Can hunger get poetic? Can English become a Dalit deity? Can a menial job become a fashion enterprise? Works by Dalit artists could have some answers
The small statue uncannily resembles the Statue of Liberty, except that she is standing in a self-styled temple of education that has Einstein’s formulas and verses by Yeats on its walls. Her beacon of hope is a pen symbolising emancipation, with a copy of the Constitution in the other hand. Dressed in western attire and wearing a hat, her pedestal is a computer. Her name is English, the Dalit Devi.
Dalit activist Chander Bhan Prasad, displaying the creation at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, believes only education can liberate the lower castes, which inspired him to craft a temple that preaches the likes of Illiad, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and various mathematical equations thrown in for good measure. Everything in the installation represents a tilt toward modernisation and a breakaway from the shackles that bind a lower caste to prescribed stereotypes. The name is the final audacity. So audacious that Prasad claims the idea of a Dalit devi was met with opposition from Dalit politicians.
But power is fickle, and what a seasoned politician might not want to believe, 29-year-old Rajyashri Goody does. A young Dalit voice, she has the power to move people with her art, but likes to impose no compulsions. Perhaps the most powerful of art exhibits at the festival this year, Goody is nonchalant about its effect. “I am not an activist. My art makes a difference to me, and that is what matters. Nothing else,” she says. Humility versus hubris could not be more stark as you see the striking ceramic installation she has created that symbolises the various leftover food items a Dalit might throw together in a pot to satisfy his hunger
But there is more to the less.
Goody has painstakingly researched Dalit literature, and extracted writings on food into poems that read like recipes. Sourced from various works by various writers, the deprivation and the inaccessibility almost becomes poetic in all their impoverished glory. The titles of the compilations ask compelling questions — Does an ox dash against the insides of your body? Do you have the courage to drink from the pond? Is the touch upon your tongue wonderful? Is the hunger gnawing at your belly? Do you tire of the same meal everyday?
Interestingly, her ceramic installation speaks in more ways than one. Replicas of food items, be it a half-eaten roti or a bhakri or pieces of vegetables, an odd spice or two, look beautiful, but convey the inaccessibility of food to the lower castes in being inedible. “Accessibility to food is hard for the lower castes. My study focuses on this very aspect —how caste-based discrimination plays out through everyday things like food. How the lower castes procure food, how they can’t eat in an upper caste’s house, or enter their kitchens.”
But Goody is playing no victim game. “It’s not all about sad things. It is also about celebration and marriages, feasting and enjoying food. I don’t want anyone looking at my art to feel sad. But the suffering needs to be acknowledged,” she says, adding that her study aims to find more about her history and her heritage through food than anything else. So does she think she has made any difference with her art? “To myself for sure. To my understanding of my history and my heritage. If others want to be inspired, they can access my art. But I am not an activist. My responsibility is to myself alone.”
Her community member Sudheer Rajbhar of Chamar Studio likes to take more people in his stride. Traditional shoemakers of the community that previously used raw hide to make shoes by hand are now using recycled rubber to make not only shoes but fashion accessories like handbags. He conveys the stink and the filth of the decaying, maggot-infested hide through photographs and pieces of leather slung across his installation. A table full of tools used by the community shows the progression of a rudimentary product into a sophisticated one. By using the word chamar as a brand name, Rajbhar tries to reclaim the otherwise derogatory term. And like Goody, he is optimistic. “ We are looking at a future where members of the community are progressive, using ethical and sustainable practices to create a product that will be used by one and all and where caste does not matter.”