We Tell Our Stories Ourselves: Young Bahujan Artists on Instagram
On Ambedkar Jayanti, meet the artists who are using their pens and words to fight against casteism in India.
“Social media gives us the opportunity to reclaim a free, unbiased space to express our struggles, our stories,” said 30-year-old Bahujan poet Yogesh Maitreya, who uses his Instagram page to talk about caste, love, and discrimination.
Not just him, several young Bahujan artists, musicians and poets are taking to social media, especially Instagram, to talk about Dalit issues, reminisce Ambedkar-Phule’s teachings and register their dissent against caste oppression, through their art.
“Looking at the politics and the fabric of Indian media, it is mostly dominated by Savarnas. They decide the gaze, the perspective on all social issues. Dalits have their own space to express themselves freely on social media. We started asserting our work, our identity and gradually garnering attention and recognition,” says Maitreya, who owns a publication dealing with Dalit literature.
A study in 2019 had revealed startling data on how Indian media – spanning TV, newspapers and digital media – suffered from severe underrepresentation of marginalised caste groups. It stated: “Of the 121 newsroom leadership positions – editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief, input/output editor – across the newspapers, TV news channels, news websites, and magazines under study, 106 are occupied by journalists from the upper castes, and none by those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.”
After quitting his job and spending months translating the first volume of poems written by a formidable Dalit voice and founding member of Dalit Panthers JV Pawar, Maitreya found no publishers to print his work. That is when he decided to start his own publishing house – Panther’s Paw.
Evoking Empathy on Caste Through Ambedkarite Art
While Maitreya grew up in a Dalit basti in Nagpur and was surrounded by the words and works of Babasaheb Ambedkar from an early age, 28-year-old independent designer Siddesh Gautam found courage to talk about his caste identity after a particular incident in Italy, five years ago.
Gautam recalls, “I was born and raised in a family, which has been extremely politically aware and critical of all governments, including that of our own people, like the one led by Mayawati. My political consciousness or activism, however, began very late after a particular incident in Italy, where I was studying Design.”
“In 2016, while I was boarding a bus in Milan, I saw two nuns who recoiled after seeing me. It seemed like they didn’t want my touch. I think it was because of their Islamophobia. I used to wear long kurtas and had a beard and I think they mistook me for being a Muslim. Till that point, I had always suffered from inferiority complex about my caste identity and had kept it hidden from my friends and acquaintances. After this incident, I came out in public as a Dalit. This was because I realised that discrimination is all-surrounding. Those nuns did not discriminate against my caste, but they found another way to look down upon me.”Siddhesh Gautam | Designer
Gautam started reading Ambedkar and his works since then and the first book that he picked up was ‘Waiting for Visa’, a 20-page autobiographical life story of BR Ambedkar written in 1935-36.
Gautam, known by @bakeryprasad on Instagram, now uses his digital designing skills to talk about Dalit issues ranging from discrimination in drinking water, Dalit political prisoners and rapes of Bahujan women.
“When I started venturing into socio-political designing, I realised that I have a value and that my design evokes empathy. I try to use the simplest imagery that people will be able to understand.”
Uniting Caste and Conservatism
Another young Bahujan graphic designer, who goes by the name of @thebigfatbao on Instagram, wants to showcase to the world the role of marginalised castes in conserving the environment for decades.
“There is this Brahmanical or westernised approach to sustainability and conservation. People don’t consider the role of Bahujan community who were the initial activists cleaning up everyone’s act. They were forced into it. I want to highlight the struggles of this community through my work.”@thebigfatbao
She says conservatism has been reduced to a westernised, upper caste and upper class concept and her art aims to bring to notice the “invisible force of Dalit Bahujan women who are recycling waste in India for decades”.
The independent graphic designer says she finds a lot of support and solidarity from people of her community on social media. “Everyone is fighting the same battle in their own way, so there is no pressure or competition,” she said.
Caste, Caricatures and Criticism
On the other hand, Dr Sunil Abhiman Awachar, a well-known Dalit poet and artist, also an assistant professor with the Department of Marathi in University of Mumbai, says the criticism of the Savarnas often overpowers the support for his work. He talks about Ambedkar and caste issues through his powerful sketches and poems.
From a children’s book illustrated with the story Dr Ambedkar’s life struggle to poems resonating from his own lived experiences, Dr Awachar says his work has often faced criticism from trolls and even his ‘upper caste friends on social media’.
“Not just criticism, I have also received abuses and threats for the topics I choose to talk about. My friends think I am spreading negativity by talking about caste discrimination, but they don’t want to believe that oppression of Dalits in India is still a reality.”Dr Sunil Awachar
Dr Awachar recalls, “When I lived in rural Maharashtra, I saw my mother being discriminated against for filling water from the common well, or my father, a police officer, facing trouble finding a home every time he got transferred, simply because of his caste. But then I moved to Mumbai and saw that similar caste discrimination was rampant in urban spaces. In my poem, ‘Untouchable Mumbai’, I wrote about my experiences of facing discrimination in finding accommodation despite being a professor.”
His poem, ‘Untouchable Mumbai’, translated from his original Hindi poem reads:
Babasaheb said: the village is the rotten den of casteism.
Without caring much for life
To appease my historical hunger
I enter this grotesque city.
I embrace the footpaths adjoined to highways,
Some of us have got jobs
In the blood-sucking factories,
Some of us are made to sweep and clean
The gutters of municipality at the cost of our lives
Being here is like suffering with the agonies of hell
Or being an orphan lost in the dreadful city.
Some people say Mumbai is the door of heaven
Others say it is the city of dream;
But when we ask for our share after toiling hard
We get kicked on our arse.
Today sixty years have passed since independence;
The new age of digitalization is being celebrated.
Our pockets are filled with enough money and
It seems as if we are accommodated in the mainstream;
But when we want to buy a flat in the high tower in Mumbai
They suspiciously ask us: Who are you?
If we tell them our real identity
They make their faces and say: No.
l am standing beneath the shower
Rubbing the soap all over my body
But the stain of untouchability
That stuck inside my skin as if a membrane,
Seems impossible to wash out.
Mumbai must have offered prosperity to them
But to us, it does not allow a living
without first burning in the hell of caste
Breaking the Stereotype Through Colours and Minimalism
Minimalist yet powerfully conveying the message, Rahee Punyashloka (@artedkar) uses Ambedkar’s blue-white colours to talk about different Dalit issues. He says, “I draw inspiration from movements like Dalit Panthers or artists like Savi Savarkar who have not yet been accumulated into a conventional genealogy of art history.”
His caricature of Rohith Vemula, a Hyderabad University student, who died by suicide blaming institutional oppression, wearing a space suit has 25,000 likes on Instagram and has been shared widely. “The idea came from what Rohith had written in his suicide letter.”
A part of Rohith Vemula’s suicide note read:
“I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.”
Talking about one of his illustration series, “What does a Dalit look like?”, he says, “I wanted to challenge the idea that a Dalit subject is always supposed to look oppressed and suffering. It was a deliberate antithesis to how the mainstream media portrays Dalits. So, I illustrated a Dalit woman who is extremely stylish and supremely assertive.”
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