Reframing the Dalit experience
By Laxmi Murthy
22 August 2019
A new photobook on Dalits in Nepal brings out previously unheard voices and unseen visions.
A row of sari-clad Chyame women, heads held high, stand in a row, holding brooms that mark their trade. The shortest, in the middle, dressed in a nightgown, stares straight into the camera. Taken in 1995, outside a municipal office in Kathmandu, this photograph by Tuomo Manninen epitomises the assertion of dignity by Dalit women, triply oppressed by gender, caste and class. It is one of the first images in a book of photographs that attempts to change the “way we see” a long-marginalised section of Nepali society.
Dalit: A Quest for Dignity – a 2018 photobook edited by Diwas Raja Kc and produced by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati – does not claim to represent Dalit history. Instead, it creates a visual archive of the Dalit experience in Nepal, a rare documentation of its kind. While Diwas Raja Kc writes in the book’s introduction that their work “was guided by our love of photography and our latent faith that photographs can contribute to the erosion of injustice and exclusions”, the book also examines the ethics of collecting, exhibiting and publishing images of distress, admitting that a plethora of such visuals has served to desensitise rather than mobilise. Rather, their intention is to “reinvigorate” the way in which history is told, and reconstruct the obscured histories of Dalits. It demands, in the words of Dalit poet, writer and Marxist activist Aahuti, whose searing verse has been reproduced in the book, an “accounting of humiliated history”.
Constituting over 13 percent of the country’s population according to the national census – although researchers and activists suggest a figure as high as 20 percent – Dalits in Nepal have a long history of being subjected to exploitation and oppression. The revised Civil Code of 1963 formally ended the legal sanction of the discriminatory caste system. But despite several political gains, including affirmative action for the community in the new 2015 Constitution, social ostracism and structural disadvantage against Dalits continue. In this context, through photographs and accompanying commentary, Dalit attempts to piece together the community’s quiet acts of resistance, as well as document the more dramatic upheavals that cleave through the complacent myths of modern-day democracy.
“For Nepali Dalits,” the book observes, the “animal-versus-human binary condenses the history of abuse and victimization that has excluded Dalits from legal and moral considerations.” The first section of the book, ‘The toilers of the land’, aims to illustrate this claim. Among the pictures in the section is that of a sweeper at a school in Pharping, a small town on the southern edge of Kathmandu Valley. Taken in 1963 by Jim Fisher, a Peace Corps volunteer who went on to become an anthropologist of the Himalaya, the photo shows the man sipping his tea from a tin can, his caste not allowing him a ceramic cup like the school’s other employees. In these collected photos – from tailors sitting behind their manual sewing machines and a Lohar (blacksmith) doubling up as a dentist, to cobblers, butchers, basket weavers and metal workers, across geography and time – these artisans appear as the lifeblood and sweat of Nepali society.
The section also carries a series of close-ups of a young combatant of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at a Maoist cantonment, taken by Kevin Bubriski in 2010, four years after Nepal’s decade-long conflict was officially over. With beads of perspiration on his face and dirt on his work-worn hands, the images make one curious about the back-story of the young man, who comes from the Sunar (goldsmith) community. Were all the combatants in the cantonment assigned manual labour in the camps? Was this merely a ‘neutral’ division of labour, or was it a deeply discriminatory “division of labourers”, in the words of B R Ambedkar, who had a deep impact in Nepal’s Dalit movement.
The corrosion of self-worth and bodily integrity is most seen at the intersections of caste and gender oppression, and it has been viciously played out on the bodies of Badi women in western Nepal. Considered among the lowest rung even among other ‘untouchable’ communities, Badis have traditionally sustained themselves through entertainment and sexual services provided by the women of the community. With many Badis still without land and many trapped in debt – and shorn of the traditional support systems – the community has been pushed further to the margins as they continue working in extremely precarious circumstances. However, the photographs of Sundari Devi Badi, landless and homeless, by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati show not victimhood, but a determination to survive. Hands firmly on hip, floral nightie gently flowing in the breeze, she stands guard on her little plot in a squatter community in the southwestern district of Bardiya. A colour spread of her sturdy feet planted in the freshly tilled earth, amidst uprooted shoots of grass, symbolises the body as a tool of resistance. The same is presented through a series of stills from 2007, of Uma Devi Badi’s defiant act of stripping at the gates of the Singha Durbar, the seat of the Nepal government – a powerful counter to the routine humiliation and forceful stripping of the dignity of Badi women.
