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.