Stories from the Subverse

In this spin off of our podcast series, The Subverse, we continue to explore the themes we’ve touched on in The Subverse, and uncover hidden and marginalised stories around nature, science, culture and social justice, but through a more personal storytelling lens. In this series, we aim to create a more immersive audio experience that moves away from the interview format and allows for different and diverse narratives.

We have no schedule for this, so please follow us on social media or subscribe to our newsletter The Ripple for updates.

STORY 4 – FEBRUARY 2024

Movement, Mountains, Metamorphosis and Music

Siddharth Pandey, a writer, artist, and historian, extols the wonders of moving, and allowing oneself to be moved. The simple act of walking becomes radical, with the potential to shirk Nazi commands in Munich, to reclaim fresh air and majestic mountain views from imperial exclusivity in Shimla, to change, create and stir the imagination.

As he moves through the mountains, Siddharth challenges their apparent immobility, not just in the liveliness that they host and nurture, but in their very genesis. Every step he takes literally shaping perceptions and perspectives, the scene constantly adjusting itself, illustrating another gift of movement: the affordance of variety, of diversity, and of perpetual newness. A transformative magic Siddharth explores in his book, Fossil.

Attuned also to non-generative transformation, Siddharth tackles the ostensible contradiction in celebrating the glory of mountains as we hurtle forward into the maw of the Anthropocene. Drawing on the work of Harvard critic Elaine Scarry, he shows how beauty “decentres”, for we are no longer the focus. Our initial focus on the beautiful object is followed by a cultivation of care; an act of movement in a growing field of relations.

Music is an important expression of the innate rhythms and cadences of these landscapes. From the Himachali folk songs that Siddharth’s mother sang to him in his early childhood, to the sense of vastness and longing so typical of the desert panoramas of Rajasthan, or the uplands of Celtic Europe. Earthy tunes that seemed to literally stem out of the landscape they sang of. Mountains far near and far inspired a need to compose. And Siddharth heeded that call, creating tunes that captured journeys through his beloved Himachali landscape and beyond. Some of these tunes are generously intertwined in this story.

This story was produced by Tushar Das. You can find him on Instagram and his work on the Brown Monkey Studio website. We also thank Vaaka Media for their logistical support.

Music in this story:

The piano compositions in this story, A Ride to Annandale and a fragment of Flow, have been composed and performed by Siddharth Pandey.

The Himachali folk song Udi Jaaya has been performed by the folk artist Anita Pandey (on the vocals) and Siddharth Pandey (on the piano).

About Siddharth Pandey

Siddharth Pandey is a writer, cultural historian, visual practitioner and musician hailing from the Shimla Himalayas. Educated in India and the UK, he holds a PhD in Literary and Material Culture Studies from the University of Cambridge. His first book Fossil was published in 2021, and was a finalist for the 2022 Banff Mountain Literature Awards.

You can find Siddharth on Instagram or write to him at spandey_87@yahoo.co.in.

STORY 3 – MAY 2023

Water and Caste: Part Two - Art, Collective Memory, and Anti-Caste history

This episode concludes the Water and Caste series, which has been conceptualised, scripted, and hosted by Dr. Swati Kamble, an anti-caste intersectional feminist researcher activist.

In part two, Swati speaks with four remarkable Ambedkarite anti-caste creators on how Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and the Mahad march inspired and shaped their lives, artistic journeys, and creative repertoires. We are introduced to Madhubani artist Malvika Raj, Padma Shri awardee and photojournalist Sudharak Olwe, artist Rajyashri Goody, and folk artist Shahir Nandesh Umap. All four guests discuss using art for resistance, how to archive and retell forgotten and often erased stories of anti-caste resistance, and how to retain these events in collective memory.

These conversations revolve around three key questions: What are the sources of inspiration for their art? What are their personal histories and stories around the Mahad march and other historical events? What are the processes they employ in their craft?

