A smiling boy from Bihar’s Musahar people by Asha Thadani (Photos courtesy: Asha Thadani)
THE VERY FIRST IMAGE that one sees from Asha Thadani’s black-and-white photo exhibition Broken: Dalit Lives (on display at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre till January 7) is that of an old man named Katkaram Arjuni. In this beautifully framed photograph, Arjuni is sitting with a book of hymns open in front of him. However, he is looking straight ahead, and not at the book, which also doubles up as a stand for a pair of incense sticks, gently billowing smoke onto the centre of the frame. Arjuni’s face and arms, plus the cloth he has wrapped around his head and torso, are emblazoned with the same word over and over again—Ram. And then the caption catches one’s eye: ‘Arjuni, a member of the Ramnami community, had been blind since age three, and he had memorized entire religious scriptures by listening to recitations; the oldest way of learning scripture, after all. Sadly, he had also passed away recently.’ This one photograph suggests such a rich narrative, without trying too hard.
Broken contains ten sequences of photographs, involving ten Dalit communities from across the country. These cover the coal miners of Jharia (Jharkhand), the Musahar and Dusadh communities in Bihar, the Pulayar Dalits of Kerala, the Paraiyar Dalits of Tamil Nadu and beyond. One of the greatest strengths of this exhibition is its strong sense of narrative, the stories that Thadani’s images tell us are about some of the most marginalised people in India.
Thadani says, “Sometimes, without thinking too much about form or style, you can end up creating a narrative or a theme that you want to pursue.” She adds, “It’s a natural, subliminal process. For me, that theme was power structures. In the past I’ve travelled across India working with tribes that are at the periphery of society. Another one of my shows, Interbeing, was about the relationship between communities and animals in India. These projects also involved power structures.”
One of the first things you notice about Broken is the number of extreme close-ups of Thadani’s subjects. For this approach to work consistently, the subjects must have a certain baseline rapport with the photographer, a comfort level that’s difficult to achieve when you’re ‘helicoptering’ in and out of a place with great haste. She realised this quickly and decided to be uncompromising when it came to on-ground hours spent. Trust must be built brick by brick, after all, and the photographer was in no hurry to do so.
“I stayed for extended periods of time with every community that has been photographed here,” Thadani recalls. “The minimum was 20 days. It would often take multiple trips. And I would be working under the same constraints as everybody around me. For example, when I stayed with the Musahars in Bihar, the nearest toilet was 20 km from us. There was barely any electricity. On an average there would be one or two hours of electricity every day.”
When she speaks about her work with peers and acquaintances, Thadani understands that there remains widespread ignorance about the extent of caste-based discrimination in the country. And if at all folks were aware of just how bad it is for Dalits, especially, they would claim increasingly convoluted defences. It’s something that happens only in villages, they would tell her. Or it’s something that used to happen but not anymore, or that even if it’s bad it’s a part of “our culture”.
“Caste-based discrimination is an all-pervasive problem and it’s something that everybody, whether you’re left-wing or right-wing or anywhere in between, should work towards ending. And it’s not something that money can necessarily solve,” Thadani says. “It’s about isolation, not just from resources but from every functioning instrument of society. It’s right in front of you and you never think about it — about who cleans your houses and roads, who cremates your dead.”
I stayed for extended periods of time with every community that has been photographed here. The minimum was 20 days. And I would be working under the same constraints as everybody around me. When I stayed with the Musahars in Bihar, the nearest toilet was 20 km from us,” says Asha Thadani, photographer
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Once you spend some time with the different image-sets in Broken, you realise Thadani’s versatility as well as her knack for finding the right style for every set. For the coal miners of Jharia, she has let the perennially smoky, apocalyptic land itself become a character in these photographs; fewer close-ups, more lone workers in framed landscapes. When you see women and children working in proximity to noxious fumes and other hazardous substances, you realise the precarity of these lives and the dramatic effect brought about by these photographs becomes even more powerful.
