Gazing on the working class
The way we look at those less privileged than us today, is much the same as we did in the Raj, according to artist
Devangana Kumar Privilege and discrimination go hand in hand in Devangana Kumar’s works of art. She is the youngest daughter of ex-speaker Meira Kumar, and her works are on the domestic helps of the Britishers when they ruled India.
That metaphor is not the only one in the upcoming show Pageants of the Raj: The Workforce, where life-sized portraits of the domestic workforce of the Raj stare regally out of rich silk velvet, on which the images are printed. Stressing that her mother is not her “claim to fame”, she adds: “I am well aware of the caste system, having accompanied my mother to the villages. No one told me anything about it but they made me travel a lot to get aware of it.” She is also the granddaughter of Jagjivan Ram, the popular political leader from Bihar who was the voice of the ‘lower’ castes and held important ministerial posts.
Harbouring no political ambitions herself, this marketing graduate-turned-artist has been previously labelled as ‘the artist who does not paint’. Curator Alka Panda describes her as a photo media artist who has also shown her decoupage works, apart from this pictorial show, which debuted about seven years ago in New Delhi. The concept of this exhibition was triggered by her collection of vintage postcards that she collected from London flea markets, and over the Internet.
These Raj era postcards – she has hundreds of them – were the kind sent by the Britishers to their families back home in the UK. “The cards are from the 1840s, after the advent of the camera, to the 1880s. Be it the maids, sweepers or the khidmatgars, these people had to wear uniforms of different colours that slotted them into a particular job. For instance, sweepers cleaning the bathrooms would have a blue band in their uniforms.” Still, in order to show off an opulent lifestyle, the portraits were ‘doctored’ in a way. “The cook in the kitchen is shown wearing a watch,” Devangana pointed out, “which isn’t possible as the kitchens were rather primitive.” With servants being a symbol of status, they were made to wear uniforms in spite of the reality – these men would typically wear only dhotis in the sultry weather. “One postcard mentions that a particular household had 52 servants.”
What Devangana does is curate images from her significant collection of British ethnography and scan those images and render them life-sized. These images are then rendered on silk velvet as Giclée prints. She further embellishes the images with brass and beads. The final portraits have exquisite borders as well. This imagery is another metaphor, bringing the lower strata of workers right into the gaze of the elite. And by giving them imaginary names such as Shanta Bai or Krishna Bai, Devangana has made them relatable to current-day viewers.
The artist goes back to the time when she first spied the ‘office peon’. “This series began when I first encountered an old picture of a colonial peon, standing beside a turquoise chaise lounge and dressed in a post Mughal sherwani with a matching shoulder-to-hip sash. It was a formal studio composition, the
kind we hardly find anymore, where the folds in the tablecloth are meticulously arranged, as are the gathers in the thick curtains.
What I found most attractive were both the rich shades in the hand-painted photo as well as the depiction of the subject itself. Here was a servant of the Raj in his best departmental regalia, looking self-assuredly at the Eastman box camera – a kind of a mascot or visual archetype of the many ‘natives’ serving the Empire. Thousands of postcard copies of the ‘Office Peon’ would have been sent around the world as a colourful vignette of British India, a vignette that, in many ways, was created and imagined by the colonists.”
That vignette, albeit less colourful, is still maintained in the present. “We continue to portray these people the way the British do. It is the working class on whose shoulders the luxurious and comfortable lifestyle of a deeply hierarchical society positions itself. Through my art I wish to stress on dignity of labour and speak out against social discrimination.” As this series makes its rounds through the galleries, Devangana remains optimistic abouther future series on the ‘nautch girls’ of India, who she calls a misunderstood community.
Source : Bangalore Mirror