Malvika Raj, who was born and raised in Bihar, talks about how she was inspired by her father. In her subversive art, she tries to remedy the erasure of Buddhist narratives from the Madhubani art form. She paints stories of anti-caste revolutionaries and describes in detail some of her paintings, including Waiting for a Visa, which is based on Ambedkar’s autobiographical collection of essays. She speaks powerfully of her own journey, her father’s stories that she heard as a child, their experiences with untouchability and caste discrimination, and her hopes to inspire new generations of artists within the anti-caste space who can take up the mantle of exploring Buddhist themes and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s stories.

Swati’s conversation with Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe touches upon a range of topics. In a photo documentary centred around access to water in urban areas, Olwe recorded the contemporary struggles that Dalits face, such as the high prices that must be paid for access to water by communities living in poverty, especially compared to people living in affluent urban high rises. His work encompasses the stories of municipal workers (the majority of whom are from Dalit and manual scavenger communities), the hereditary relations that frame this work, and caste and gender-based divisions of labour. Wielding his camera as a metaphorical weapon, Olwe talks about witnessing the atrocities meted out to Dalits, and ongoing fights for justice in the face of impossible odds.

Rajyashri Goody, whose artwork explores everyday and historic instances of Dalit resistance speaks of hearing the story of the Mahad as a child. She discusses how this space, which symbolises access to water, has become a socio-political pilgrimage for the Dalit community and why people celebrate its anniversary. In What is the Caste of Water, 2017, she created a piece using 108 glass tumblers containing dried and diluted panchagavya (a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee, and curd). This was to evoke the so-called purification of the Chavdar tank after the Mahad march.

In 2022, in Is the water chavdar, she created a body of work bringing together ceramics, printmaking, and paper pulp. These mounds or stupas were a personal homage to the 10,000 people whose stories are unknown, and who journeyed for days to reach Chavdar. She also delves into the complexities of another related project Manu (2017-ongoing), which involves shredding and pulping a copy of the Manusmriti, in remembrance of the public burning of the book on 25 December 1927, six months after the Mahad march.

Finally, we hear from Shahir Nandesh Umap, who performs part of his powada, a well-known genre of war ballads from Maharashtra, and talks about his inspiration for creating a song about the Mahad march. One of the major topics of discussion is the folk artist’s role as a torchbearer, spreading the message of humanity and love.

Shahiri jalsa are folk performances made to raise awareness among masses, and within this tradition, Ambedkari jalsa disseminated Dr. Ambedkar’s legacy through poetry and songs. This has played a major role in creating awareness about the battle for the annihilation of caste. Shahiri, a century-old performative act of singing a story and street theatre, was transformed through giving a voice to oppression in music by Dalit Shahirs. Jalsa was created using folk music in a simple manner using the dialect of the common people.

Babasaheb Ambedkar famously said that one poem of a Shahir is enough to convey the message of ten of his speeches. These poems and songs evoke memories of historical events for the caste oppressed communities. Powadas present these historical events with emotion, conveying the fervour, angst, and rage against caste oppression, and make an appeal for people to revolt against injustice, and reject caste slavery.

This story was produced for us by Vaaka Media. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on their website.

For this episode, we commissioned Shrujana N Shridhar to create another original artwork for us.

About Swati Kamble

Swati Kamble is an anti-caste intersectional feminist researcher-activist. Her research broadly focuses on human rights and social justice movements, decolonisation, and intersectionality. She has a PhD in Socio-economics from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Geneva. Her doctoral research is focused on the political mobilisation of India’s caste-affected and caste-oppressed communities, their movement history, and how this movement has shaped oppressed caste women activists into agents of change. She studied how Dalit women activists influence policy processes by negotiating and navigating andro-centric, upper-caste bureaucratic spaces of power. Additionally, she has studied the Roma women’s movement in Hungary and how the European Decade for Roma Inclusion Plan did not reflect the issues faced by Roma women, which the Roma Civil Society has been advocating for. Currently, she is researching the digital activism of Dalit women, and middle-class Dalit women’s mobility in the Indian neo-liberal market. She is also collaborating with Dalit, indigenous and marginalised groups, and organisations in India on a project around mapping and the archival of indigenous forms of knowledge and decolonisation.