Underlining the importance of cultural inheritance in the lives of Dalits, the book notes that the quest for dignity is also “about the gods they have worshipped, stories they have told, myths they have created, and beliefs they have held. It is about their music, their songs, and their arts.” In the section titled ‘The sound of the people’, a series of photographs document this aspect of the Dalit story: the creative lives of these communities, which are intrinsically linked to their livelihood. One 1966 photograph by Carl Hosticka captures a Gaine, or a wandering minstrel, in the middle of a song about a recent claim to national glory: Hamro Tenzing Sherpale Chadyo Himal Chuchura; Our Tenzing Sherpa has climbed to the top of the Himalaya. Since musical instruments were made of ‘impure’ animal products like leather, horn, gut, tusk and bone, the production of music became the preserve of the Dalits, who were called upon to play in major ceremonial occasions, a creative act which was often undermined as duty for the upper castes.
The book also documents the Nepali Dalits’ efforts to shape their religious lives. The striking photographs of temple-entry movements in different parts of Nepal bear witness to the struggle to worship at the same altar as the upper-caste Hindus. There were severe reprisals, as recently as 2004, during a temple-entry movement, documented in pitiless detail in a set of photographs by Laurie Vasily. In the scuffle that accompanied the Dalits’ attempt to force their way into a temple in Bharatpur there was a baton-charge by the police as well as stone pelting by upper-caste vigilantes. The skull of an elderly man split in the attack, his head dripping blood in stark close-ups, stands testimony to the violent discrimination and exclusion.
A poem by Aahuti, which serves as the book’s epigraph, is a hard-hitting indictment of this exclusion of Dalits from religious spaces:
The smell of my forge is in your temple idol
the smell of my sweat in the pan on your hearth’s tripod
Have the nerve to meet my eyes pious one!
Either roast my existence in red hot embers and have the nerve to uphold dharma
or rip up the learned pages that humiliate me and have the courage to set them ablaze.
I am the Kami who made the god of your temple!
Some of the less spectacular but most transformative images in the book are the facsimile reproductions of writings by Dalit intellectuals. These sepia-tinted photographs of notebooks of Padam Sundas, a prominent Dalit writer, activist and diplomat, or the hand-written speeches by Dalit leader T R Bishwakarma, are transgressive in their defiant embrace of the written word, which was for centuries denied to the Dalits. Every stroke of the pen comes alive, and each fold of the old notebooks tell of oft-thumbed writings, contributing to a new repository of history, which was previously controlled by the upper castes, in the same manner that photography was restricted to the elite.
Reconstructing the frame
While Dalit professional photographers are still a rarity, studio portraits emerged as an important record not only of family histories, but also as a tool of self-representation and assertion of identity. One of the most poignant images in the book is a 2016 photograph taken in Dailekh District in western Nepal. Santa Bahadur and his wife Rajkumari, who comes from an upper-caste family, pose with their son against the studio backdrop of blue skies and a red-roofed cottage surrounded by flowering shrubs. What we see is a solemn family standing stiffly, arms by their sides, unsmiling gazes fixed on the camera. What we cannot know simply by looking at the photograph is the horrific backstory. In a ghastly incident that made headlines, about four years before this photograph was taken, some members of Rajkumari’s upper-caste family, outraged by the inter-caste union, murdered Santa Bahadur’s father and beat up the rest of his family.
Flouting caste endogamy in the pursuit of choice (or ‘love’) marriage continues to attract social ostracisation even today, despite guarantees of equality in the new Constitution. One of the most heart-breaking spreads in the book is a set of 20 selfies from the cell phone of one Ajit Mijar, an 18-year-old who was found dead in Dhading District just five days after he and his Bahun girlfriend had dared to elope and marry. The girlfriend’s parents forcibly took her back and confined her. Meanwhile, the police, whose role in the incident seemed suspect, declared Mijar’s death a suicide. Framing his own persona, made easy by a smart-phone camera, the young man creates an album that is dandy, romantic, smart and swashbuckling. His photos demonstrate that the selfie can be a powerful tool of self-definition, creating an identity of one’s own that lasts beyond death.
