Artist Devangana Kumar aims to restore the dignity of household servants of the Raj era
In the days of the Raj, the British were apparently aghast at the way Indian men dressed to beat the heat. The flimsy loin cloths around their bodies made the English uncomfortable. And so, they made sure that their domestic help were fully clothed; even a bawarchi (cook) working in a steaming kitchen would have to wear a scarf. Artist Devangana Kumar is full of trivia such as this, thanks to the research she has done for her first solo exhibition, Pageants of The Raj: The Work Force, which was recently held in Delhi and starts its Mumbai leg this week at the Tao Art Gallery.
The artist, who is incidentally Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar’s daughter and has studied marketing and business, found herself drawn to art only later in life. “It just happened one day. Art is the only thing I can concentrate on now,” she says.
Her exhibition, which showcases vintage photographs of British era functionaries, like the bawarchi, water carrier, sweeper and peon, reproduced against silk velvet and embellished with beads and brass, is Devangana’s way of creating an identity for these nameless people. They are shown facing the camera with resigned expressions on their faces.
The British would photograph and create postcards of them to send back home to England. It was, says Devangana, their way of showing just how well they were being served in India. “I have even given them names because I wanted to say that they are not just postmen or khidmatgars. (For instance, the maids are called Krishna Bai or Shanta Bai and the khidmatgar is Dina Nath.) Their uniforms were of different colours and that’s how the British identified them. But that’s their job, not their identity. An Englishman actually had almost 70 servants, and the postcard photographs were meant to reflect their status,” she says.
Devangana has been collecting these postcards for a few years now, hunting for them in thrift shops in Kolkata and London. For Devangana, the postcards amplify what the Raj really thought of Indians. The postcards, she points out, didn’t have any space for a message; one side had the photo and the other had just enough space for an address. The picture itself was the message—that the British ruled India.
Devangana decided to reproduce them against a velvet silk background to serve as an ironic inversion. “Things like velvet or silk were not available to the workforce, even if they had money. They were forbidden to buy it. Instead of posing against painted backgrounds in a studio, they were made to pose against colonial bungalows. And that’s the saddest thing. That one day, they were functionaries of society. And the other, they had become functionaries of the Raj.”