Capturing a community’s quest for dignityDalit: A Quest for Dignity touches upon three important axes—gender, law and literacy—that require immediate attention if the practice of hereditary discriminations is to be unravelled
Patan Museum is currently hosting a very significant exhibition—Dalit: A Quest for Dignity—organised by Nepal Picture Library, a digital photo archive run by photo.circle. About 80 images (including a few composites) taken over a span of 66 years help unpack the Dalit experience in Nepal. Starting with images of pioneer activists T R Bishwakarma and Sadarsha Nath Kapali from 1950, the exhibition moves through more than six decades of photographic documentation of Dalit identity.
The exhibit is remarkable for many reasons. Firstly, for the rare photographs of course, as they allow us glimpses of a Nepali way of life from as early as the 1960’s. Also, because they make the viewers question the intrinsic value and validity of such a way of life. For what we witness unfolding across the pristine walls of the renovated Malla palace is a quiet documentation of social violence: A violence that has systematically been carried out on a large section of the populace (approximately 13% as per 2001 census) through socio-economic exploitation and psychological dehumanisation. It is a violence that has defined our regional culture for centuries, if not millennia.
The exhibition is put together with the objective of creating “a more complex picture of dalit history in modern Nepal by portraying dalits as not just victims of caste hierarchy but also people with agency,” and for supporting “a space from which the exclusion of dalits from public life can be challenged.” Most of the images, unfortunately, are at counterpoint to this objective but through no lack of curatorial effort. Of the 28 contributors, more than 50 percent are non-Nepalis, of plausible Euro-American descent am guessing, from a period when cameras were a rarity. We are indeed lucky to have their contribution, for without those there would hardly be any visual record from the 1960’s or 70’s. However, this has resulted in an almost uniform use of the high-angle while photographing (exceptions include Carl Hosticka’s gaine taken in Gulmi, 1966 and Bob Nichols’s exquisite representation of a band of musicians from Baglung, 1967), for the photographers were obviously looking for objects of interest rather than empowered subjects. This, unfortunately, visually falls in line with the practice of caste-based discrimination that the exhibition hopes to upturn and in a way reinforces the very ideology it is trying to contest. This trend persists through the three subcategories—The Master of Tools, The Sound of the People, and The Tillers of Other’s Land—that show people performing traditionally ordained tasks specific to their castes. Older photographs are full of people flush with the unexpected joy of being asked to pose for the camera. People, who lead lives made inconsequential by social restrictions. The curatorial statement is perceptive in noting the symptom: “there is also something in the way we have defined what history is, what is historically consequential, what is worth documenting, which makes dalit people feel that what they do has no impact on the broad narrative of national history and therefore perhaps not worth recording. Even a keeping of a simple personal diary requires a sense of self-importance; without that sense of dignity documenting is not a meaningful thing.”
Interestingly, the only non-white photographer I noticed from the early years was Swami Paramananda Saraswati, whose portrait of a seated tailor from Bhojpur (1967-69) is compelling for its direct connection to the subject. The passage of time changes things. Later and more recent images see the excitement wearing off, as more and more people are documented in the acts of performing tasks that are often strenuous and demeaning. The novelty of being photographed, especially by a foreigner, is gradually replaced with increasing and complete indifference to the camera and the camera wielder, who are also increasingly Nepali.
The fourth subcategory, Architects of Liberation, showcases pioneer activists and groundbreaking moments in the history of the Dalit community as it mobilised itself 1960’s onwards for ‘inclusion on the basis of secular civil rights’. These are iconic figures and iconic moments from Dalit political history. And expectedly, almost all photographs in this category are either low-angle mid shots and close-ups/portraits that allow their subjects to reverse the power wielded by the photographer or viewer: whether it is activists coming together in Butwal to declare the town free of untouchability as late as 2001, or T R Bishwakarma giving a speech after the somewhat neutralising amendments to the Muluki Ain in 1963.
