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Of art, identity, and politics

The festival of dalit arts last week was divided on what dalit art meant, because there was too general an understanding of who a dalit was. But that did not take away the significance of drawing the dalit art form and its role in dalit politics into a public debate for the first time in decades.

DALIT LITERATURE has come to occupy a niche in the total body of literary expression and its contribution to dalit politics is widely acknowledged. Not much is known or discussed, however, about the dalit art form in relation to dalit politics. It is probably to get over this silence that, for the first time in decades, the question of the dalit art form was brought up at a seminar, Colours of Liberation, organised last week by Samvada, a forum involved with issues of development and culture. The seminar had, apart from a discussion on visual arts and social justice in the context of the dalit movement, an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, musical instruments like the parai, and staging of the old, but popular plays, Belchi and Panchama.

While there was great enthusiasm that dalit art had come up for public discussion after a long time, there was no clarity, however, on what dalit art precisely meant. Three issues informed all presentations: is dalit art a work of art on dalit issues (the experience of exploitation) by a dalit? a work of art on dalit issues by a non-dalit? or any work of art by a dalit which has nothing to do with inequality?

This ambiguity was the direct result of the far too many doubts on understanding who a dalit is: someone opposed to all inequality in general, or someone opposed to caste-based inequality — being treated as an untouchable or not having access to the essentials of life only because one belonged to a particular caste. While in the former, anyone could be a dalit, in the latter, only members of a particular grouping can be dalits. The latter is what is historically true, in which case there cannot be any confusion on who is a dalit. The definition of dalit art, then, will flow from the understanding one has about who a dalit is, and the definition of dalit itself depends on which of the two perspectives one takes.

If there were doubts on what dalit art meant, there were also doubts over public invocation of the identity. One crucial question came up in presentations by artists K.T. Shivaprasad and Prof. Chandru: should one assert one's identity as a dalit artist or go along with other identities in visual art? Shivaprasad recalled an instance when a few dalit artists from Karnataka were hesitant to identify their caste in an exhibition. The question was whether the "dalitness" would attract an audience at all, and if it did, would this be out of a certain curious, exotic sense? At an exhibition in Tamil Nadu, Chandru recalled, in his talk, that following appreciation of his paintings, a viewer came up with an unexpected question: what caste did he belong to? "I was not embarrassed. The man who asked the question should be." Chandru contends that if art were above all identities, why would the viewer have been curious about his identity — hinting that there wasn't need perhaps to declare oneself as dalit, but that the question could not entirely be avoided anyway.

Sivagami, an IAS officer from Tamil Nadu, an artist, and an editor of a magazine, wondered why there was need for a distinct conception of dalit art if art was a neutral aesthetic? Her contention was that the concept of dalit art, then, could only have one goal: to communicate the need to do away with hierarchies of caste in art. All in all, one witnessed an ambiguity over the presence and absence of dalit identity in art in the public sphere. Dalit literature, on the contrary, is not characterized by this ambiguity. The dalit movement invokes all motifs produced in dalit writing: for instance, the motifs of cultural rebellion in Devanur Mahadeva or Siddalingaiah have been popular. It is this certainty that is sought to be brought into the dalit art movement.

Owing to the lack of clarity on what dalit art meant, most presentations did not identify the specific content of dalit art — what would be the content of a painting? a worker toiling for wages, a peasant with a bullock ploughing the land, the worship of a local deity like Maramma or nature in all its splendour, a work of installation or the apparent freedom of the formless post-modern art? This, even when the exhibition of paintings indicated something close to the experience of inequality!

Suresh Jayaram, art critic and faculty at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, however, contends that ambiguity does not necessarily mean that there is no history to the dalit art form. "The tradition of craft has been very strong. Craftwork was always identified with particular communities, by and large, which can be identified as dalit in today's terminology. It is another matter that craft was seen as inferior to fine arts, which was basically painting, the elite art form. That was really a colonial practice." Folk art, going by this argument, would certainly constitute much of dalit art, whatever the material used from earlier times.

But how does this contention stand up to the content of contemporary art, which goes by the name of fine arts, which is basically art, and not craft, a distinction carried over from colonial times? Suresh says that there has been use of craft material in contemporary art, not only as a resistance to or subversion of the content of such art, but as a strategy to preserve what today goes by the name of local and indigenous art. This is instructive, because, in a context where there is no clear understanding on what dalit art is, an attempt to draw a subaltern art history could offer a perspective to the dalit art movement. Such a history can be drawn on the lines of the subaltern history project that was undertaken by group of historians over the last decade vis--vis Indian nationalist history. Such a history will clearly identify who a dalit is, and consequently, dalit art.

Suresh points out that there seems to be an unspoken consensus on the "voice of the victim" as the undercurrent of dalit art. "Victimisation is largely the narrative through which many speak or represent the issue of dalit art."

A glimpse of the works at the exhibition that included the use of red colour, red, swords, rural scenes, a kite maker trying to make a living, cart pullers and sweepers, folk cutouts, impoverished workers, and the like evokes images of victimhood, which, by and large, have been the quickest recourse the dalit movement has resorted to. The works on display included works by artists such as Muthuswamy, Mani, Babu Eshwar Prasad, Shivaprasad, Hadapad, Shivananda, Dilip Kumar Kale, Chandru, Mashalkar, Mohana Kalyani, and others.

In any programme of dalit politics then, there would have to be clear understanding on whether such images must inform dalit art, and if they should, there would be very little ambiguity over the identity of the dalit. The question whether such an identity should be declared, especially, in the regime of gallery art, as it exists now, will only come later. If there is the compulsion to go by the normative structure that the gallery systems have built, and if contemporary art forms is what one would want to represent, most of which nothing to do victimhood, the problem of defining dalit in that context would arise.

The thrust of the festival, however, was commendable in that it brought dalit visual art into mainstream cultural debate. The parai performance, ironically, was a culmination of an effort to carve out a distinct space of art.


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