Meet 5 Contemporary Artists Challenging India’s Still-Prevalent Caste System - Homegrown

Meet 5 Contemporary Artists Challenging India’s Still-Prevalent Caste System

“Art is the weapon / against life as a symptom / defend yourself ” – My Chemical Romance

The referenced band may seem a bit misplaced but the sentiment holds true in the political and social climate of India right now. There seems to be a wave of hysterics, bordering on manic jingoism that follows when any voice questions authority. Despite being quashed time and again, dissent continues through various mediums, often finding the right audience and spreading awareness through art.

Art has often been the most powerful and universally accessible tool for socio-political commentary and self-expression. A form of social activism in itself, it stirs civic consciousness, drawing attention to the current state of affairs. Although outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the insidious influence of the caste system has continued to silence and oppress large portions of society even today.

How many times have you spoken to someone that claims casteism doesn’t exist? They are perhaps the lucky, privileged few that are sheltered from such lived realities and rarely feel its presence in the country. But it is still very much ongoing and while many individuals might not be directly affected by, the truth is we, the middle, upper-middle and upper class educated individuals, also may be the only ones that can spark positive a change for the disenfranchised members of our society. Caste-based discrimination and violence are rampant and on the rise, and where media and news outlets have failed to provide a platform for those fighting against these archaic practices art has served as the new weapon of choice.

From paintings and comic strips to sculptural installations, today we look at just a few of the artworks that are calling out the government for its negligence in terms of taking action and providing protection; society for wearing blinkers and being unwittingly complicit. These are just some of the creations of those facing caste oppression as well as artists drawing attention to its history through the celebration of the unsung heroes we’ve all but forgotten today.

I. Savinder Sawarkar

Any conversation about art and caste politics would be incomplete without a mention of Savinder Sawarkar, popularly known as Savi. For years he has created a space for Dalit art in the modern Indian art sphere as well as galleries, not just across the country but the world over.

Savi’s work brings to the forefront difficult questions and painful realities of being a Dalit artist. His critique of the caste system is clear and it’s not just a simple victimisation that he portrays but cultural politics of a murky past and the unsettling present power dynamics that have dictated people’s lives and restrained growth and development almost like a chokehold. His aesthetics evoke these emotions in viewers and provide a sense of immediacy and urgency to situation.

'Untouchable with Dead Cow II' by Savinder Sawarkar. Source - Saurabh Dube via Open Democracy
'Untouchable with Dead Cow II' by Savinder Sawarkar. Source - Saurabh Dube via Open Democracy

II. Rajyashri Goody

The socially and politically conscious work of Rajyashri Goody is perhaps more relevant now than ever. Through words, photography and visuals, the mixed-media artist uses found objects, thread, cloth and even people’s personal belongings, assembling them in a critical commentary on India’s segregation of people in society – namely, the caste system and untouchability. Social activism is a clear theme in her work along with the exploration of identities and creating a sense of self among middle-class urban youth in today’s world.

Her installation ‘Skyscape’ at KHOJ’s Refracting Rooms struck us the most. It included 500 pairs of slippers and shoes, strung together and hung from the ceiling depicting a dark, looming cloud of discrimination. She alludes to the Manusmriti that prescribes the position of so-called Untouchables, as related to parts of the human body, as coming from below the feet – the lowest of the lows.
Viewers were invited to step into a room that held the installation and while the experiences were varied, the overall feeling of suffocation, gloom, of being made to feel unclean was common. This was precisely Goody’s intention – pointing to the fact that these are the living experiences of a large portion of our population on a regular basis. Goody does more than just criticise, she actively works to spread information and create a dialogue on how such oppressive systems can be broken down, through community projects and discussions that stem from her work.

'Skyscape' by Rajyashri Goody; source - Rajyashri Goody website
'Skyscape' by Rajyashri Goody; source - Rajyashri Goody website

III. PS Jaya

In 2016, Kochi-based artist PS Jaya embarked on a 150-day ‘artivism’ project in the aftermath of the unfortunate suicide of Rohith Vemula. Every day before leaving the house she would cover her skin with black paint. She would conduct her daily routine, as usual, taking buses, teaching, walking the streets, going out to eat, interacting with peers, family and friends. The social experiment sought reactions from people on how they view and treat dark-skinned Dalits; raising important questions regarding common folk’s attitude towards casteism.

