Unsettling art: caste, gender, and dalit expression

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Critical issues of domination, discrimination and gender find powerful articulation in the expressionist imagination of dalit artist, Savindra Sawakar. His work traces the dense contradictions and acute sensuousness of social worlds, past and present.

Saurabh Dube
1 August 2013

Savindra Sawakar, Devadasi I, credit: Saurabh Dube

The aesthetics and the politics of his art make Savindra “Savi” Sawakar quite possibly the most challenging dalit artist today. His representations track the interplay between meaning and power within hierarchical regimes of religion, caste, gender, and politics, while drawing upon distinctive artistic and ideological influences. Critical explorations of Savi’s representations cannot shy away from the contexts they evoke, pointing rather toward a historical anthropology of a distinctive art and, what we might call, a critical ethnography of a dalit imagination.

This essay explores three overlapping themes: first, the creation of a set of unsettling aesthetic/political agendas in the realm of a critical and contemporary dalit art; second, the elaboration of such agendas through representations that entwine Ambedkarite ideology, existential attributes of being dalit, and diverse representational resources, including varieties of expressionism; and finally, the challenges posed to established procedures of art criticism by these distinct modalities of dalit artistic production.

The radical iconography of a Dalit imagination

Savindra Sawakar was born in 1961 into a family of the Mahar caste in Nagpur, central India. As part of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s wider initiative, in 1956 his family converted to Buddhism. Savi first studied art at the University of Nagpur. Here, the constraining premises of an institution that continued to cherish the ideals of Victorian art and colonial aesthetics meant that it was in the ceaseless sketching of peoples and places, subjects and objects that Savi honed his own artistic abilities. These capacities were later developed through Savi’s other formal and informal studies and apprenticeships in a range of institutions and places.

I first met Savi in the late autumn of 1999. It was an entirely unexpected encounter, at a party celebrating deepawali (festival of lights) held in the bright premises of the Indian Embassy in Mexico City. As well-dressed women and smartly-spruced men came and went, speaking of friends and family, a dark man in casual clothes walked up to the quiet corner where I was fleeing from the fiesta. He introduced himself as Savi, an artist, who had recently arrived with three other sculptors and painters from India, on an exchange programme between the Mexican and Indian governments.

As Savi and I talked, our mutual interests in cultural politics and the political cultures of caste and untouchability became palpable. In what seemed as little more than moments, the traces of Savi’s diffidence disappeared, and I no longer wanted to run away from the party. Indeed, he soon reached into his satchel and produced a striking catalogue from a recent exhibition of his work. Even a casual glance through the catalogue was enough to establish that Savi himself was dalit, and that his work embodied a profound challenge to established procedures of art – in India and beyond.

Savi’s paintings, graphics, and drawings combine different influences. These extend from the immediacy of varieties of expressionist art, ranging across its early twentieth century developments in Germany and its 1960s manifestations in North America and Europe, to the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s critical drawings of the 1920s and 1930s, which constitute a landmark in creative expression. The important “narrative movement” of the 1970s and the 1980s that revisited questions of tradition and modernism in Indian art, and the subsequent radical reworking of these tendencies, particularly by the “Kerala Group”, working out of Baroda, also have an important place, as does the delicate brushwork of Zen masters, combined with Savi’s openings toward Buddhist aesthetics.

Yet, far from being derivative, Savi’s art conjoins acute apprehensions of the past and the present of an unjust, murky world with a vibrant use of colour, conjuring figures of intense force. The result, as the well-known Indian art critic Geeta Kapur put it to me, is a veritable “iconography” of a radical art and a dalit imagination.

Central to this iconography and imagination are very particular representations, both of history and the here-and-now. The sources are overlapping and distinct: moving recitals of untouchable pasts by Savi’s unlettered paternal grandmother, whom he describes as his “first teacher”; liturgical lists drawn up within the political movement led by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar concerning the disempowerment faced by untouchables; and Savi’s own experiences as an artist, an activist, and a dalit in distinct locales, from statist spaces in New Delhi to remote places of gender and caste oppression in village India. In each case Savi seizes upon these discursive and experiential resources, sieving them through the force of an expressionist art.

