For a Dalit perspective

Print edition : December 14, 2012

Like it or not, the benefits that bourgeois culture offers historians and critics largely enhances the interests of the elite at the expense of everyone else. The perspective and interests of common people offer the opposite: the interests most basic to all of us.

INDIAN society is probably the most hierarchical in the world, with the most complex (and remarkably persistent) systems of ranking and discrimination that permeate all aspects of life. This has had all sorts of unfortunate effects. It affected the trajectory of economic growth, which has added to inequality; reinforced poor standards of human development, which have remained abysmal for much of the population even in periods of rapid economic expansion; led to the lack of public and social recognition of the human rights and dignity of all citizens; and resulted in the cultural impoverishment that comes from patterns of social exclusion of different groups and individuals.

This may be why invisibility has been such a pervasive feature of mainstream approaches to Indian economic, social and cultural reality. Invisibility itself has many consequences, which adversely affect not only those who are invisible, but also the dominant or mainstream community. In economic terms, a huge amount of work is routinely rendered invisible: the work involved in social reproduction and the care economy, the productive work performed by people as members of households or communities. Most (though not all) of this unpaid work is performed by women and girls, and the invisibility and lack of social recognition of this productive contribution both reflects and adds to the low status of women in society. Similarly, the most arduous, difficult or dangerous work performed in India is often the most underpaid, also because those engaged in it come from communities that are the most oppressed and discriminated against. So forms of social differentiation intertwine with patterns of economic exploitation, and also make economic strategies that do not recognise this far less effective in actually delivering positive outcomes. The lack of visibility of the contributions of oppressed or marginalised groups has impoverished us culturally as well. Some of this is only now beginning to be recognised, even though only in a very incipient way. At least with respect to literature, there is more work by women writers available than in the past. However, a wide range of ethnic literature is still quite marginalised.

Dalit literature became more explicitly recognised in the 1950s, especially in Maharashtra in a movement inspired by B.R. Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule. Some of this was a reaction against the mainstream literature dominated by caste Hindus, which ignored the harsh reality experienced by lower castes and swept away concerns of poverty and oppression to portray only a very limited section of society even while projecting the literature as universal or descriptive of society as a whole. Since then, not only have many more Dalit writers emerged, but there have been more attempts to uncover and disseminate socially conscious literature on and by Dalit writers from the past. There is now a vibrant Dalit literature in Marathi, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu (for example) and many more emerging voices across the country.

This literature has allowed us to recognise how much we miss when we experience cultural products (literature, cinema, music, art) as expressions emerging from some notion of universal anonymity, when in fact the social reality in which they are produced does not allow for either such anonymity or such universalism. The power of Dalit writingas indeed of feminist writinghas been to show how the particular conditions of existence of these groups generate not only a lived experience of oppression or subordination but also very different cultural expressions that cannot be adequately described by those for whom this is not part of quotidian life.

However, visual art in the Dalit tradition has been much more neglected and there has been very little in terms of the study of such art forms in their own right. A new book edited by Gary Michael Tartakov ( Dalit Art and Visual Imagery, Oxford University Press, 2012) therefore begins to fill an important gap. It brings to the forefront the relationship between visual imagery and society seen through the prism of caste differences, which continue to form such a crucial aspect of the lives of not just Dalit men and women but their others. And it adds significantly to the nascent scholarship on visual imagery in India, which has thus far incorporated different social streams only in a very limited and inadequate fashion.

The essays in this book come from different traditions and cover purely pictorial and aesthetic approaches as well as more historical, anthropological and sociological interpretations. Several essays deal with the most obviously iconic of contemporary Dalit visual representations: portraits and statues of Ambedkar. There is a fascinating description of the evolved rigidity of the symbolism inherent in the way Ambedkar is presented. Thus, the blue business suit that he is almost inevitably shown wearing is as regular and unchanging as the Sakhyamuni Buddhas orange robe. And the significance of the book (mostly identified as the Indian Constitution) that Ambedkar is often shown holding is to augment this expression of a man of modern education and high civic status relying upon secular principles and education.

A SECTION OF the `Ambedkar Jayanti' procession in Hubli on April 14.-KIRAN BAKALE

Similarly, memorial shrines to Ambedkar typically consist of traditional elements that are modified to meet modern requirements, so deriving structures from the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi and gateways of traditional temples from the south and central part of the country along with meeting halls that resemble Buddhist viharas. These links lead into an analysis of the art and architecture of Navayana Buddhism, the socially oriented form of the religion promoted by Ambedkar (who reportedly told his followers, If you want to change your life, change your religion). There is a thoughtful discussion of the more recent use of the Ambedkar statue in the symbolic politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as well as its use in the renewal of social aspirations among Dalits.

The use of public images and the creation of a darshan effect in the annual Ambedkar Jayanti procession largely organised by Jatavs in Agra are analysed in terms of how they make public the thoughts, issues and feelings that Dalits have about the continuing oppression of the caste system. The floats in the procession are dramatic, evocative, stirring. They describe the Dalit perspective on contemporary caste hierarchies and how they play out in social life and work, but also form major contributions to Indian popular culture. Effectively, they are the work of organic artists who are depicting their own reality, rather than a supposedly Dalit reality depicted by an outsider.

An account of Dusadh Mithila painting provides a different angle: an insightful look at the work of particular artists who exhibit and sell what could be called elite craft, and are simultaneously traditional, modern and contemporary. There is a striking illustration of a Mithila painting by Roma Jha, depicting upper caste women refusing a Dalit woman access to a well during the day, so that in the lower panel of the painting she is shown drawing water in the dark at night. Another analysis of the work of the contemporary Dalit painter Savindra Sawarkar (or Savi) has some extraordinary and powerful illustrations that interrogate caste, religion and gender as interlocking but shifting structures of power and oppression.

A final essay on Dalit imagery of everyday life is both thoughtful and inspiring. It juxtaposes the so-called fine art with the aestheticism inherent in everyday existence, which has more profound and practical effects. As Tartakov notes at the close of the book (page 281), Like it or not, the benefits that bourgeois culture offers historians and critics largely enhances the interests of the elite at the expense of everyone else. The perspective and interests of common people offer the opposite: the interests most basic to all of us.

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