Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 19, Dated May 17, 2008
Of Our Ugliness
Dalit artist Savi Sawarkar challenges urban
audiences. His broken bodies force viewers out of their comfort zones,
Sawarkar in front of two paintings
bloating bodies, stretching bodies, crouching bodies, agonising bodies,
labouring bodies, wasting bodies. Taking in the huge exhibition of Savinder
‘Savi’ Sawarkar’s art at Rabindra Bhawan in New Delhi, you are struck
by the repetitive image of pain inflicted on bodies. The pain seems to
originate “from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortunes of being
physical,’’ to borrow John Berger’s description of painter Francis Bacon.
The only difference
is that Sawarkar’s figures do not suffer from their physicality, but from
the fact of their being a Mahar or a Jogta or a Devadasi. The pain, therefore,
is not just physical but it also has a “caste” and a gender, a fact repeatedly
It is not that caste
has never been drawn or painted by an Indian artist before. The curator
of the exhibition, Parul Dave Mukharji points to painters like BC Sanyal
who “painted themes such as the Harijan Girl or Harijan Woman”. But their
work was essentially part of modernist art practice. It was not imbued
with the kind of cultural politics that is represented by a painter like
Savi Sawarkar, born
in 1961 in Maharashtra, is India’s most prominent Dalit painter. Currently
a professor of fine arts at Delhi University, his work is given over to
making caste visible. It questions the broad universality of terms such
as “work”or “labour” in a society that is still largely defined by caste
and patriarchy. He seems most interested in the life experiences of those
who have been treated as untouchable because of their work. One of his
drawings shows a community of untouchables carrying dead animals on their
back. It seems to raise questions about whether this work would form the
experience of labour or not. Similarly, the Devadasi theme is close to
Sawarkar’s heart. A Devadasi performs sex as as religious act. Sex, for
her, becomes a form of public work, not very different from the menial
work of those charged with removing pollutants from streets or homes.
Sawarkar also addresses the community of Jogtas, males from the depressed
castes who are castrated for the purpose of serving the Hindu religion.
These workers, both male and female, who have served the religion thus,
have shaped his own artistic experience.
However, caste is
not made visible in Sawarkar’s work solely through the narratives of Dalits
and their suffering. There is an image of an angry Brahmin looming over
the city of Varanasi, while another Brahmin is shown as being unable to
bear the thought of being treated by a Shudra doctor. Such works make
the Brahminical dominance of the Hindu cultural space appear concrete.
Sawarkar, of course,
seeks to upend this dominance. He believes in the power of personal narratives
and uses them in abundance. The sheer variety of stories on display cast
the artist in the mould of a tireless traveller, capturing cultural practices
in all their colour and detail. That, however, does not reduce his work
to an ethnographic document. What makes it exciting is his ability to
question the finality of bodies, opening up the imagination to fresh possibilities.
S. Santosh, who contributes
an essay to the catalogue, writes, “These paintings counter-pose the mutable
body, the passing of one form into another, reflecting the everincomplete
character of being.” In Sawarkar’s paintings, bodies seem to be melting
or evolving or emerging from nature. Figures with heads and legs and no
bodies indicate that the realities of caste have erased the bodies of
a huge mass of people altogether. This collective experience of an absent,
lost body is another recurring theme.
A repeated use of
red, blue, yellow and black is a striking feature of Sawarkar’s work.
Colour activates the surface of the piece, as if there was a fierce struggle
between the figure and the surface grounding it. To borrow a phrase from
Mikhail Bakhtin, you might even call Sawarkar’s art a “carnival of the
grotesque”. He keeps returning to the fact that what we often recognise
as normal — whether it is the human body or human ways of thinking — must
take into account the grotesquerie that is an everyday experience for
With deft use of colour
and line, Sawarkar saves his figures from being subsumed by the “folk”
category. His colours aren’t just bright; they’re loud. Instead of appearing
playful, they seem severe or anguished. Yet they don’t scream. There overall
atmosphere is one of muteness, which gets heavier and more oppressive
from one work to the next.
This exhibition of
Sawarkar’s paintings, drawing and graphics has been put together with
a definite political purpose. It is aimed at forcing urban gallery visitors
to confront realities they are often unaware of. You might hear someone
exclaiming when he finds himself before one of the Devadasi paintings:
“I thought it was over!” Visitors will see spittoons hanging around the
necks of Shudras, and brooms hanging from their backs that will be used
to clear the path they have just tread. They might even find it difficult
to grasp the true meaning of such work. Quite aptly, the exhibition is
titled “Eyes Re-cast” for it questions the very nature of knowledge.
Sawarkar had asked
his classmate Parul Dave Mukharji (now a professor at the School of Arts
and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University) who is, by her own admission,
an “upper caste woman” to curate this exhibition. As a result, she brings
to the show her own struggle to come to terms with the realities Sawarkar
captures. In relating to the Dalit agony of forced segregation, she was
treading in advance the path that she wished the viewers to walk. Dave’s
curatorial note is a brilliant exposition of a new cultural-political
alliance that may help in the evolution of a language of universal liberty,
rooted in our everyday experiences.
The exhibition spills off the
walls as well. There is Lokesh Jain performing “Akkarmashi” (an autobiographical
text by Sharan Kumar Limbale), Jaya Ayyer narrating the story of bharatanatyam,
entwining it with the stories of the Devadasis, and Diepriye Kuku- Siemons
performing an African dance. The exhibition space turned into an arena
of dialogue between different art forms, each trying to find a language
of freedom. It is a revitalising experience and the viewer returns repeatedly
to this space where Sawarkar’s figures interact with live human bodies.
Life is ugly, you “re-cognise” that. But it is also a struggle and one
is reminded of Andrei Platonov as quoted by John Berger: “Out of our ugliness
will grow the world’s heart”.