The book’s most powerful section, ‘The artisans of freedom’, is a visual archive of Nepali Dalits’ political struggles – of resistance and transformation of individual and community grit into political force. The very first image of this section – also the book’s cover image – shows Bishwakarma delivering a speech in 1963 after the revision of the Muluki Ain – which now officially abolished untouchability – his arm outstretched, towering above the background of clouds. Not all photographs in the series are as visually remarkable. From records of various rallies and official functions to more quotidian studio photographs, these images are, however, significant for their visual record of Dalit political life. Among them are also pictures of Ambedkar’s visit to Nepal in 1956, a few weeks before his death, for the Fourth World Buddhist Conference. One photo shows him being carried in a litter, where the eminent jurist and Dalit leader is barely visible. In another photograph, he is speaking at the conference, with King Mahendra at the podium. The book also carries an image of a letterhead with the address ‘Ambedkar Kuti’, house of the Dalit leader Jawahar Roka, indicating the deep influence of India’s Dalit movement in Nepal.
Professional photo studios came to Nepal at the turn of the 20th century, catering to the needs of the upper and middle classes to create a visual family archive of significant events. Outside of studio photography, some of the first available portraits of ordinary people in the Subcontinent were printed in over eight volumes between 1868 and 1875 as The People of India. The colonial administration under the then Viceroy Lord Canning is believed to have been keen to create a visual record of the Subcontinent’s people after the uprising of 1857 against the British Raj. Though Nepal was not part of the British Empire, there are about two dozen photographs of peoples of Nepal among the over 400 albumen prints, produced through glass-plate photography, which had been invented a few years before this massive exercise of visual documentation was launched. These photographs, taken in 1863 by Clarence Taylor, the Assistant Resident in Kathmandu, are probably the earliest records of how ordinary Nepalis dressed, lived, worked and played. While some of these photographs could be those of Dalits, it was only almost a century later that the first conscious categorisation of Dalits in visual documentation can be seen.
Some of the earliest such photos came from the cameras of young Americans who travelled to Nepal starting in the 1960s as Peace Corps volunteers. Many of them went on to be closely involved with Nepal as academics, researchers, photographers, development workers, etc. These pictures challenged the norm of Dalits being forced to avert their potentially polluting gaze – allowing us to imagine the potential of photography to invert the usual frame of reference, and “reinvigorate the ways in which we tell our histories,” as Diwas Raja Kc suggests. At the same time, however, they also raise the problematic issue of these visual representations being framed by ‘outsiders’. Every photograph in the book prompted this reviewer to consult the list of credits, and assign motives via the identity of the photographers, their distance from the subject, and their investment in changing the frame. Who takes photographs and why? Who creates the archive and with what purpose?
Production and consumption of images – be they cave paintings of animals, deities in temples or royalty in palaces – have always involved a negotiation with power. Photography, for over a century the preserve of the privileged, has seen a more rapid democratisation than many other forms of art. It has the potential to break out of the constraints of exclusivity and control, dismantle the myth of the ‘neutral’ photograph, and ask questions about how reality is framed, what or who is excluded and why – the complex arena of consent while taking ‘candid’ pictures, especially of individuals in pain.
Who then can be the authentic recorder of the bleak history of dispossession? Is it only Dalits who must wrest for themselves the task of representing the systematic injustices wreaked on their community, or can a sympathetic outsider’s gaze sensitively record these experiences? In grappling with such questions, the book leans towards the latter, arguing that the subjects within the frames were not completely stripped of agency. As the book’s editor Diwas Raja Kc writes, “This is why the theme of dignity is central to the project of Dalit emancipation. Public contestations by Dalits against caste injustice are thus not limited to material demands for redistribution and opportunity but also emphasize the transcendental claims for social worth and moral agency. The very semantics of Dalit identity are steeped in the promise of self-esteem and self-definition.”. The significance of this important book lies in the fact that it manages to shine a light on the dignity of individuals and indeed the Dalit community as a whole: of those pushed to live in poverty; of those creating things of beauty amidst squalor, and also of those participating in the groundswell of change.
~Laxmi Murthy heads the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, and is a Contributing Editor with Himal Southasian. She is currently coordinating a Zubaan-Panos initiative on sexual violence and impunity in Southasia through theatre and other performing arts.