“Only dead dalits make excellent dalits.
Only dead dalits become excellent sites where revolutionary fantasies blossom!” ~ Anoop Kumar
The context for this article centers around the selective fetishising of Dalit Bahujan whose deaths were ‘spectacles’ and hence “become excellent sites where revolutionary fantasies blossom”. This comes served with obscene explicitism via White Brahmin Savarna networks of imperialist interests and caste solidarities. This commodification takes place, with a confident presupposition, that it will go unquestioned, unexamined and never subjected to any critical inspection, but rather eulogized (even with small internal disagreements), curated and extensively broadcasted.
Art Institutions as Eugenic caste centres
In India, there exists no institution within the Art establishment or even outside it which consecutively questions the routine practice of conquering Dalit Bahujan labor, creativity, history, struggles and epistemology. Evidence is in the absence of any critique.
This is because in India, the establishments of artistic production extending from the material aspects, to theoretical exposition, to validation and social rewards together form a closed system of elite castes’ kinship network. The individual artist to art students, artist collectives, research opportunities, distribution system of curators, gallery, museums, system of grants and fellowship, overseas residencies etc cycles as material opportunities within elite castes (links 1-5).
Theorization, art criticism, publications, reviews, media exposure or similar recognition systems are exclusively dominated by Brahmin Savarnas and some settler White personalities. This is an explicit phenomenon from early Bengal School historians and theorists like Abanindranath Tagore to Nandalal Bose in Santiniketan to Richard Bartholomew and Geeta Kapur in Delhi and Baroda to Tapati Guha Thakurta in Kolkata to the contemporary art writers and critics writing in art journals, magazines, digital archives, online portals etc.(links 6-8)
Where are the Dalit Bahujan artists?
In such an art scenario, Dalit Bahujans hardly have any presence or stake in art institutions. Having been within this world for few years, from my art school days to my current profession as an art educator, I can say without any hesitation that the presence and participation of Dalit Bahujans in this field and its processes, is miniscule, and to be specific, almost non-existent in the case of Dalit Bahujan women. One still finds an inconsequential number of Dalit Bahujans as students in Govt./Central Art Colleges and Universities. But in the post college/university life, how many of them have been able to get into this densely woven absolute Brahmin Savarna owned institutional organizational networks to find career options or at least walk a few steps towards their dream of becoming an artist?
Dalit Bahujan women artists—who and where are they?
One can barely find success stories. Even if we do find few Dalit Bahujan men, the presence of Dalit Bahujan women artists, art educators, art curators and distributors, inhabiting these spaces, building active careers with their practice, is nearly absent. Even given the presence of a handful, not one dalit bahujan woman has ever appeared as a prominent name in the art world either as a producer of art, curator or critic. What is one to conclude from this state of affairs? This is the very nature of systematic and structural exclusion in this Savarna art and culture industry, which leaves no space to have any Dalit Bahujan women (also men) in the Art Criticism, Critical Theory and similar professional circles.
How many professors/assistant professors from Dalit Bahujan locations hold positions in Art History, Art Criticism, Critical Theory, Art and Creative writing and other such departments in the whole country? The number is between 5- 10 (to confirm this we need to do a survey, but from my observation I guess this will be the approximate number, not vastly different). And how many are Dalit Bahujan women among this dismal number? How many of their names are known beyond the institutional spaces as celebrated art critics and historians?
Art History and Criticism is an institution, sheltered within the larger institution of Art and culture, which defines what can be appreciated as good art, what can be condemned as bad art, what’s non art, which art needs to be placed in history and remembered, which has to be ignored and forgotten. This institution legitimizes the specific ways of seeing, reading and witnessing certain art practices, it also validates what is “critical” in theory. In that crucial space in India we have no Dalit Bahujan women (rarely any men too) to advance Dalit Bahujan discourses into this form of cultural production, both in public institutions and the larger art world. It is very clear that Brahmin Savarna institutions never want Bahujans to theorize their own realities and deconstruct the Brahminical canons that are imposed upon them.
