Invisible lives: Documenting India’s disadvantaged Dalit communities and their unseen labour
How do Dalit people live in India? How are their lives different from those of dominant caste groups? These are the questions that Asha Thadani tried to find answers to on her journey documenting the lives of Dalit communities, who are relegated to the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy in India and marginalised even today.
ASHA THADANI,RAMJEE CHANDRAN
Divine and damned: The Joginis are girls born into the Mala community of Telangana who are dedicated to the village deity before reaching puberty. So begins a life of ceaseless sexual exploitation, which is sanctified by religion: they are revered and abused at the same time. Marginalised, illiterate, and economically powerless, the women suffer in silence. They often get trafficked to urban red-light areas, where the exploitation continues.
Defiant devotion: With wooden needles and ink made from the soot of kerosene lamp, the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh inscribe a silent protest on their skin—the word, “Ram”, a name which their ancestor, Parsuram Bharadwaj, was not allowed to utter because he was Dalit. The practice of tattooing started among the Ramnamis in the late 19th century as a response to the exclusion of Bharadwaj from a temple. While the younger generation may discreetly conceal the tattoos under clothing, they still wear the markings as a symbol of resistance and defiant devotion.
She found her answers quickly: Dalit life was what was etched on the skins of the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh; the fire burning in the eyes of the Joginis of Telangana; the strength of the mine workers of Jharia, who carry on despite inhuman exploitation. Although the word Dalit is derived from dalita, which means downtrodden or broken, what Thadani experienced were people who will not give up the fight against systemic injustice, no matter how tough it gets.
River people: The Mallahs are a community of boatmen, fishermen, and divers from Benaras who ferry passengers across the Ganges for a fee. Mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Mallahs are deeply tied to the river, which gives them their livelihood. In addition to ferrying, they are also engaged in fishing, riverbank farming, and sand-mining. With laws restricting sand-mining on the banks of the Ganges, rules meant to protect the river also threaten their living.
Gender fluid: The Musahars, a Dalit group from Bihar, face discrimination even within the community, and are relegated to the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. Some of them work as agricultural labourers, but the work is seasonal and payments depend on the unreliable generosity of landlords. So they turn to unconventional jobs, like performing as Nachniyas—cross-dressed men who dance and lip-sync to songs at celebrations for a paltry fee. They often try to supplement their income by extending sexual services to wealthy patrons.
Thadani travelled across the country for over seven years, meeting Dalit people, speaking to them to understand their lives, and frequently staying with them for weeks.
Weaving identity: The Dusadhs or Paswans are a Dalit community from Bihar. Their women were denied the right to wear jewellery by upper-caste Hindus. So they found an ingenious way to express rebellion—covering their chests, wrists, and arms with nature-inspired tattoos, which were not only an ornamental substitute but also indelible symbols of identity and pride. In the 1970s, a German anthropologist, Erika Hoser, visited a Dusadh village and encouraged the women to use paper or canvas rather than skin as the medium of their art. This was the beginning of Godna painting, which sells for millions today.
Mourning song: The women of the Paraiyar caste of Tamil Nadu are professional mourners (opparis), who beat their breasts and wail in unison to the rhythms of the parai, a percussive instrument made from cowhide. Their lament conceals a poignant truth: “It is not he who is dead; it is us.”
“What struck me was their resilience, their will to survive in an often hostile society. They retain their faith in religion even though it is the source of the prejudices faced by them,” she said.
Forgotten gods: As Theyyam performers from the Pulayar Dalit community of Kerala put on elaborate make-up and costumes, they transcend their lowly caste identity to become living representations of gods. During the performance, as the caste dynamic is flipped, the upper castes must respect the divine dancers from the lower caste. But once the ritual is over, the discriminatory practices fall back into place, and the performers lead obscure lives.
Silent steps: Following in the footsteps of B.R. Ambedkar, many young Dalit men embrace Buddhism, becoming monks. Choosing this path is an act of reclamation of worth and affirmation of identity. The monks believe in the transformative power of their spiritual journey, which, for them, is a silent yet impactful step towards equality and liberation.
Each of the photographs here is part of an individual series on different Dalit communities seen through the lens of labour, health, gender, sexuality, environment, art, and ritual. The photographs speak of Thadani’s desire to uncover stories that usually remain hidden from the public eye. They underline both the individuality and the shared humanity of the subjects, thus questioning the persistence of social divisions.
Working with fire: In the shadowy depths of the meat markets of Bengaluru, workers belonging to the Holeya Scheduled Caste engage in a gruesome task—extracting the brains from the heads of goats—which is considered a taboo food item. The lowly job is assigned to them because nobody else would do it. Their work involves labouring in the blazing heat of crude kilns, wielding heavy metal rods, for nearly 12 hours a day. Inhalation of the smoke and coal dust reduces their life expectancy. And for all this, they are barred from the meat market above, and lead invisible lives.
“I was not on a crusade. I only wanted to chronicle what I saw. Yet, my hope is that my work opens at least one door for a closed mind. Even a single door,” said Thadani.
Asha Thadani is a photographic artist based in Bengaluru. Largely self-taught, Thadani was nominated for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2015. She likes to capture remote cultures, antiquated traditions, and contemporary life.
Ramjee Chandran is the host of Explocity’s podcast, “The Literary City”. He is also a writer and magazine publisher. The photographs were part of an exhibition titled “Broken”, held at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, from November 23, 2023, to January 7, 2024.
Courtesy : Frontline
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