AZAAD AWAAZ: DALIT ART AND REPRESENTATION – UNDERSTANDING RESISTANCE

Language is the very tissue of Inter-subjectivity and has therefore since time immemorial contained in its womb the contradictions of society. It is language that can bring together a revolutionary force, that can unite the trampled against the oppressors, that can vocalize the needs of the subaltern and can act as a war cry in the battle for the most essential feature of a democratic society- equality. In this issue we look at an insurgent language of poetry, the language of expression in song, dance and theatre that brings to light the truth of the vicious system of caste in our democracy in the making.

This is the language that rejects both Sanskritization as well as the language of the colonizers and reveals the limits of our society. Dalit art has proven to be a symbolic instrument in the fight for social emancipation, by not shying away from the political, or aestheticizing the daily suffering of a community whose historic disadvantage has perpetuated into modern society Dalit Art and Literature has remained in the shadows as it lacks the commerciality factor desired by publishers who cater to the needs of an English speaking, middle class, upper caste clientele. 

Dalit Art combats and questions the expansive hegemony of Hindu Nationalism and capitalist modernity which extends to language and its artifacts. In both cultural as well as political terms, Dalit art and literature invokes a broad and universal sense of critical interest and protest. The nationalist hegemonic understanding and worldview creates a sanctioned ignorance in the discourse surrounding the understanding of Caste in India. A deeper examination of the kind of art produced  by the Dalit community depicts that the creation and popularization of that art form is a significant kind of protest, resistance and hope for independence and self-reliance.

An example of this is that of the Godna paintings, which is a tattooing art form amongst Dalit women. As jewellery was limited to women belonging to upper castes, Dalit women adorned themselves with tattoos. Brahminical ideas of purity and cleanliness was questioned by utilizing materials such as cow dung, to create canvasses for their paintings. They would source their colors from natural sources such as indigo, turmeric, and various flowers and leaves. Another example is that of the Gobar style of painting, which was started by Jamuna Devi. She uses cow-dung washed paper in order to bring out the vibrance in the hues she used to paint pictures. 

The powerful works of the revolutionary poet Gaddar resonate across the movement in Central forests of Andhra Pradesh, in the fight for the downtrodden. According to him, a song loses its life when its political relevance fades. Arivu, is a young rapper who writes in Tamil takes inspiration from the birth of the hip-hop movement amongst African-Americans, who fought back against a history of slavery with songs rooted in the pain of oppression. Sumeet Samos, a rapper who writes in English, Hindi and Odia raps extensively on the anti- caste movement in India, criticizing the limitations of the system of reservation and the ease with which the privileged take offence for its existence. The symbolism in the bold and feverous chants of ‘Jai Bhim’ and the hailing of the legacy of the greats, such as Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule is a mode of historical documentation as well as political agitation. Lokshahiri or the Ambedkari Jalsa, a tradition of performance and protests, saw a rise with Babasaheb’s conversion to Buddhism. Music and performance began acting as a medium that fostered mobility and paved way for the creation of a collective identity.  

Dalit feminist authors such as Urmila Pawar, and Shilpa Kamble have expressed their deep embracing of Ambedkarite politics through literature and theatre due to the immense sense of empowerment it offers in its  building of cultural capital. Caste laws in Indian society have very strong roots in scripture and texts, with the Manusmriti laying down the very first laws of discrimination. Rajyashri Goody in a recent exhibit, had presented paper ladoos made from torn pages of the Manusmriti to showcase that the texts that have sanctified  centuries of cruelty and oppressive ideology is ultimately just a sheet of paper. She has also spoken about various other issues that arise with the kind of relationship a person from the Dalit community would share with something as simple as a food item.

Dalits in India are strongly impacted by myriad different circumstances over years and years of socio-political conditioning, which has influenced their emotions and thoughts and their own perception of the self, in relation to others. Their actions towards this perception of an individual in a society that walks over and takes advantage of the vicious system of caste, has manifested in their works of art. Art is a medium that transcends this marginalization and provides an open platform for expression, a language that screams of oppression and provides a platform for them to be seen and to be heard. Savindra Sawakar was one of the first to represent the hegemonic institutions of caste, gender, religion and their intricate political implications in his art. An open and truthful representation of the Dalit imagination led to the creation of a radical iconography drawing from history while also portraying the contemporary. 

In this edition of Azaad Awaaz, it is this Dalit imagination that is explored by the team, through conversations and critical insight. Dalit art is not a phenomenon unique to the recent times. This edition tries to cover ground and understand why Dalit art and representation has not found a prominent spot in mainstream popular culture. In order to overcome the artistic hegemony that people belonging to the upper castes have had the privilege of, it is important for the movement to gain ground and for the discourse to drift towards identifying and uprooting the divisions of caste.