Learning from my conversations with Dalit Bahujan women artists, feminists and their knowledge domains, particularly on the problems of representation of Bahujan bodies, specifically of Bahujan women, by oppressor Brahminical male gaze makes me alert to examine such visual practices in a new light and vision. It is from their insights, and with full awareness of my gender location and the absolute vacuum of Dalit Bahujan women’s (also men’s) presence in Art criticism, I am recording the problems of representation in Nangeli’s and other Bahujan contexts by the oppressor male gaze.
The recent debate over artist Orijit Sen’s depiction of Nangeli in his graphic series on Facebook, presents an opportunity to inquire into the broader question of Savarna male gaze consumption and production in visual art practices, along with the machinery of appropriation reproducing hegemony. I eagerly await for this article to be enriched and critiqued with inputs and learning from Dalit Bahujan women artists. I would also like to problematize my location as a political heir to the anti-caste history via secondary sources, not being a direct regional and linguistic heir to the narratives of Nangeli’s struggle (and the other contexts in the essay), I eagerly await further conversations with Dalit Bahujan movements from those contexts. In this section, I will use the recent facebook exchange on a Graphic novel as material and method to examine the multiple gazes in this caste oppressed society.
Art saves those it seduces!
Orijit Sen, India’s first graphic novelist, designer, activist, social documentarian and a Savarna, in his 2012 comic series called “Emerald Apsara”, had created an alter ego named Prabhat Ranjan Mazoomder, an imaginary Upper Caste Bengali man. In this specific story, Mazoomder lands in a fabled city, an “Apsara”, a heavenly green angel with wings appears in his guest room, garlanding him following a kiss. Later he gets rescued by the same Apsara when the military host and locals find out about their intimacy. Mazoomder moshai, declares the moral of the story “ART SAVES THOSE IT SEDUCES”! (Moral number 325)
It indeed seems like Art does descend from the heavens, seduces, rescues and saves the upper castes from problems, even historical ones, in this caste-ridden society. This is the combined aesthetics of envisioning, processing and distributing that the elite Savarna Art establishment is obsessed with in its very form and intent. This “Seduction” of marginalized majority, to delight their own intellectual quest, loaded with vile Brahmin Savarna interests, in whatever innovative marketable methodology possible, is nothing but continuation of the same blatant mechanism of reproducing their empire of cultural and caste capitals. This adventurous, orientalist formula of divine art is simple; explore, hunt down, take ownership, distort, appropriate, repackage, theorize, auction and booze! At the end it’s your free will whether to become a rescuer and save yourself or the “subject” and add glory to this atrocious burglary.
Art of Stripping Bahujans and Brahmin necrophilia
Back to Orijit Sen, who is described as India’s most political artist by huffington post, introduced a photo album he had posted, called “The Story of Nangeli” with the text quoted below on 15th January on Facebook
“The story of Nangeli is a disputed one. Academic historians have yet to find sufficient external evidence of the events the story describes. 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 our collective conscience because they have no text, and therefore no ‘history’.
This comics story first appeared in Art Review Asia.”
The album has 7 illustrated graphic images, divided into 13 frames, narrating a sequenced story of Nangeli. I have no wish of inviting the reader’s gaze to linger on his depiction of Nangeli, but for the sake of investigation and analysis I am going to deconstruct them mentioning their contents, frame by frame, along with analytical details from those frames.
This graphic story concentrates on illustrating an important event from Bahujan history, centering the historical struggle of Nangeli as a protagonist, at the central region of tax regimes in Travancore state.
Excising out spectacular events and executing erasure of anti-caste movements:
The story is told through an aged Ezhava woman. In the first frame we see an exoticized “poor” Ezhava woman in a pale sari in a public chowk (which eventually we will discover as Mulachiparambu or “land of the breasted women” at Cherthala), memorizing Nangeli. Through Sen’s own words “I believe my ancestor Nangeli knew what would happen if she continued to cover her breasts like the Nair woman, and she was prepared for it”.
This framing was questioned: “the first frame itself situates Nangeli as an isolated rebellion, an agent of free will, detached from the enriched narrative of resistance of the anti caste struggle of the larger Avarna community of which she was part of and sidelines the revolutionary leadership of Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker in that region, later mass movements led by Ayyankali, Padmanabhan Palpu, Sri Narayana Guru, Sahodaran Ayyappan etc. Also how could it be possible that Nangeli alone took such assertive action of covering upper part of her body but none other around her did so? There must be various ways in which Dalit Bahujan men and women were resisting this dehumanizing supervision of their lives, within the constraints of an oppressed society.