 You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

About Malvika Raj

Malvika Raj is a visual artist from Bihar, based in New Delhi, who has practised Madhubani, Kohbar and Godna (marginalised art) art forms for 14 years. She has used her art to express her experiences with caste-based discrimination in India, and uses these traditional techniques to express themes related to Dalit identity and Buddhism. She works as a freelance artist and has worked on commissioned art projects with numerous reputed organisations including non-profit ones, publishers, writers, researchers, and other professionals. She has conducted exhibitions in Bodh Gaya, Jehangir art Gallery, Mumbai, ICCR (India Council of Cultural Relations) New Delhi, Visual Art Gallery, Habitat Centre, Delhi, Lalit Kala Academy, Delhi amongst others. She was selected as a ‘Future Voice’ on the 75th anniversary of Rajkamal Prakashan in 2022.

 You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

About Sudharak Olwe

Sudharak Olwe is a social documentary photographer based in Mumbai. With a career spanning 27 years, he has worked with different newspapers as well as captured the lives of the marginalised, those without a voice in India. He tells stories that provide rare, personal and unseen perspectives of our fellow Indians. Olwe has shed light on a range of topics from malnutrition, water and sanitation, violence against women, education, and malaria to women’s empowerment, migrant workers, the homeless, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and newborn health. His haunting photo essay In Search of Dignity and Justice about the conservancy workers of Mumbai has been widely acclaimed. It has raised the issue of inhumane working conditions and helped the workers in their silent fight for dignity. Olwe founded the Photography Promotion Trust in 2005 with a view to use photography as a tool for social change. He was honoured by National Geographic with the All Roads Photography Award 2005, selected for the World Press Photo Seminar 2003, and awarded a Media Fellowship by the National Foundation for India in 2000. In 2015, he gave a TED Talk on his conservancy workers’ photo essay and in 2016, Sudharak was conferred the Padma Shri, India’s 4th highest civilian award by the President of India.

 You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

About Rajyashri Goody

Rajyashri Goody (1990) is from Pune, India. Her art practice is informed by her background in visual anthropology as well as her Ambedkarite roots. She attempts to decode and make visible instances of everyday power and resistance within Dalit communities in India using various mediums, including writing, ceramics, and photography.

Goody is currently an artist-in-residence at the Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam.

For details of her work, visit her website or Instagram.

About Nandesh Umap

Nandesh Umap, is the son of the late legendary singer Shri. Lokasahir Vithal Umap and is a singer, performer, and playwright. Starting from his first professional debut with a Marathi play called Ranagaan in 1999, his recent repertoire includes being a music director and singer for a promotional song for the film Dharamveer in 2022. He has launched several albums, acted in theatre productions, and sung a range of folk songs, powadas, and ballads.

You can find him on Twitter or Instagram.

About Shrujana N Shridhar

Shrujana N Shridhar is an illustrator and artist based in Mumbai. She works on children’s books and editorial illustrations. Her work centres anti-caste expression from an Ambedkarite and feminist perspective. She belongs to the Ambedkarite-Buddhist community, and runs the Dalit Panther Archive, which focuses on digitising and translating Little Magazines and literature published by the members of the Dalit Panther movement.

You can find her on Instagram.

