Body of evidence: The art of Sajan Mani
Conceptual artist Sajan Mani, who performed in Berlin’s Nome gallery over the last couple of months, talks of being the Other in India as well as in Europe
Indian artist Sajan Mani’s solo performance space at Nome gallery in Berlin was dominated by three primary colours — red, black and white. The arrangement was simple — there was the bleached white wall; the artist in black coat dragging himself on the gallery floor to ‘draw’ lines of Malayalam poetry on the wall; and a huge unmoving red pyramid-like structure reaching out to the ceiling at the centre. But the meaning unfolded in knotted layers, each layer containing hundreds of micro stories, all flowing out sideways, upwards and outside the gallery space.
Black, red and white
Talking about the exhibition, titled Alphabet of Touch >< Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs, which concluded on October 31, Mani, originally from Kerala and now working in Berlin, says over a Zoom call, “It’s a room with many keys, which open different doors for different viewers.”
Even the colours were more than just that — while the red alluded to Kerala’s Communist legacy, the red and black together gestured to the predominant colours of the Theyyam performances Mani had watched avidly as a child.
This was the first time Mani was collaborating with a gallery although he has performed at international art events like the Dhaka Art Summit and Nottingham Arts Mela. He remains sceptical of the way art is packaged and presented in India and of the popular image of the artist as a jhola-toting, chain-smoking bohemian — for him, this supposedly liberal artistic space hides deep-seated caste prejudices.
Working and researching in Berlin now, he chose Nome because of its political credentials and its association with other young conceptual artists like himself.
The exhibition opened with Mani’s durational performance, which went on for two days and included his framed drawings; two serigraphs on natural rubber titled I Want to Touch the BwO of the Rubber Tree; video installations; a pile of books with pages marked by Mani, suggesting an archive of his readings as well as directing the viewer to the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of his work.
In all this, there was the emphasis on the body — the artist’s own, the “Black Dalit body”, stretched to its limits over the hours-long performance; that of the gallery, with the meaning of Mani’s work overflowing its four walls; and that of the archive, which is sadly neglected in India.
Sajan Mani at Nome | Photo Credit: Special arrangement
“The Dalit body in public spaces in India is under threat, now more than ever before. In such a situation, where is the Indian intelligentsia, which in spite of its postcolonial victimhood positioning, is yet to convince the international community of the persistence of caste in the country? Does it maintain silence because it is upper caste and upper class itself? I feel furious,” says Mani. Curiously enough, caste has persisted in Kerala despite its Communist past and present.
Mani comes from a family of rubber-tappers in Kannur. Growing up, he saw his parents engage in the back-breaking, painstaking work of tapping rubber from dawn to dusk, day after day. Through his work, he recreates the pain, not just of his parents but of all Dalits, for everyone to witness and experience.
He has hung himself, dragged himself under the scorching Delhi sun, performed with a heavy ploughshare on his back, drowned himself in a steel vessel, thus becoming the body of hard evidence proving the actuality of the transgenerational oppression of the marginalised.
Do not sleep
“If you think of the Indian epics as documents of their times, where are the Dalit people in there? If they make an appearance, they are dehumanised. In that sense, even archiving is a function of Brahmanical knowledge production, excluding the Dalit perspective,” Mani says.
It is only in carnivalesque folk performances like Theyyam that the trauma and anger of the subaltern find artistic expression, he says. Modern history is also exclusivist. “The nationalistic ideology was a soft Hindu Brahmanical ideology. The truth is that there can be no Hindu Rashtra without the subjugated Dalit body,” he says.
The body is hence the pivot of Mani’s oeuvre. He swears by Erin Manning’s 2006 book, Politics of Touch, which examines how sensing bodies repeatedly run up against political structures.
In one of his ongoing projects, Political Yoga, Mani can be heard teaching ‘yoganidra’: “Do not move the body — surrender the body to the floor... Feel the relaxation going deeper and deeper and deeper, do not sleep...”
Sajan Mani | Photo Credit: Special arrangement
Following the instructions, just when you are floating loose in the sky, Mani starts reading from Rohith Vemula’s last letter where
he too talked of travelling among the stars. After we reach the end of the note, where Vemula says, ‘I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for... this act of killing myself,’ Mani’s voice continues: “He is not the last Dalit student to end their life — or, in other words, be murdered by institutions and society. Every 15 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit. Six Dalit women are raped every day and 56,000 children living in slums die of malnutrition every year in India. But we have to relax, relax, relax...”
In an effort to resurrect ignored voices, Mani went back to the songs of the early 20th-century Dalit activist, social reformer, and son of slaves, Poykayil Appachan (1879-1939). His are the “muted howls” of the Nome exhibition’s title. Appachan started out as Christian but left the fold when he realised that the church treated the Dalits as inferiors too. He started his own religious protest movement to empower and consolidate the marginalised. His songs, which he never wrote down, borrowed the prophetic language of the Bible to communicate the lived experience of Dalits in visceral language. It is lines from his songs that Mani rendered artistically in Malayalam on the gallery floors and walls: “Not a single letter is seen / On my race.”
In the context of the Hathras incident, he says, “I am very upset at what is going on in India. The systematic brutality is coming closer home every day. We might boast of a strong Constitution, but it will remain just a mute witness to injustice if we don’t speak up now. The only hope is of a Dalit uprising. The West will not come to our defence because while it can comprehend religious or racial differences, it cannot understand caste. Besides, for much of the West, India is still that exotic little country of the imagination.”
Speaking of which, Mani’s next project is centred on the 1959 German film, Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur), the first of the two films making up Fritz Lang’s ‘Indian Epic’, the other being Das Indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), best remembered for Debra Paget’s snake dance. There wasn’t a single Indian in the cast and the white actors wore blackface. The project came to him on hearing the comment of a group of white Germans: “We’ve seen Indians on television but they are fairer than you.”
And in all this, Mani continues to search for home: “My experience in India is that of the Other. It is the same in Europe too.”