Also “free will” was never a context to resist marginalization in those days. Dalit Bahujan men and women were both subjected to various forms of oppressive mechanisms, not just Mulakaram and Talakaram. There were more than a hundred such taxes imposed upon them (link 9).
Their clothes were tailored according to the caste status, allowed between the waist and the knee, for both Bahujan men and women. They were not allowed to wear clean cloths, dress up well, use silk clothing, wear ornaments other than necklaces of carved granite, marble etc. and iron kunukku. They were restricted from keeping themselves clean, take bath regularly and apply oil to their hair. Bahujan men had restrictions on keeping moustache. From the naming of new-born to the height of the entrance of Bahujan homes, everything was determined by the feudal Savarna authorities under strict caste surveillance.
Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, apart from starting night schools and Kalaris for Dalit Bahujans, had also organized movements for the Right to Cover Upper body, Achipudava strike for having right to cover the portion of leg below the knee and Mookkuthy Chantha, the Bahujan women’s right to wear gold ornaments (link10).
Despite hostility and criticisms from upper caste Hindus, Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore was able to provisionally restore the dignity of Bahujan women in the Malabar Region in late 18th century by introducing new laws granting them the right to cover their breasts, which of course did not last after Tipu’s death (link 11).
In the beginning of 19th century the Christian missionary intervention and mass conversions to evade caste discrimination posed a great challenge to the united upper caste hegemony, resulting in progressive outcomes in Bahujan life and dignity. Padmanabhan Palpu’s struggle for Ezhava’s right to work in public administration and access to education is well known (link 12).
Ayyankali mobilized masses to “walk for freedom” to claim right to public spaces, gave call for the first agricultural labour strike of Dalits. He led school enrollment movements, established schools for Dalit Bahujans. Ayyankali too organized agitation to advocate Bahujan women’s right to wear upper cloths and dismiss the use of carved granite and marble necklaces for being signs of slavery (link 13)
Pambaadi John Joseph began struggles among the Dalit Christians against Hindu-Syrian Christian Upper caste domination within the church, with active support from Ayyankali. Sri Narayana Guru advocated the values of fraternity (sahodaryam) and spiritual revolution (link 14).
Many more such resistances, documented and undocumented exist. With all these enriched intense struggles the imposition of “isolated heroism” over Nangeli’s narrative is to enforce a conscious erasure of larger history of Bahujan struggles and the support and solidarity mechanisms within various Bahujan groups.
On the other hand, struggle for modest clothing is not only related to dignity, but also to right (not choice), like any other fundamental right that Dalit Bahujans did not have access to. When Ayyankali started wearing Silk cloths and turbans, causing tremendous outrage among the Caste Hindus, it was to assert the right to use good cloths since Bahujans were denied to have. In his Savarna imagination, Orijit Sen fails to understand the questions of dignity, right and caste motivated public surveillances and packages everything under the badge of individual feminist heroism.
Responding to this context Nidhin Shobhana writes “the historical contexts (tax regimes in Travancore, systems of tax collection, long history of upper cloth movement etc.) of this story has been well researched by anti-caste scholars such as Kunnikuyi S. Mani, Dalit Bandhu etc. Nangeli was a product of those contexts, which are hardly referred to in your artwork. Similarly, Kunnikuyi S. Mani dates this incident in the late 19th century, a period that had already witnessed Ezhava and Dalit mobilization. Far from being an act of free will or individual heroism, Nangeli was part of a community and its collective struggle against a tax regime which fed Brahmin community kitchens and the Treasury of Padmanabha Swami Temple.”
The next frame shows one Nair woman, well dressed in silk clothing, adorning her hair with a garland in a relaxed gesture within an aristocratic interior. A direct referencing of Raja Ravi Verma’s 1873 painting “Nair Lady adorning her hair with a garland of jasmine.” Here the Nair woman is placed in contrast to the Bahujan women, to depict the ideal state of distinguished nobility of womanhood, probably a Brahminical archetype of chaste Savarna woman.
