Dalit Art and its Political Implications– Analysing Tartakov’s Stance

Dalit art is part of a powerful political history of activism. Dalits have, for long, articulated their rebelliousness against the domination of the upper caste through their unique artistic expressions in the form of Dalit literature, poetry, and paintings. Their art subverts the hegemony, their art intersects and speaks volumes of multiple axes of social injustice and inequality: be it gender, caste, religion, and class.

The experiences of Dalits with art reveal the limits of our society as a whole. It is the existence of Dalits that is so emblematic of our modern democratic culture. Gary Michael Tartakov says that the bourgeois art world seeks to avoid disguise while the Dalit experience defines the domestic limits of our modern society; which in vivid terms talks about the the ‘limits of our lives’. The image of Dalits in the modern world can be understood with respect to the ‘panchnama’ of our traditional past. As the strategies and techniques of analysing artistic imagery may be turned to good purpose for examining the imagery of everyday life, one may also find it profitable to turn understanding of the imagery our daily life to analysis of fine arts. Among the most important strategies for interpreting the imagery of everyday life, the most critical one is the need to go beyond a design’s abstract symbols, to interpret meanings based upon their instrumental uses and agency. Meaning relatively depends upon the motivated significations of agents in concrete situations. He attempts to correlate the everyday imagery of Dalit art with the concept of Sanskritization.

Gary Michael Tartakov says the Sanskritization in the Indian culture has been an invention of untouchability. Though the popular concept has been devised by the upper-caste anthropologists, it should be understood that the practice of untouchability is just one of caste culture’s most essential expressions but also one that is indulged in by all castes in emulation of the Brahman’s claims of preserving their peculiar degree of ritual purity. As the early Brahmanical system of purity for the Vedic sacrifice and then the appearance of Puranic deities required a strict segregation of the more-pure from whatever and whoever was designated as less pure, all castes have claimed their unique degree of purity by considering as many others as pollution to themselves. The two prime examples of Sanskritization can be the Brahman’s distance from all other castes and all castes’ damning of the Dalit as ‘untouchable’. It is this continuing Sanskritization in contemporary South Asian culture that the Dalit’s dress have been imposed to signify, while there is Dalit resistance of course. Dalits comport and display themselves in the venue where they have control. There is the self presentation in clean and redefined garments whenever it is possible, there is the blending into the crowd in the anonymity of the urban environment.

Tartakov attempts to differentiate between bourgeois art and Dalit art in relation to how Dalit art could not get a significant platform for critical analysis. He further tends to connect it with Ambedkar, as a personality who wished to be recognised as “the academic PhD and International Bombay Jurist and public official of British India”. Ambedkar was treated differently than others on the basis of the ways he dressed. His dress certainly distinguished him strikingly from other delegates to the Second Round Table Conference which thus differentiated how he was responded to.

Another aspect that Tartakov talks about is that of learning the use of symbolic means in context of installing statues of political leaders in states. The practice of setting up statues of political leaders on public sites was introduced by the British, who installed statues of soldiers and civil servants in the Raj. After independence, the practice was resumed with the installation of statues of Gandhi and the regional figures of the Indian Independence movement as well as historical figures such as Shivaji in Maharashtra. The first official statue of Ambedkar was set up in Bombay in 1962 at the Institute of Science crossing (former Provincial Assembly). Ambedkar was represented as an orator, dressed in a business suit and finger upraised as “a great man lecturing the nation”. According to Tartakov, the message was both, to the nation on the dangers of caste and inequality and to his fellow Dalits whom he urged to organize democratically to fight for their rights.

While the constitution fitted Ambedkar into a secular mould, it is interesting to note that the constitution was given a radical meaning by the Dalits. As Pauline Mahar-Moller has shown in a monograph on a small village in western UP, the ‘untouchable’ interpreted the constitution as a new law replacing the ‘Hindu laws of caste’. This attempt at bringing Ambedkar within a national consensus in the name of ‘secularism’ did not prevent Ambedkarites from emphasizing their own radical understandings of Ambedkar. On the one hand, they took this official recognition as a step that gave them legitimacy; on the other, they continued to publish biographies of Ambedkar and other vernacular political pamphlets in which his ideology was unfolded more uncompromisingly.

In UP, the statues recently tend to reproduce the iconographic pattern of the statue that stands in front of the Parliament. The official statues set up by the provincial BSP governments since 1955 are identical : made in bronze and several meters in height. But in villages, slums and roadside sculptors’ shops, one can see smaller stone models which are painted once purchased. These non-official statues have a much livelier aspect : they are painted in bright colours, the business suit is generally light blue, the shirt white and the tie-red. The book is painted red with the inscription in Devanagri script, ‘Bhartiye Sanvidhan’. The statue’s usual features are the business suit, the tie and the pen clipped in the front pocket which recalls Ambedkar’s excellence in higher education and statesmanship. The raised arm recalls his relentless struggle and his stature as a national leader, and the Constitution recalls his contribution as the Chairman of the Constitution Committee.

In addition to that, Tartakov also talks about Mithila painting in terms of a Dalit intervention. Mithila painting was started by a Dalit community in the Mithila region of Bihar in the mid-1970s. They began depicting their daily life, ritual practices and cosmology in a stylistically distinctive way on paper as a new source of income. What was started as a source of income became an aesthetic, economic and political challenge to the upper-caste painting traditions in the same and nearby villages. Later, this artform was taken up by upper caste women of Brahman and Karn Kayastha communities. After few years, a German anthropologist Erika Moser visited these villages and encouraged Dusadh women to paint on paper as well. The Dusadh women were unfamiliar with the style and techniques but developed their own using bamboo brushes. They developed three styles of painting – first was the early tattoo paintings inspired by Godhnas on their own bodies, second was large, colourful images of deities and human figures in natural colours using bamboo brushes and the third one was geru painting which was not very popular.

The style and techniques of all the paintings, Brahman, Kayastha and Dusadh alike, have been continuously evolving, none of them are same as they were in the beginning. Nevertheless, the paintings from all these communities still retain the basic stylistic features of Mithila painting. The Dusadh painters have been very innovative and experimental with the styles, they are rapidly expanding the scope of their art but the political issues are still off limits, they are not willing to take up issues related to caste openly. This could be because the Dalit painters and their families are generally extremely poor. They often depend upon their paintings for much of their family income and thus it will be hard to sell paintings that are explicitly critical of the current social order. Nevertheless, the Dusadhs have their own evolving place with Mithila society. The Dusadh paintings have been influenced by, and have in turn influenced the paintings of the other Mithila communities.

Even though the art produced by Dalits is not something recent, ‘Dalit art’ is a relatively new category that still hasn’t found a strong footing in the mainstream. Dalit art is going where Indian art discourse has not ventured before —responding to a society divided on caste, through the artistic medium according to author Deeptha Achar. Thus, it is imperative for this movement of sorts, to thrive and break the hegemony on art that the upper castes have enjoyed for so long.

Picture Courtesy- The News Minute

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