Behind Devangana Kumar’s tapestries, beautiful in their use of velvet, silk and sequins, lurk uncomfortable questions. Of how time and again, the privileged have stripped the underprivileged of any identity, individuality or dignity. Pankaja Srinivasan reports

It is an anomaly. Our eyes tell us the subjects of Devangana Kumar’s artwork are the workforce (in fact her exhibition on at the Contemplate Art Gallery is called Pageants of the Raj, The Workforce), but something is different. The mochi, the mali, the milkman, the peon, the bishti, the dhobi…they are all easily identifiable, yet they wear rich turbans, ornate loin cloths, embellished cummerbunds and quite a bit of jewellery. Surely they did not look so grand in real?

They certainly didn’t, and that is exactly the point Devangana is trying to make. “These are the people who have no place in history and no identity. We do not know their names, where they came from and what they thought and felt. They are not a part of the visual narrative,” she explains. Yet, photographs and postcards of ‘the brown-skinned natives’ exist. They were probably posted to folks back home to tell them, “See, these are the people who work for us. ‘My dhobi’, ‘my barber’, ‘my khidmatgar’…” Devangana quotes Dr. Shahid Amin who said, ‘The picture was the message’.

Devangana’s collection works on so many levels. It tells a story of how Indians were viewed by the colonists. We know how the help dressed. But even that, says Devangana, was not entirely correctly depicted. Most of the times, the setting was elaborately staged. For example, a picture of a cook shows him in turban, a sash and a cravat! “Given the conditions of the kitchens, it is unlikely the cook would dress that way,” she says.

Layers of meaning

On another level, Devangana’s tapestries are a deeper social comment — of the invisible, unnamed and usually unacknowledged work force. “There is no record of what these people thought, felt, whether they even wanted to pose for photographs,” says Devangana. Their identity comes only from the work they do. So, she has added embellishments to their costumes, lent them jewellery and framed them in silks and velvets. “People of this class were not allowed to wear rich fabrics or precious metals. That was the prerogative of the aristocracy. That is why I have adorned them with that, and given them an identity.” She has also given names to the people in her tapestries.

Breaking stereotypes

That brings the pictures alive. The sepia-tinted milk woman in drab browns now wears a pink sari with glints of gold! She is framed in velvet. Suddenly, she is a person. “I wanted to break the stereotyping. Take away the tools associated with these people, and they could be anyone. For example, in the tapestry that shows a barber, if you take away his scissors, combs and other trappings of his trade, he could even be a prince,” says Devangana. The multitudes of ‘servants’ were barely acknowledged, and if they were it was not for the individuals they were, but for the purpose they served in keeping the mighty Raj in style and opulence.

In the course of her research, Devangana says she learnt a lot of stuff that often stumped her. From handbooks and guides that the white women wrote for other white women who were new to India, she learnt how they hated the ‘brown bodies’. Yet, says Devangana, with all the revulsion they felt for the natives, these women had no qualms about keeping dais to breastfeed and raise their children! “I find that the biggest contradiction,” she exclaims. Devangana is still on the lookout for a postcard depicting a dai or the wet nurse. “There are a lot of missing pieces in my narrative that I hope to fill,” she says. Even today, the cobbler on the roadside, the barber under the tree, the vegetable vendor, the milk woman, the gardener and the dhobi people our world. Yet, do we actually ‘see’ them? Or, like they were in the times of the Raj, do they continue to be invisible, yet indispensable to our comfortable lifestyles? That is the uncomfortable thought one comes away with from Pageants of the Raj, The Workforce.