In the adjacent frame, Sen exposes bare bodies of three Bahujan women with a Bahujan man, engaged in paddy cleaning and grinding, with a text describing the regulations of Mulakkaram (breast tax) with minute aspects of bodily details to convey the “harsh contradictions” between Nair/Namboodri and “poor” Ezhava women.
Next frame cuts into an agricultural landscape, with Nangeli and another bare-breasted Ezhava woman, followed by Sen’s words spoken through the “poor” storyteller Ezhava woman, “Our people hated this tax, but there was nothing to be done, as they had no rights. But Nangeli, a poor Ezhava like me, would walk out with a top cloth on as if she was as good as any Nair.”
Here Orijit Sen’s choice of words perhaps implies his hesitation to grant an Ezhava woman’s right to dignified survival in comparison with Nair women, in a typical Savarna subliminal style. In his own words this striking disparity between representation of a Savarna woman and a Bahujan woman comes from “readings of the documentation of longer revolts of some communities who wished to appropriate nair style coverings for themselves.” This statement illustrates Sen’s complete ignorance of the politics and historical struggles around upper clothing, examples described earlier.
It must be remembered that Nairs are Upper Shudras and there was a time when they too were not permitted to cover the upper part of the body, wear gold ornaments etc., and had to make customary payments to the King. There are narratives such as a Nair woman getting killed for covering the upper part of her body in the Travancore court in the early of 19th century . Nairs also resisted and fought for their own rights. It was initially through struggle and later their submission and service to Brahmins (because of their ritualistic relationship with Brahmins through Sambandham customs of hypergamy between Nair women and Namboodri men) and mindless emulation that they could gain social mobility and ritualistic status, including the right to decide on clothing and ornaments. But Dalit Bahujan struggles for social mobility do not come with submission to the Brahmin quarter. Their struggle does not envisage Brahmin’s legitimization of mobility, neither does it come from idealizing and emulating Brahmanised standards. If Ezhavas wanted to appropriate Nair style coverings, then that would also mean Ezhavas, like Nairs and Namboodris, wished to have dignified clothing only for themselves and wished to deny the same right to other communities simultaneously. Similarly that should also mean Ayyankali claiming freedom to movement in public places will curb other’s access to public spaces. In the light of the highly problematic, fraudulent theory of appropriating Brahmanised standards and mobility within caste structure, much accredited as “Sanskritization/Hinduisation of Dalit Bahujan”, from the M N Srinivas school of thought, Orijit Sen is a new addition to the rest of the Brahmins like Dipankar Gupta, Ajay Guduvarthy, A P Barnabas, Arundhati Roy, Christophe Jaffrelot etc.
In that same frame Sen describes Nangeli “as headstrong as she was beautiful” and that she “despised the men-particularly the upper caste men – who leered at her on her way to work”. There is no explanation of what makes Orijit Sen apply such “features” to a historical figure like Nangeli. This frame also includes six men, with obvious depiction, five Bahujan men, out of four with plough and cattle and another holding an Umbrella to a “possible” Upper Caste supervisor or landlord. Sen depicts the men with “leering” gaze at the “headstrong” and “beautiful” Nangeli and the other bare breasted woman, gazers including the Bahujan men. Very clear reference (whether intentional or unintentional) to Dalit patriarchy and masculinity, since Nangeli despises all men in general, according to him.
The resonance of Dalit patriarchy and fear of the “other” men, two essential forces constituting Savarna Feminism’s engagement with the context of Bahujan woman, echoes from place to place in the corridors of the Savarna worlds. Last month during the “curated” questions session at the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial lecture at Mumbai, a dominant Savarna platform, Angela Davis was asked, “How to deal with Patriarchy within Dalit communities?” This was one of the 4 questions, selected out of 60 (link 15).
Story continues. The inevitable arrival of Pravathiyar, the village officer of the Travancore state, to “assess” and collect tax, with a group of “hangers-on”, “all eager to have a look” at the “headstrong” and “beautiful” Nangeli! Who are these “hangers-on”? Historical records will show those village officers and their associates were mostly Bahujan men. Sen ventriloquizing through her “She was expecting him and had cut fresh plantain leaves in which the rice for the tax payment was to be offered… Although there was not enough rice in the house”. Sen’s gaze intrudes inside Nageli’s household, from inside her house the viewer see’s Nangeli’s back as she faces a group of men (upper caste?) with the village officer staring at her with great glee, reflecting similar amusement from the Savarna Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, who comments using the word “enjoying” this piece of comic strip.