STORY 2 – MARCH 2023

Water and Caste: Part One - History of Mahad Satyagraha

Part one of this series has been conceptualised, scripted, and hosted by Swati Kamble, an anti-caste intersectional feminist researcher-activist. Her research broadly focuses on human rights and social justice movements, decolonisation, and intersectionality. In Part one, Swati guides us through the history of Mahad Satyagraha, the march for equality, dignity, and access to water, led by anti-caste leader and statesman, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on 20th March 1927.This history is mired in the history of untouchability and caste apartheid as the foundational characteristics of the caste system. Strict endogamy and prohibition of social interaction sustained various historical practices and some that continue well into the 21st century such as prohibiting the former ‘untouchables’ (caste oppressed) from drawing water from a public water source. There is also a strong history of resistance and many milestones, including from 1869, when revolutionaries Jyotirao and Savitri Phule opened their private wells for ‘untouchable’ communities. What precipitated the march to the Chavdar tank in Mahad in 1927 was the following. On August 4, 1923, the Bombay Legislative Council adopted a resolution by S.K Bole, which recommended that ‘untouchables’ be given access to all public water bodies. The Mahad Municipality, which was then part of the erstwhile Bombay presidency reaffirmed this in 1924 but this law was not implemented due to upper class protest.

Swati then provides the backdrop in which water and caste overlap and entwine, through forms of social control, flouting of legal norms and continuing caste atrocities. She introduces us to her grandfather, who followed a caste occupation, one of the many inhumane traditions that caste oppressed communities were tied to, called potraj. He joined the Mahad march and that changed his life forever, and by extension hers, setting her on course for the work she does for social justice.

Two conversations underpin this story, one with advocate Disha Wadekar who provides legal and historical perspectives on how the Mahad Satyagraha influenced the anti-caste movement and played a pivotal role in the making of the Indian Constitution. Disha expertly leads us through the denial of water, access to public spaces, resources or the commons, and how the framing of Articles 15 and 17 of the Constitution was grounded in the people’s struggle to have equal access to water.

She also takes us through the events preceding the Mahad Satyagraha and the anti-caste march to implement already codified laws, then speaks eloquently on the Southborough Franchise Committee (1918-1919), Government of India Acts and the Second Round Table conference (1931) to discuss constitutional reforms and how the rights to equal citizenship were core concerns. Disha emphasises that civilizational struggles around water are about power relations, and that citizenship is not an abstract idea, but is crucial to reclaiming human dignity for those deemed untouchable and posited as lower classes.

The second conversation is with Hira Kanoje, or Grandma Hira as Swati calls her. Swati grew up listening to Hira’s fierce speeches delivered on the birth anniversaries of anti-caste revolutionaries at the labourers’ colony in Mumbai where they both lived, as neighbours. In this moving conversation, Hira ajji narrates her experiences as a young child who experienced untouchability but defiantly fought against it. Whether it was by drinking water from a forbidden pot at school or sneakily entering a village temple, she and her cousins were silent revolutionaries, whose stories remain undocumented.  By including her narrative, we seek to honour her, and the unsung feminists and anti-caste activists like her.

See Swati’s, Disha’s and Hira ajji’s bios below.

This story was produced for us by Vaaka Media. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on their website.

For this story, we commissioned Shrujana N Shridhar to create original artwork for us (see bio below).

In accompaniment to this audio story, on 4th and 12th March 2023, Vyaktitva Learning Labs, a media literacy initiative, conducted a two- part session for children on Water for All in Navi Mumbai, India which features artworks by the children.

About Swati Kamble

Swati Kamble is an anti-caste intersectional feminist researcher-activist. Her research broadly focuses on human rights and social justice movements, decolonisation, and intersectionality. She has a PhD in Socio-economics from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Geneva. Her doctoral research is focused on the political mobilisation of India’s caste-affected and caste-oppressed communities, their movement history, and how this movement has shaped oppressed caste women activists into agents of change. She studied how Dalit women activists influence policy processes by negotiating and navigating andro-centric, upper-caste bureaucratic spaces of power. Additionally, she has studied the Roma women’s movement in Hungary and how the European Decade for Roma Inclusion Plan did not reflect the issues faced by Roma women, which the Roma Civil Society has been advocating for. Currently, she is researching the digital activism of Dalit women, and middle-class Dalit women’s mobility in the Indian neo-liberal market. She is also collaborating with Dalit, indigenous and marginalised groups, and organisations in India on a project around mapping and the archival of indigenous forms of knowledge and decolonisation.

