delhi-based artist Savi Sawarkar criticised the systemic caste violence in an exhibition. Sawarkar graduated from Nagpur’s Government Chitrakala Mahavidyalaya and went to Mexico City to train in murals. Back home, he went beyond the Dalit aesthetic that has been a part of our visual experience, such as statues of BR Ambedkar at traffic islands or Buddhist iconography. He used symbols that appealed to a collective history, such as the broom (oppressed castes were made to wipe their “polluting” footprints with it).
In 1996, at Rabindra Bhavan, Delhi, Sawarkar braved a take on Manu. In the series, the progenitor of the caste system has a cold, lifeless stare. “Some right-wing people visited the show, probably mistaking me for a Brahmin like (Hindutva ideologue) Veer Savarkar. After they saw the Manu paintings, they pierced one with a knife,” recalls Sawarkar, 59. He managed to sell the painting after restoration but he hasn’t had an exhibition in a decade and says he hasn’t actively sought out gallery representation. “There is no real acceptance of Dalit art because that experience is discounted from your life,” he says.
If VS Gaitonde, whose meditative masterpieces were greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism, has a firm place in art history as a prized Modernist rather than as “Brahmin artist”, then should a term such as “Dalit artist” even exist? Moreover, does “Dalit art” only have to do with narratives of oppression? Deeptha Achar, English professor at MS University, Baroda, who co-edited the book Articulating Resistance: Art & Activism (2012) with Shivaji Panikkar, is not sure if Dalit art is given a canonical status in institutional settings.
“Even today, the term ‘Dalit art’ does not invoke the sense of the modern. There are very few instances of reading Dalit art as an aspect of the contemporary Indian art world. In fact, it is interesting that though the Dalit movement has a decades-old history, only a handful of artists have chosen to identify themselves as Dalit artists, roughly in the 1980s,” she says.
The Dalit community is having its Harlem moment, as academic Suraj Yengde suggests in his book Caste Matters (2019). But, with little precedence in the fine arts to draw from, young contemporary practitioners feel that the term “Dalit artist” is a double-edged sword. There is unease over getting slotted as “art activists”, their work as “propaganda” and their personal leanings as “identity politics”. Ask More if she identifies as a Dalit artist and she says, “I do and I don’t. Upper Caste artists aren’t asked a similar question.”
Jithinlal NR, 30, teaches painting at RLV College of Music and Fine Arts in Kochi.
His background as a comics artist finds new evocations when sketch-pen drawings are blended with lines from songs by Malayali folk artist CJ Kuttappan and references to social reformer Poykayil Appachan. There is pain and victimhood, but they are rendered with humour. Viewers are drawn in with a chuckle, rather than turn their eyes away, as they normally would at news of caste atrocities.
In 2018, Jithinlal was awarded a residency at Gasworks, London, to research the British black arts movement and the BLK Art Group. Here, he executed a mural in effervescent bursts of colour, a conscious decision to break free from the dark palettes that are thought to typify a Dalit expression in art.
The residency also marked his foray into found objects. He says, “I saw a lot of blacks in the neighbourhood carting away trollies. It got me thinking that Dalit identity need not always be about objects such as the broom. What about an object from the supermarket, something that is usually never considered a part of a Dalit life?” Jithinlal sees the word “Dalit” as an emancipatory umbrella term, used by Ambedkar to unify various caste-oppressed communities in India and to signify pluralism. It’s why he is wary of being labelled as a “Dalit artist”. He says, “An emancipatory category need not be reduced to ethnography and caste. There is the risk of getting pigeonholed in a certain framework, and I am critical of who frames it and who gets framed in it.”
The question of representation can be traced all the way back to the imagination of India, right from Abanindranath Tagore’s saffron-clad vision of Bharat Mata (1905) to the secular manifesto of the poster boys of modern Indian art, the Bombay Progressives. YS Alone, professor of visual studies at the school of arts and aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the legacy of the revolutionary Bombay Progressives, founded in 1947, is fundamentally Gandhian. “Governed by a Brahminical ethos, the art world is not courageous enough to recognise Ambedkar and never has been,” he says.
Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution who called for the annihilation of caste, is naturally the most enduring symbol for the young Dalit voice in Indian art. He is central to a Madhubani-style painting by Delhi-based artist Malvika Raj, 36. The painting depicts instances from Ambedkar’s life — a nifty subversion of Madhubani themes, which are usually centred on nature and Hindu mythology. A bonfire of Manusmriti occupies the centre of Raj’s painting while, in a corner, a thread-bearing Hindu asks Ambedkar to drink water from elsewhere. “Bihar’s dominant caste swears that this is their art. But this was always done by farmers and women,” says Raj, who has faced opposition for adopting the style.
For now, most contemporary artists whose works refer to their Dalit identities assert themselves in alternative spaces. Amol K Patil, 33, is a Mumbai-based artist whose decade-long career has spanned international art festivals and group shows, even if only a handful have been in Indian establishments. His grandfather was a powada singer; his father was a theatre artiste whose scripts spoke of Mumbai’s mill and sanitation workers. These traditions find their way into his sculptures and videos, which, he says, “react to the silent situation of caste in India.” Patil’s works were part of the recently concluded Yokohama Triennale in Japan. One of the pieces was a pair of gloves, titled What is human becomes animal? (2017), which started off with his interest in the labour conditions of sanitation workers, many of them from oppressed castes. What’s exceptional is that the gloves are one of his many “dust objects”, fashioned out of actual dust collected from the housing societies of sanitation workers.
In India, Patil had found encouragement through Clark House Initiative, a collective of artists interested in showcasing marginalised and minority voices. The closure of the physical space due to internal conflicts in 2019 marked the disappearance of such conversations from the gallery network of south Mumbai. The paucity of safe, inclusive spaces has led to the birth of independent initiatives, both online and offline, such as Party Office in Delhi, Anti Caste Art on Instagram, and Secular Art Movement in Maharashtra.
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The challenge is that as long as caste is presented only in alternative spaces, it remains outside the art establishment. There are some exceptions, however, such as when the India Art Fair invited artist Sajan Mani in 2019 to present one of his “writing as drawing, drawing as writing” performance works. Berlin-based Mani, 38, conceptualised “Art Will Never Die, But COW?”, addressing India’s cow politics. In a room piled with gobar (cowdung) cakes, Mani repeatedly wrote the Malayalam word kallam or “lie”, turning the walls into a fevered canvas. He crawled around the art fair grounds at Okhla, Delhi, with the mask of a cow, much to the annoyance of the police.
Gallery SKE, Bengaluru, is possibly the only gallery in India to currently represent an artist whose practice is consciously rooted in her Dalit identity. In January, it formalised its association with Pune-based artist Rajyashri Goody, 30. Since 2007, Goody has been mashing up the Manusmriti because she is interested in the act of wiping it clean, but also recognises that its words have lodged themselves deep in the consciousness of Hindu society.
In, Joothan (2018), she pulped the Manusmriti, turning it into laddoos. “Pulping the Manusmriti is a quiet, almost mundane act, compared to something more radical such as burning it or bringing down a statue,” she says. But should Dalit art — as the art of resistance, the art against caste — even desire a place in the hierarchies of the commercial art world? Achar says that instead of putting the onus on artists, it might be useful to consider Black Lives Matter (BLM) as an entry point into the question.
“What has been striking in the BLM moment is the self-examination undertaken by white Americans. We see them say it is a moment for them to hear black voices, a moment to be quiet and learn to recognise their own complicity. Would this also not be a good time for the art world, indeed, all of us, to similarly reflect on our complicity and entitlement within the domain of caste?”