Frame 6- 11
The next frame, prepares the stage for the sensational climax, serving Nangeli with “freedom of choice” in Sen’s words “Alongside the (plantain) leaves, she had also placed her recently sharpened sickle.” Then comes the golden moment when India’s most political artist Orijit Sen depicts Nangeli “submitting” herself to the village officer of the Travancore state, by uncovering her body for examination, with Pravathiyar extending his left arm towards her! What a grand opportunity for a spectacular graphic moment to engrave the obscene Brahmin gaze! How can a master of Brahmin gaze resist the temptation to deposit offensive add-ons to historical indignity imposed upon Bahujan lives and resistance to satisfy the fantasies of his fellow Savarna viewership? The way their “affluent” ancestors used to satiate by imposing customs like Mulakkaram or breast tax on “poor” Bahujans!
But Sen doesn’t stop here, he continues the story with Nangeli’s execrate eyes as she prepares, in his own words to choose “death over a life of indignity”, and several frames depicting the village officer’s facial expressions from amused to aghast with a ludicrous use of comic emotions as Nangeli makes “the payment”! Then follows the pure pulp fiction aesthetic of the sickle dropping with a Phantom Lady like comic sound effect. Onomatopoeial presentation of Bahujan death! Sublime Art!
This is not the end. In the next frame India’s most political artist Orijit Sen depicts the mutilated body parts with ample amount of blood splashed all over the frame! An exemplary combination of the highest achievement of perverse Brahminical male gaze and cool pseudo-euphoric, corpse-party alike Japanese manga anime style.
This reminds me of Kenneth Goldsmith, a white male American poet reading his own manipulated version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report, calling it a poetry titled “The Body of Michael Brown”, at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA on March 13, 2015! Michael Brown was a black teenager, who was shot and killed on Aug 9, 2014 by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson. In response to Goldsmith, P.E. Garcia, in his essay “The Body of Kenneth” writes,
“Kenneth Goldsmith doesn’t need my permission or anyone’s permission to do whatever it is he wants to do. A white man can read a black person’s autopsy and call it a poem. The white man can say he has been doing this for decades, that he has authored several books on the subject, and that he has black friends who will support him and back him up on this. That’s fine. The white man can go to sleep at night knowing that he’s made art and stuck by his principles.” (link 16)
This is also contextually comparable with Brett Murray’s 2012 painting, “The Spear” and Gillian Schutte’s critique of it. Schutte interprets the “racialised and colonial perspective” of Murray’s “The Spear”, a depiction South African President Jacob Zuma, “something that the art fraternity seems to be deliberately circumventing in their cry for freedom of expression over all else.” Schutte further writes, “Zuma is the perfect purveyor of this White male fantasy, which is encased both in fear and awe, disgust and envy, as he exhibits a sexuality not inhibited by guilt or even remotely concealed, even with the weighty title of a President. These fantasies are a source of delight that ‘civilised’ White men can fully relish because they can then feel that they are safely and morally in control of their own sexual urges and thus have the hold over rationality, lucid thinking and self-control which are imperative traits that the European has always attributed to himself. In this way he feels exclusively civilised.” (link 17)
The last frame brings the “poor” old Ezhava women back in the frame from the entire episode of outrageous flashback, with Sen’s “well researched” voice, direct from Wikipedia. This frame does say that “cruel breast tax was annulled” but does not say that it didn’t end the custom itself. Bahujan women still could not practice the right to cover their upper body for long until relentless Bahujan struggles ensured it. Even after this, these customs existed, till the early second half of the 20th century. Dr. Ajay S Sekhar, researcher and artist from Kerala, writes, “Though this practice of systematic public shaming ended in Travancore in late 19th century and early 20th century in Cochin through the historic struggles of the subaltern; it continued even up to the second half of 20th century in Malabar. In Thrissur district in Talapally taluk this caste practice sustained even after the Indian independence. In 1952 Velathu Lakshmikutty (1911-2013) a brave Avarna woman belonging to the Ezhava community was instrumental in leading the agitation to end it. In the Manimalarkavu temple in Velur just a few miles east of Kechery in Thrissur, Avarna women were forced to parade exposing their breasts as a religious festival ritual by the Nair caste lords of the Thazhekad petty kingdom who controlled the shrine that was originally a Buddhist shrine before the early middle ages.” (link 18)
To conclude this part of the series
This is the same period when the Brahmins committed to Marxist Leninist ideology within the congress party, rifted from their mother organization following ascendency of the “pure” communist party in Kerala amidst political instability (the state was not formed yet). Sen’s over-emphasis of “individual heroism” buries the long existing continued oppression in his graphic series. The problem is that Sens, from bourgeois bohemian hubs, who never had any mindset to learn and acknowledge, or be a student of Bahujan discourses, but suddenly want to become champions of it, and again without any self-criticality and reflection. In fact it seems that the “readings of the documentation of longer revolts” is done from Wikipedia or such sites alone. The narrative or its description too never finds any mention of his “dear friend who happens to be Ezhava”, who has “retrieved some more versions of the story details by talking to people in his family” and supposedly educated Sen (according to his own version).