For the Paraiyar Dalits of Tamil Nadu, Thadani opts for the cinematic, extreme close-ups of wailing women that force you to take notice. These are women performing the Oppari, a traditional mourning practice that can be observed across Tamil Nadu and parts of Sri Lanka. The idea of hiring professional mourners might sound esoteric to the uninitiated, but it’s well-documented, including in pop culture (see Mahasweta Devi’s1970s novella Rudali and the 1993 Kalpana Lajmi film of the same name). This scenario differs from the Rudalis of Rajasthan in one crucial aspect — here, the whole clan is involved in the funeral business. The men of the clan arrive in a van decked up with flowers, collect the body and then perform the cremation, while the women weep.
“I don’t think it’s mere theatricality,” Thadani says while talking about the Oppari scenes she witnessed. “When I spoke to the women who have done this (professional mourning/weeping) for many years now, they told me they picturise their husband, or some other family member lying dead instead. So, the grief that they display isn’t really performative. It’s much more profound than that, it’s their whole lives.”
PERHAPS THE MOST audacious and impressionistic set in Broken is the one that follows the Dusadh women of Bihar. The Dusadh community, also known as Paswan, are well-known for their body tattoos, which function as substitutes for jewellery, since the women were not allowed to wear them. They started etching their images onto the walls of their huts (made with leaves, bamboo, straw and cow dung). Allegedly, after a visit from German anthropologist Erika Hoser in the 1970s, transposed the same technique onto handmade paper, resulting in the all-new ‘Godna’ art form.
In Thadani’s images of the Godna colonies, there are artful superimpositions of the artists alongside their own works, their own huts. Explaining the process and her technique, Thadani says, “I’ve shot the artists, their houses, the paintings they did on paper, the finished artworks mounted on walls. It’s almost like the artists themselves appear like an outgrowth of their environment, their work. Since this series follows a community of artists, I wanted the approach to be an artistic one. Which is why this is the only series within Broken where I’ve used the multiple exposure technique.”
Thadani’s point about multiple exposure being a more self-consciously artistic approach is historically sound and in fact points towards certain early connections between photographers and painters. In the 1960s and 1970s, when artistic photography was beginning to gain acceptance in the cultural mainstream, there was pushback from critics like Susan Sontag who did not believe photography could ever rise to the level of art or literature (Sontag would later revise her views in the 1990s). For them, photography, was a “mechanical” process devoid of art and the physical photograph, midwifed by technology, could never be considered an art-object.
It is against this backdrop that photographers like Duane Michals and John Deakin began to experiment with multiple exposure, resulting in painterly images with a stunning psychological intensity.
In Thadani’s case, the end product is a stunning set that centres the Godna art form as well as what it means to its practitioners. Photographing them in situ lends the images a sense of gravitas and the multiple exposure allows them to ‘talk’ to each other, build a coherent whole, a narrative that would have been difficult to achieve via conventional methods. The photographer credits her commercial work — advertising photography chief among them — for picking up a variety of techniques and styles towards the beginning of her career. It was, she says, the most pragmatic way to learn on the job back in the late ’90s, especially for a female photographer working in India.
“When I started my career in 1996, there were very few female photographers (in India),” Thadani says. “There were hardly any institutes that could teach you and all the books cost ₹2-3,000 (they would cost upwards of ₹10,000 today). If you wanted to learn you had to intern with a well-known photographer. Male photographers would, of course, want the comfort of asking a guy to run errands or fetch cigarettes; I was willing to do these things, but it didn’t matter because they wouldn’t take on a female intern.”
While things have certainly changed in India since those days, Broken is a potent reminder that they haven’t changed all that much, especially for the most vulnerable sections of society. Clear-eyed and uncompromising in its vision, this is an exhibition that refuses to flatten or dumb down its subjects. The gaze is unflinching without being exploitative, the artistry is on point and yet there’s a lingering sense of humility about proceedings. Spend time with these images, and be forced to reckon with our unequal society.
(Broken: Dalit Lives by Asha Thadani runs at India Habitat Centre, Delhi, till January 7)