History and the here-and-now

Untouchable Couple

Savindra Sawakar, Untouchable Couple with Om and Swastika, Credit: Saurabh Dube

Let me begin by focusing on two works by Savi, as a means to unravel the distinctive configurations of his art. Consider the oil on canvas, Untouchable Couple with Om and Swastika. The background deploys a bright yellow color — applied with quick, thick, swirling brushstrokes — as cracks and smudges of black show through. Against this background stand two squat, foreboding figures. Two dark-dots for pupils, their eyes are a screaming red. The untouchable figures carry a clay pot each, one painted with the sacred Hindu sign of Om and the other bearing the symbol of the (caste-Hindu) Swastika.

This references tales of how, under the rule of Brahman kings, untouchables were made to carry clay pots to spit into so that their saliva did not fall on the ground and then accidentally pollute an upper-caste person. The figure in front also holds in his right hand a stick with bells, which was designed to announce the approach of untouchable folk so that caste-Hindus could move away from their impending shadows. Taken together, in the composition the untouchable figures are at once densely palpable and forcefully spectral, haunting the past and the present. The very silence of the untouchable couple bursts forth into a scream, echoing with the sound of the bells on the stick, enunciating powerfully, “We were there, then. We are here, now.”

Diversely depicted figures of untouchables, Buddhist bhikshus (ascetics), and lower-caste devadasis (women given into ritual prostitution by being symbolically married off to a Hindu god), of Brahmans, religious chauvinists, and political zealots combined with the insignia of domination and subordination in religious and secular hierarchies constitute focal forms in Savi’s pictorial narratives.

Two Untouchables

Savindra Sawakar, Two Untouchables under the Black Sun, credit: Saurabh Dube

Such iconic forms converge in Savi’s remarkable canvas, Two Untouchables under the Black Sun. On a background painted in gold, the two untouchable figures are rendered as spectral silhouettes. One untouchable stands, a clay pot painted with a Swastika hanging from his neck in front of him, holding a stick with bells in his right hand. The other sits on the ground, a clay pot painted with Om around his neck. On his head he bears three signs, the Hindu flag, the Muslim crescent, and the Christian Cross. Between these figures, occupying most of the upper-centre of the canvas, a large sun hangs heavy, its inside a mish-mash of black on gold. Two stylized crows, scavenging birds, signs of untouchability, seem to speak to the two untouchables.

The allusion here is to the upper-caste sanctioned practice of the dalit caste of Mangs going out to beg in villages during suryagrahan (solar eclipse). Yet, the implications of the representation extend much further. Here are salient spectres of untouchability. From crows that bear witness, to the distinct insignia of the lowest ritual status within the caste order, to the immense undecidability of what constitutes the religion of dalits in front of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian faiths all making claims on their souls.  These spectres proclaim that the sun is not black during an eclipse alone; rather, the sun is always eclipsed, giving the lie to the phantasms of progress that haunt modern regimes of culture and identity, of state and nation – not only in India, but also beyond.

It should be clear that the reach of Savi’s work far exceeds a simple documentation of the past and the present, reaching beyond mere images of social oppression. Rather, in tune with Walter Benjamin’s advocacy that to “articulate the past [and the present]… is to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”[i], Savi conjoins the experiential realism of subterranean imaginings with the revealing terms of a forceful expressionism. Thereby, history and the here-and-now become the means for and the expression of a dalit imaginary, a critical mode of artistic production.

The subordinate, the dominant, and their entanglements

Untouchable Cow I

Savindra Sawakar, Untouchable with Dead Cow I, Credit: Saurabh Dube

The “inaugural dimension” of this imagination rests upon and powerfully articulates critical conjunctions[ii] between caste and gender and the lie of progress and the ethic of hope. Consider four works taken together. The canvas and the etching that both depict an untouchable carrying the carcass of a dead cow and holding a lantern, Untouchable with Dead Cow, I and II. Thirdly, the powerful representation of an untouchable bearing a bright lantern, Untouchable with the Lalten [lantern].  And, finally, the picture that frames a naked man on the left, a lantern in hand, and an androgynous figure on the right who touches the former on his throat, Untouchable Woman with Brahmin.

