Can Art Dismantle a Centuries-Old System? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can Art Dismantle a Centuries-Old System?

Can Art Dismantle a Centuries-Old System?

By Sanjena Sathian

SourceCourtesy of Thenmozhi Soundararajan


Because you might be surprised to know this apartheid is still alive and kicking.

By Sanjena Sathian

They found the aunt naked and dead. The men had deposited her salwar kameez top in a river, where it floated, docile, downstream. Just before, they’d raped and killed the mother too. And before that, a gang of neighbors and classmates had attacked the teenager on her way to school. She was 15. It was just because they were women; they were there. Assault seemed to run in the family’s bloodline.

So go the stories of too many women in India, as anyone who has followed the news of late knows well. But less discussed than the epidemic of rape is an underlying story — that of India’s lowest castes. This is the stump speech of activist-artist Thenmozhi (“Thayn-MO-ri”) Soundararajan, who listens to thousands of horrific stories like that one for a living. “Caste,” she says, “is enforced through our bodies.” The multimedia artist takes photos, writes, produces and directs documentaries, curates public art exhibits and organizes guerrilla protests (to name a few pursuits) … as a kind of performance art. All centered around experiences of low-caste Indian women. 

The current project of Bay Area-based Soundararajan, who was born into a low-caste family herself: populating the world with such artwork in April, which she has deemed Dalit (an empowering name for traditionally “untouchable” low castes) History Month. She’s one of the few well-known Dalit artists working today, says Maria Brink Schleimann of the International Dalit Solidarity Network. Soundararajan, aka Dalit Diva, has spoken in front of crowds of thousands and has had her work shown in eight countries and 52 cities. Other accolades include a fellowship at the MIT Center for New Media Studies and art supported by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

While growing up in California and during college, dinner hosts switched plates on her, not allowing her to use the real place settings.

Her work is aggressively political, and she is no passive observer — turning out black-and-white photographs of focused women standing in protest by the statue of B. R. Ambedkar (one of the key architects of the Indian constitution and a Dalit man) and of straight-faced people of all races holding protest signs, which look more like an NGO plug than pure art. Much of the media she produces will go directly to feed human rights campaigns; one of many priorities is to get the U.N. to explicitly recognize caste as a root cause of sexual violence.

The Hindu caste system — contrary to much popular rhetoric — persists. Its origins date from early Hindu texts, depending on how you read them, for centuries perpetuating a bottom rung of subaltern citizens. Dalits are dark-skinned in a country where light skin means beauty; they’ve long held the worst jobs; they live in poor villages; higher castes frequently attack them, violently. Human rights groups estimate that each week, 21 Dalit women are raped, five Dalit homes are burned and 13 Dalits are murdered.

Sporting big glasses, with dark, glamorous features, Soundararajan speaks fluidly, more like an academic than an artsy-fart. Understandably: She studied some amalgam of women’s and cultural studies at Berkeley before training in film and other media at the University of Southern California. “We’re taught as desis that there’s no caste anymore, that it doesn’t exist,” she says. But even she noticed her caste while growing up in Southern California and during college, attending dinners where she says the hosts switched plates or cups on her, not allowing her to use the real place settings. Today she knows such encounters are not uncommon, telling me of a Dalit doctor now at Massachusetts General Hospital whose Indian chemistry professor forbade him from touching the petri dish during experiments for fear of pollution. 

That’s pennies compared with what Soundararajan’s parents faced growing up in rural India. Her father, born to a train operator who made 100 rupees a month (about $2) to support five children, saw his village terrorized by violent upper castes. He’s now a doctor. Her mother was the first woman in her family to get a college education. Her grandmother’s village was frequently attacked by men with knives, hungry to kill and burn. 

It would seem Soundararajan is a bit of a unicorn, not just in the present but also in the long river of history. Dalits don’t have much of a recorded history of artwork, says Gary Tartakov, a professor emeritus of Dalit art history at Iowa State University. Yet he speculates Dalits may have produced art invisibly for centuries; high-caste Brahmins are not supposed to work with their hands, so much early sculpture could be Dalit-made. But, Tartakov adds, many Dalit artists to this day don’t want to proclaim their identities as such: It’s “not really a good way to make a living.”    

It’s also not a great way to stay safe. Soundararajan won’t tell me her age or reveal much about where the public performances will take place; she gets death threats; she’s afraid some of the Dalit women she wants to bring to the U.S. will be denied visas. This is unsurprising, says Dalit Solidarity Network’s Schleimann. Tartakov says Dalit artists’ shows in cosmopolitan Mumbai have been shut down thanks to violent riots.

Will all of that ever change? The Dalit Diva’s slogan — “We are all untouchable until no one is” — sets a lofty goal, one that art alone may not accomplish. There’s much to undo. Affirmative action policies offering Dalits small recompense for, well, history, remain controversial in India. What protections do exist, Schleimann and Soundararajan say, are poorly enforced. And though Dalit women are reporting rapes, only 2 percent of reports result in convictions, compared with 25 percent in the general Indian population. One imagines this art remaining all too easily locked in the trappings of the intellectual elite.

But Soundararajan is something of a utopian. She’d have to be. “I believe much of the work happens in the imaginary,” she reflects. Fittingly, she recalls one of her first projects. It was lighter fare: a science fiction Bollywood movie. 

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