Harsh Mander

Barefoot: Colours of discrimination

The best of art for me is that which speaks — in various forms and voices — of the lives of dispossessed people, of the ways they live, cope and overcome; and of dreams and visions of a better, fairer, kinder world.

Among the most moving reminiscences of a dispossessed childhood that I have encountered, for instance, are in a new genre of dalit autobiographies. Close to my heart is Sharankumar Limbade's autobiography Akkarmashi. Limbade begins with memories of a school picnic to a forest near his village. The dalit children play and eat separately embarrassed in front of their upper caste classmates by their stale dry rotis, chutney and a dried fish. They can smell the delicacies from the other group: fried paranthas, delicious laddoos, fresh spiced vegetables, gujiyas and so much else. Some girls feel sorry, and give them some vegetables, careful not to touch them. Limbade is embarrassed by their pity. When they have eaten, the teacher asks the dalit boys to gather the leftovers in an old piece of newspaper. They can barely wait to eat the scraps, which they attack as soon as their classmates have walked ahead. When he returns home that night, his mother asks him sourly why he did not also bring some of the leftovers home for the rest of the family to taste.

Gripping record

There are many days when his sisters sleep hungry. His mother makes do with water, his grandfather with puffs of tobacco. They all await his grandmother Santhama, who goes from house to house to beg, the aanchal edge of her sari outstretched in which people throw their leftovers. He waits impatiently. Why is she taking so long? Why has she not returned? When at last she comes home, she opens out her sari edge to reveal a variety of stale half-eaten foods from the homes of the upper caste wealthy folk of the village. But, to the little boy, it seems as though his grandmother stores a little piece of heaven everyday in the aanchalof her sari.

His grandmother gathers cow dung to sell. She looks for undigested pieces of grain in each cow dung heap before she tosses it into her basket. She washes these pieces of grain in the village pond, dries them in the sun, and grinds these into flour. She finally kneads these into rotis that she roasts only for herself, as she feeds the family with brown millet rotis. The little boy suspects that his grandmother must be eating something special, and snatches a piece from her plate one evening. He bites into it and immediately retches. It tastes like cow dung. He wonders then how his grandmother manages to eat the cow dung rotis so calmly every evening.

L.S Rokade fiercely laments the injustice of unequal birth:

Mother, you used to tell me

when I was born

your labour was very long.

The reason, mother,

the reason for your long labour:

I, still in your womb, was wondering

Do I want to be born-

Do I want to be born at all

in this land?

Where all paths raced horizonwards

but to me were barred…

I found also many poems in dalit literature in India expressing gratitude for their mother's efforts to help the children survive through intense self denial and deprivation. Poignant and universal is a poem by Jyoti Langewar, which could be addressed to every mother in the world who feeds and raises her child amidst challenges of great want:

I have never seen you

wearing one of those gold bordered saris

with a gold necklace

with gold bangles

with fancy sandals.

Mother! I have seen you

burning the soles of your feet in the harsh summer sun

hanging your little ones in a cradle on an acacia tree

carrying barrels of tar

working on a road construction site…

I have seen you

sitting in front of the stove

burning your very bones

to make coarse bread and a little something

to feed everybody, but half-feed yourself

so there'd be a bit in the morning…

I write of a woman condemned by her caste to carry human excreta on her head; of a child who grows up on the harsh city streets; of a mother who has to teach her child the lesson of how to live with hunger; of a small child who recalls how murderous mobs slaughtered each member of his family; of the hopelessness of bondage; of people who are dispossessed from their forests and lands. Each time I write, I carry a little of their suffering in my own body and soul. But I have still not lived their suffering. Therefore my writing can never achieve the authenticity and significance of writing of those who have themselves lived with want and social humiliation.

Precious legacy

A great deal of the world's finest literature and art — much finer than anything that I have been capable of — is created by men and women of empathy and social conscience, who are unable to look at injustice and suffering, and then just turn their faces away and close their hearts. Their art constitutes some of the most precious legacies of human civilisation, because they represent the struggles, strivings, and aspirations among all peoples in all ages, for a world of justice and kindness. But what is even more extraordinary about dalit literature and art is that it is written directly by people who have themselves lived through the enormous suffering of want, of empty stomachs, of discrimination, insult and shame as a way of life. And in the same lifetimes they have not only been able to break off these chains. They have also acquired the skills, language and idiom, to communicate these to people who have never slept hungry, or been shamed or forced into humiliating occupations and social practices because of their birth. Therefore I regard this to be some of the most significant contributions both to the collective social conscience and to our notions of aesthetics.

The K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minority Studies, Jamia Millai Islamia, Delhi, recently organised an outstanding exhibition of paintings by dalit artist Savi and his students. It was imaginatively curated by his comrade of nearly two decades, Lokesh Jain, who successfully used painting and theatre to initiate a dialogue with students about inequity and discrimination.

Savi has developed his iconography over 22 years, influenced by the experiences of lived discrimination, Buddhist aesthetics and Ambedkar's teachings. He combines on the one hand brush strokes that are bold and confident, even sometimes deliberately chaotic, immersed in the colours of suffering, despair and rage. He locates within these some of the most astonishingly delicate line strokes. His is a unique eclectic imagery.

In Savi's oeuvre, we encounter the anguish and anger of dalit people who have suffered millennia of social discrimination. We share with his dark and brooding images, the burdens of centuries of humiliation of devdasis, or women who are ‘dedicated to the gods' and used for sex work by men of what are called higher castes. Savi's compassion and anger is not in any way sectarian. He suffers equally with the survivors of the Gujarat carnage of 2002, and of religious communal violence, and the fires that burnt their lives, inflame the canvases of his paintings as well. And interspersed among his images are the homeless on city streets, devalued and lonely, with only the sky for a roof, and the pavement for a bed.

None of Savi's paintings is portrayal of helpless suffering. Each canvas is illuminated by human dignity and the spirit which survives the most daunting odds. In his work, there is uncompromising resistance against injustice and inhumanity. Savi's colours and line strokes are shorthand for hope for a better, kinder future for all of humanity. And for this, he deserves our admiration and gratitude.

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