Untouchable Cow II

Savindra Sawakar, Untouchable with Dead Cow II, Credit: Saurabh Dube

In the first two works – Untouchable with Dead Cow, I and II – the untouchable carrying the dead cow slung on his shoulders reveals the enormous weight of institutionalized Hinduism. It is the exact association of untouchables with the carcasses of dead cattle, particularly the death pollution transmitted by the holy cow, which is said to define their lowly status in the caste order. Yet, the very untouchable figure that bears the burden of the past and caste embodied by the dead animal also carries a lantern, a sign of illumination. Rather than collapse under this burden, the untouchable walks on, his path strewn with light.

Untouchable Lalten

Savindra Sawakar, Untouchable with the Lalten, Credit: Saurabh Dube

This significance of the lantern further comes alive in Untouchable with the Lalten. Here the brightly burning flames of the lantern in the left hand of the untouchable protagonist further cast their acute reflection on the body of this figure. His torso is transformed thereby into a wispy, smoky, reddish silhouette. The head of this untouchable figure is bent but his piercing left eye is far from downcast. His profile reveals dark determination, the front of his face resolutely reflecting the light of possibility exceeding the shadow of history.

Untouchable Woman

Savindra Sawakar, Untouchable Woman with Brahmin, Credit: Saurabh Dube

Yet this is not all. For in addition to the figure(s) of the untouchable as simultaneously bearing the burden of the past and holding hope in the present, Savi’s work conjoins different forms of subordination, further expressing the dominant and the subaltern as mutually entailed, the one in the other. In the oil on canvas, Untouchable Woman with Brahmin, to the right stands an androgynous figure, its body presented in shades of blue, a colour that Savi often uses as a signifier of untouchable status. Not only is this figure an untouchable woman, she also embodies the attributes of a devadasi, a woman ritually prostituted under the terms of the dominant religion. 

Here the subordination of gender is articulated conjointly with the discrimination of caste, a critical characteristic of Savi’s work that variously construes interlocking representations of the degradation of women and the degradation of untouchables. To the left of this devadasi stands a naked man. This body is painted in a different, much lighter color. Both the complexion of the body and the exposed penis – the former indicative of the hierarchies of colour, and the latter of the sexually predatory nature of the Brahman within the caste order – establish that the figure is upper-caste, a Brahman.

At the same time, in this painting the limits of the dark untouchable woman and the fair Brahman man are not radically marked off from one another. Whilst the figure of the Brahman embodies domination within the intermeshed hierarchies of caste and gender, his firmly presented left arm holds a lantern, its flame burnt out, dark and dead. The right hand of the devadasi rises resolutely, an interrogating index finger touching, probing the Brahman in the middle of his throat – a move that challenges the upper-caste monopoly over religious authority and transgresses the rules of untouchability within the caste order. Yet, this woman is not merely a figure of accusation: the middle of her own body carries the dark reflection – now illuminated – from the lamp held by the Brahman. Through their very enmeshments these figures bring each other to their shared crises.

Foundation of India

Savindra Sawakar, Foundation of India, Credit: Saurabh Dube

Such acute sensibility turned towards critique – in the terrain of culture and caste, art and religion, aesthetics and politics – runs through Savi’s work. As a result, his art firmly draws upon but also far exceeds the techniques and terms of a radical realism, including poster-art. In the oil on canvas, Foundation of India, the five-fold hierarchical Varna division from the Brahman at the top to the untouchable at the bottom itself becomes a means of representing democracy, politics, and the nation in India. The corporeal divisions of caste now stand in for distinctions of the body politic. Here, political democracy and the Indian nation are depicted through four blocks, arranged one upon the other, representing respectively from the top down, the Brahman (the head), the Kshatriya (the arms), the Vaishya (the stomach), and a more ambiguous fourth category (the thighs and legs), all supported by the lowly feet, which also carry ambiguity.

The cube containing the Brahman bears an angry, unforgiving face staring outward from the canvas. This is the face of Manu, the ancient law-giver who is said to have instituted the regulations of caste. The eyes surrounding this visage indicate the omniscient gaze of dominant Hinduism, a conduit for the power of the ruthless Brahman, Manu. In the next block, even as the upturned arms of the Kshatriya warrior extend outward to the left and the right, a dagger representing the martial status of the group comes to lie at the heart of the corpus of caste and the body of politics in contemporary India. The third cube representing the Vaishya merchant features a corpulent belly, revealing its relentless appropriation of social surplus.