The exhibition touches upon three important axes—gender, law and literacy—that require immediate attention if the practice of hereditary discriminations is to be unravelled. Bhola Paswan’s photograph of an otherwise nondescript tree in a green patch in Saptari unleashes a range of emotions when we read, “In the Kanchanpur municipality alone, where the image is from, police records show that six out of nine cases of sexual assault from the last six months involved dalit victims. The link between caste stigma and gender violence cannot be ignored. Caste is essentially a regulation of sexual relations, and therefore the ritualised humiliation and abuse of women is entangled with how men and women are socialised into reproducing caste norms.” Near it hangs a digitised news report of how an inter-caste marriage had brought about the murder of the bride’s father. A survey report further highlights the Dalit communitiy’s restricted access to justice mechanisms. Selfies from the mobile of a Mijar youth, who had been murdered for eloping with a high caste girlfriend, leave us shaken. His murder was dressed up as a suicide in collusion with the police. Access to justice gets doubly jeopardised when it comes to women. Tuomo Manninen’s photograph of Chyame women (1995) posing confidently for the camera, or a 1970 photograph of Dalit women gathering for a conference (from Mithai Devi Bishwakarma’s archive, as are most images of the early years of the movement) are exceptions to the norm.
Far more common are images of women performing backbreaking or ‘polluted’ tasks. Janakpur’s Madhumala Mandal’s mithila painting of a midwife at work is one such instance, but instead of seeing through the camera’s all powerful lenses, we experience the situation through a female artist’s subversive act of introducing a taboo image into a traditional art repertoire. A wise curatorial choice we must admit, because a photograph of the same scene would have undoubtedly reinforced the power relations instead of subverting it.
Literacy of course is the one tool that can turn the tables. The correlation between literacy on one hand and economic prosperity or reclaiming of social/political power on the other, is axiomatic. News reports on rare, Dalit SLC toppers, photographs of brilliant leaders like Suvash Darnal alongside rosters from district schools recording the habitual absence of Dalit students draw quite a comprehensive picture of norm and also the rare exceptions. It is no coincidence therefore that the literacy rate of Dalits is 52% in contrast with the near 90% if the higher caste Brahmins in Nepal. The collusion between the educated, elite upper castes and the state stares us in the face if we bother to note that ‘caste-based untouchability is non-existent in communities of the mountain region, where they are mostly untouched by the National legal codes and/or the process of Hinduisation and Sanskritisation’ (‘Caste-based Discrimination in Nepal’, Bhattachan/ Sunar/Bhattachan, 2009).
Perhaps the best part of Dalit: A Quest for Dignity is its accompanying texts. The opening statement, the meticulous captions and the gem of a curatorial note. There are also excerpts from poems by J. Roka and Aahuti. Without the texts, the show would have descended into yet another inane compilation of archived images that lets the viewers gloat at the expense of others’ sufferings and battles. The presence of the texts, however, not only help contextualise the struggles of a people but introduces the very necessary lens of institutional critique through which Nepal Picture Library itself looks at the act of archiving. Without this lens, the power structures would have merely perpetuated a system of discrimination, instead of questioning it. As the curator lucidly explains and needs no footnotes from me: “when we think of archives as a collection of such records, we have to think about why our archives are the way they are, why they hide more than they show. Archives are linked to power—so when it comes to building a history of the marginalised, the silenced, and the oppressed, it is never simply a matter of discovering good sources. Making the subaltern speak in history is necessarily a political project anchored in the present.” The exhibition precedes a book project and Diwas Raja KC further adds, “As we worked on the book as well as the exhibition, these are the thoughts that have occupied us. Nepal Picture Library has set out to democratise the archive. Our expectation is that the exhibition will be taken in the spirit of generating critical
conversations about visual culture, history, and archiving as they pertain to matters of marginality, inclusion, democracy, and justice.” We can only hope that we will be seeing many more of such well-curated and activist, archival projects here again soon, especially with Photo Kathmandu around the corner!
Dalit: A Quest for Dignity continues through October 26.
Dasgupta is an artist/writer based in Kathmandu; she can be reached at email@example.com