 You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

About Disha Wadekar

Disha Wadekar is an independent advocate practising before the Supreme Court and various High Courts in India. Her practice focuses on representing marginalised communities on issues relating to constitutional law and anti-discrimination law. She has worked on many constitutional bench matters, notable amongst which are the Sabarimala temple entry case and the Economic Weaker Section (EWS) reservation case. In 2022, she was appointed as the Assistant Special Public Prosecutor by the Government of Rajasthan on a sexual violence case.

Ms. Wadekar has taught courses on law and marginalisation at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, and National Law University, Delhi, and has delivered lectures at various institutions. In 2021, she co-founded CEDE – an organisation working towards a more diverse and inclusive Indian legal profession and judiciary. Her work has been published by reputed journals and online portals.

 You can find her on Twitter.

About Hira Kanoje

Hira Kanoje (Hira ajji) is a local anti-caste activist, from the Karjat district near Mumbai. Hira is a very politically and socially active woman, whose family were staunch followers of Ambedkar. She married a mill worker, the son of her paternal aunt at the age of 11 and moved to Mumbai in the early 1950s. As a young child growing up in a labourer’s chawl, which was mainly populated by Dalits and Bahujans, Ambedkar’s birth anniversary was usually celebrated with Hira ajji conducting Buddha Vandana, followed by a fierce speech. She is a constant in the chawl when it comes to spreading Ambedkar’s inspiring words. She is vocal about encouraging younger generations to follow the path of education and mobilisation for their rights, and pleads for social change.

About Shrujana N Shridhar

Shrujana N Shridhar is an illustrator and artist based in Mumbai. She works on children’s books and editorial illustrations. Her work centres anti-caste expression from an Ambedkarite and feminist perspective. She belongs to the Ambedkarite-Buddhist community, and runs the Dalit Panther Archive, which focuses on digitising and translating Little Magazines and literature published by the members of the Dalit Panther movement.

You can find her on Instagram.

STORY 1

Wild Learning: Yuvan Aves on nature as a classroom

In this story we listen to Yuvan Aves—naturalist, educator, and writer—who is certain to transport you, at least briefly, to Chennai’s beaches. Painting a vivid portrait of what a meaningful education should be, Aves is convincing in his point of view of why it’s crucial for a child’s learning to be rooted in real-world engagement and lived experiences.

Having been a nature educator for a decade now, Yuvan speaks eloquently about the need to design learning in such a way that it allows children to connect to their natural environment, and make their own discoveries. He reminds us of how important it is for schools to tap into children’s innate sense of curiosity, and keen sense of observation, which the dominant classroom in India has unfortunately failed to do. Acknowledging his own past traumas, Aves makes a strong case for nature’s ability to heal, and instill in us a deeper sense of empathy.

At the heart of education should be ecological and human values, states Aves, who was awarded the Green Teacher Award (2021) by Sanctuary Nature Foundation. Join him on his shore walk to get a taste of his school of thinking, and listen to children’s gleeful reactions as they spot creatures in their outdoor classroom.

The story was produced for us by Anupama Chandrasekharan. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Further links :

About Yuvan Aves

Yuvan Aves is a writer, naturalist, educator and activist based in Chennai. His interests include reimagining Earth-centric and child-centric education in schools, the reciprocity between languages and ecologies, and ground-up processes of change and politics. He writes on topics at the intersection of ecology, education, human and more-than-human consciousness. He is the author of two books, recipient of the M. Krishnan Memorial Nature Writing Award and the Sanctuary Asia Green Teacher Award. He is currently travelling and documenting stories of biodiversity, people and change along the Indian coastline.

Find Yuvan on Twitter and Instagram.