On the one hand, the fourth and the fifth categories in the Varna ranking – the Shudra servants and the Antyaj menials, respectively – are presented together, forming one block, which is defined by two pre-eminent signs of Buddhism, the Stupa and the Chakra. This points toward the possibility of political and religious solidarity among the hierarchically divided lower-castes, challenging Hindu hegemony. On the other hand, the feet that bear the burden of these four blocks are those of women, indicated by the dancing bells around the ankles. It is the anonymous, gendered feet at the bottom that hold up the edifice of the nation and religion. Pushed down by all, even by lower-caste solidarities, yet they walk on.

There is more to the picture. Beside this modular, corporeal structure of caste and politics in India, the canvas features a large wagon, a cart that carries the force of Buddhism. Is this wagon about to drive the entire edifice of religion and power in India in its own direction? Or is this separate, squarish cube about to crash into the modular blocks, bringing down the edifice of democracy, the artifice of the nation? These are not merely rhetorical questions. Rather, they point urgently toward the acute tensions posed and unravelled by Savi’s art.

A decentred portrayal of power and difference

I hope it is clear that Savi’s art does much more than simply interrogate formations of caste and religion in India. Indeed, the critical import of his work derives from its twin dispositions toward terms of power and determinations of difference. To be sure, the force of this art rests on the opposition between religious (and statist) power and the untouchable (and gendered) subaltern. At the same time, precisely this opposition makes possible de-centered portrayals of power and difference. For rather than occupying a singular locus or constituting an exclusive terrain, power appears here as decisively plural, forged within authoritative grids – of caste and gender, nation and state, and modernity and history – that interlock and yet remain out-of-joint, the one extending and exceeding the other.

This is to say that Savi’s art traces the expressions and modalities of power as coordinated portraits yet fractured profiles, effects and affects bearing the burden of the spectral subaltern and palpable difference. It follows that these representations do not announce the romance of resistant identities and the seductions of the autonomous subject, split apart from power. Rather, figures of critical difference and subaltern community appear here as inhabiting the interstices of power, intimating its terms and insinuating its limits – already inherent, always emergent – as the spanner of discrepancy inside the work of domination. Thus, the wider implications that I derive from this art entail imperatives of theory and the politics of knowledge, better expressed as two sets of indicative questions.

We have to ask ourselves: What is the place of the particular, of “details” – a notion of the historian Michel de Certeau, acutely embodied in the work of Savi Sawarkar – in untangling the determinations of power and difference?[iii] What is at stake in critically exploring institutional (and diffuse) power and dominant knowledge without turning these into a dystopic totality, a homogeneous terrain? Are attempts to pluralize power – for example, the force of caste and Hinduism, the stipulations of globalization and modernity – mere exercises in the empirical and conceptual refinement of these categories? Or do they also imply an “ontological turn”, not only pointing to the problem of “what entities are presupposed” by theories and world-views, but also carefully questioning “those ‘entities’ presupposed by our typical ways of seeing and doing in the modern world”?[iv]

At the same time, in critical understandings, must tradition, community, the local, and the subaltern necessarily appear as a priori antidotes to authority? How are we to articulate the dense sensuousness and the acute mix-ups of social life? Can this be done not only to query cut-and-dried categories and modular schemes of ordering the world, but also to think through axiomatic projections of resistant difference that abound in the here-and-now, characterizing scholarly apprehensions as well as commonplace conceptions?[v]


[i] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the philosophy of history”, in Benjamin, Illuminations, trad. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p.253.

[ii] For a powerful perspective on the terms of an inaugural dimension in literature (and art) see Milind Wakankar, “The moment of criticism in nationalist thought: Ramchandra Shukla and the politics of ‘Indian’ responsibility”, in Saurabh Dube (ed.) Enduring Enchantments, a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, 101, 4, 2002, published by Duke University Press.

[iii] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University, 1984), ix.

[iv] Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 3-4. Consider, too, the move toward a “strategic practice of criticism” in David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-10, 17-18.

[v] I elaborate issues arising from these sets of questions in Saurabh Dube, “Introduction: Enchantments of Modernity”, in Dube (ed.) Enduring Enchantments; and Saurabh Dube, Stitches on Time: Colonial Textures and Postcolonial Tangles (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004).


This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Gendered Ceremony and Ritual in Parliament research programme at the University of Warwick and the Leverhulme Trust.




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