(Article first published under the same title in www.cartanart.com on 16th June 2014; edited by Johny M.L and Sushma Sabnis)
Discourse on caste politics in Indian visual culture is a taboo, a sacrilege while it might not be actually so in practice. The reason for this, perhaps, is the lack of clarity about what casteism itself is, in relation to visual representational politics. From this perspective, the lack of a genuine dialogue around casteism’s relation to visual culture resembles and recalls feminism in certain ways, often evoking irony-turned-humour among those who would elaborate the humiliation they would have been subject to, due to their affinity with these two respective factors, only when cajoled to talk in a different voice. For instance, isn’t it true that not claiming one’s self as a feminist artist has become a pronounced claim, but actually only from within the framework of feminism, by and large, that too only by women artists? Is there casteism in visual practices? And are you a feminist?—are two questions which receive answers based on the tone of the query rather than the essence of its content. The answer is no! And the sympathetic emotions, particularly for those from within, are a big yes!
Historically there is an open acknowledgement about a tradition of artists from a particular caste and gender, but they are from a social section which contemporary times have categorised as folksy/traditional and the like. Santosh had written an art historical essay about casteism in miniature paintings and Chandan Kashyap had prepared his dissertation about casteism in the history of Karnataka illustrations and Y.S.Alone wrote monographs about a specific artist. Consider the case of K.Venkatappa gallery: there are three artists museumized: K.Venkatappa, K.K.Hebbar and an unknown sculptor called Rajaram. The first two belonged to the higher class/caste of Hinduism. Is there caste politics in their work? It is a question not yet asked, refused and endorsed. In this sense addressing casteism is similar to glaucoma: indirect methods need to be applied to arrive at a conclusive theoretic formulation, though cannot factually prove its ambience.
The reason as to why only two artists and both from higher castes are chosen to represent a century of Karnataka art, at the cost of other stalwarts like R.M.Hadapad of Ken School of Arts fame, R.S.Naidu the leftist-artist, Rumale Chennabasappa, the congressman who began his career as an artist in his fifties, among others — together are the result of such glaucoma-test! It is not a matter of either/or, but the problem lies in the numbers, in decentralising. How about fifty artist’s representational works (including Hebbar and Venkatappa) adorning the museum, in the name of social-justice? Here is a remote, yet abstract possibility of a positivist casteist politics appropriating numerology; and achieving its goal through democratisation and decentralisation. It is not that casteism is ignored, but converted into an integral part of certain cultural amnesia, like Indian languages are similarly subject to, as far as Indian art history is concerned. Casteism is defied, with an offer of an alternative mode of operating the/within visual discourses.
Hence casteism is a free-floating agent which is yet to draw the attention of Indian art historical discourse in a believable way; and the reason for this might be due to its (art discourse’s) outward look rather than insidious, for it has shifted over from the nationalist discourse to pan-continental ones; wherein race and class over caste and cultural discourse over art history has taken over, arguably, for the time being.
Hence casteist visual politics often even demands descriptive narratives unfamiliar to the history of dispassionate writing consumed as the tool for Indian art historical addressal. In a Kannada daily for which I used to write art reviews for years in 1990s (‘Kannada Prabha’ of Indian Express group), the editor Y.N.K, who construed the Navya literary movement in Kannada, always used to ask me the elaboration of initials in my name. I thought that he was trying to find out my caste based on my name, which he could not unfortunately, since I was named after an actor and a superstar of two different languages (Bengali and Kannada). I was not worried about his attempt, since prominent Kannada writers are identified by their positivist caste-based experiences, but my worry was about why I became sceptical about what I suspected to be someone’s attempt to be politically right, caste-wise! Circumstances leading to such contemplations exemplify narrative as a strategy for art historical discourses, in the case of artistic-casteism that refutes institutionalisation.
In a recent artists-talk which I moderated for Ananya Drishya, pioneered by artist S.G.Vasudev, at Bengaluru, the artists who presented their works were restless because they thought that they have been ‘categorised’ and paired together because of their caste-origin. They were keen on complaining against such a categorisation but ended up expanding on their caste-based upbringing, with much passion. Lalitkala Academies, Government sponsored cultural opportunities, appointment in artistic institutions and such other process of institutionalisation insist and expect that the art-applicant mention his/her caste, forgetting the idealistic possibility that art itself is a religion, a caste! Idealism and practicality confront each other, in the case of casteism, from within Indian visual discourses, due to which a certain sacrilege haunts Indian writing.
Is there casteism in Indian visual culture, in practice? – is an absurd question, because its omnipresence is evident in various avatars, very different from those defined from the Indian regional linguistic discourses. This literary-origin makes it ‘invisible’ in ‘visual’ arts.Indian literature a la Kannada literature has proven beyond doubt that a caste-based verbal narrative derives authenticity to representations. There is a possibility of translating it as visual-representational experiences, that too in this age of diaspora, wherein the latter need not be alien but a sophisticated contemporary mode of the complexities of caste. One can’t ignore it for the simple reason that caste is already a pre-set pattern availed to the art community. Without being submissive to the simplest derivatives about it, like — only the lower class ones require it, it’s the voice of only the socially suppressed ones, its derogatory to the ‘formalist’ exercises of visual discourse and the like – casteism needs to be appropriated. And before that, it needs to be addressed. The connectivity between Bohra muslims of Mumbai being experts in colouring black and film roles during world war time, because of their background of being miniature artists since generations is a case in point. Without the thread of continuity called addressing casteism, the carpet of Indian visual discourse made up of urbanism, class and colour might seem defunct both aesthetically as well as functionally.//