The artist who first painted Nangeli’s struggle was Chitrakaran T Murali. He has extensively researched, painted and documented on the ‘trajectory of hegemonic material violence in the tumultuous contexts of the cultural history and social formations in Kerala. Chitrakaran T Murali says on his depiction of Nangeli in 3 of his paintings, “I did not want to depict it as a bloody event; instead my aim was to glorify her act as an inspiration to humanity, a representation that would command respect.” (link 19) See his powerful works here (link 20).
I guess the contradictory purpose of these two interventions is clear enough, along with their sensitive and ethical treatment to the context. From the unpacking of Sen’s graphic series above, it is very evident that this “storytelling” is being done through a carnalscope of fetish Savarna male gaze on bodies, particularly of Bahujans and precisely of Bahujan women, decontextualizing them from their struggle. Huma Dar responds to the debate and argues “If Nangeli’s courageous resistance to Mulakkaram’s legal depravity *specifically* entailed *covering her breasts* and culminated in the suicidal act of cutting them off, why is Mr Sen baring her breasts, and those of four other women of her community, in his very graphic pictorial story, yet once again?! Nangeli died to NOT bare her breasts to the Brahminical gaze, yet a “respected” Brahmin artist doesn’t think twice about the continued indignity of imposing forced nakedness even as he ironically eulogizes the ‘choice of death over a life of indignity’!”
The difference is that earlier methods of stripping Bahujans were sanctioned by Brahminical customs in the name of religion; today it is sanctioned by Brahminical elite aesthetics in the name of solidarity, artistic interest and freedom of expression! How are these artistic interests not determined by the caste interests among the larger so called casteless art establishment? If art is a contextualized and politicized practice and internal negotiations and power struggle between agents in the art field are to determine artistic taste (Bourdieu) and the fact that in India it’s a predominant Savarna institution, then how are the free wills or artistic choices or interests shaped by such negotiations within Savarna only? It gives birth to the gifted politics of subversion of Bahujan discourses, politics of manufactured binaries, politics of self-propagation, reproduction of caste capital and legitimizing the means of their accumulation.
To be continued
(I am indebted to authors of SAVARI (a Dalit Bahujan Adivasi women’s platform), Anu Ramdas, Anoop Kumar, authors in Round Table India, Dr. Ajay S Sekher, Huma Dar, Surya Shankar Dash, Rohit Ukey, V. Divakar and Soumyadipta Sen for insights of relevant contexts specific to this part of the essay. My extensive discussion with Nidhin Shobhana, anti-caste researcher from Kerala, has given me a comprehensive understanding of the historical contexts of Nangeli and the anti-caste struggle around her.)
Links and Notes
1. Evidence verifiable in the composition of faculty, board members of any art institution etc, see links below
6. The art critics and their narrow base in diversity of caste, region, religion, linguistic locations in country as large as India. See links below
Pinak Banik is a visual artist and independent researcher from West Bengal. His areas of interest are Socio cultural Historiography, Political economy, Anthropology, Art and Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration by Nidhin Shobhana