Speaking to The Wire the artist, who is not a member of the community herself, explained, “The collective conscience of the public always relates darker skin to the lower castes. With the use of black paint, I am merely mirroring these pre-conceptions and raising my voice against such notions.” On one hand she received support from people she encountered, while on the other faced severe backlash from Dalit scholars and activists, stating that this was more of a mockery and reinforcing of stereotypes, as “damaging to the self-respect” of the community, as Vaikhari Aryat, a Dalit scholar and classmate of Vemula at Hyderabad University wrote. Be it positive or negative, what Jaya managed to do is create a public conversation, taking it out into the streets and into the faces of people, many that live in denial of casteist discrimination.

Jaya painting her face; source - BBC
Jaya painting her face; source - BBC

IV. Orijit Sen

Graphic designer, artist and all-around socio-cultural critic, Orijit Sen’s works have often been cited for their social and political themes. Most recent has been his retelling of one of India’s unsung heroine’s story through a graphic story. He created ‘A Travancore Tale’ in remembrance of the 19th century Ezhava woman, Nangeli, on what he calls Rohith Vemula’s ‘Shahadat day’.

Low-caste Avarna women of 19th century Travancore, colloquially understood as Dalit, were not allowed to cover their breasts in public unless they paid a special tax, termed mulakkaram. Nangeli, a beautiful woman living in Cherthala belonging to the Ezhava community, wouldn’t have it anymore. She denied the village officer responsible to collect taxes, the money sought from her. Fiercely independent, she was determined to cover herself and venture outside. Once the news of her defiance spread, the tax officer came to her home to collect the tax. Nangeli followed rituals and prepared the plantain leaf on which the tax was supposed to be paid. Instead of the money, she came out of her home drenched in her own blood, having cut off her own breasts, which she summarily presented to the officer, much to his horror. Nangeli lost her life in a matter of minutes and was cremated by that evening. The next day, Sreemolam Thirunal, the then King of Travancore, took back the tax after having issued a royal proclamation. Women from lower backgrounds were now allowed to cover their breasts.

Nangeli’s story is highly debated by academics and historians for its lack of evidence. But the artist expresses his sentiment aptly, stating, “For me, the veracity of the facts is less important than the singular fact that the story exists, and continues to be told. It narrates the protest, anguish and anger of those who are excluded from the reach of collective conscience because they have no text, and therefore no ‘history’. This comics story is dedicated to Rohith Vemula (1989-2016), who, like Nangeli, chose death over a life of indignity.”

You can read more about Nangeli’s sacrifice here and view ‘A Travancore Tale’ in its entirety here.

A panel from 'A Travancore Tale' by Orijit sen, courtesy of the artist via Guftugu
A panel from 'A Travancore Tale' by Orijit sen, courtesy of the artist via Guftugu

V. An Artist’s Emotional Reaction To Rohith Vemula’s Suicide Note Found Itself On The Streets Of Mumbai

Creating posters from the double page of newspaper spreads of articles regarding India’s current affairs, the artist, using the collage as a background, has pasted a poignant excerpt from Rohith Vemula’s heart-breaking suicide note at the forefront, in which “he manages to say so much,” using few words, as she told us at the time. The poster serves as more than just a political statement in the streets of Mumbai, it stands as an important question, a wake-up call that hits home for many of us, just as the passing of Rohith Vemula did in terms of our relationship with caste-based prejudice.

“The idea behind it is to get people to step out of their bubbles, read it while walking down the street and perhaps question what’s happening around us,” the artist, who will remain unnamed upon their request, told us. “I think the message is greater than who did it.” As conflicting stories still rise regarding the event, criticism and counter-criticism; the artist’s overwhelming feelings of confusion, helplessness and the need to understand, is something that resonates with all of us.

Image courtesy of the artist
Image courtesy of the artist

If you enjoyed this article we suggest you read:

Art Of Dissent That Satirises & Supports JNU, Soni Suri & Vemula

Why A 19th Century Dalit Woman’s Sacrifice Is Important Even Today

The Caste-Marking Tattoos Of India & What They Signified For Different Tribes

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