The Bodies That Scramble India’s “Constitutions”

Sohrab Hura, "The Lost Head & The Bird," 2016–19. Single-channel video, colour, stereo sound, 10 min. 13 sec. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Visibly shaken professors made a special announcement at our university’s recent Race Equity Caucus meeting. They’d been harassed for participating in a virtual conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva.” Held in September 2021, it was a crucible for debates on the rise of Hindutva—an ethno-nationalist, far-right ideology that openly discriminates against Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasi, and over 200 million Indian Muslims, as well as Hindu women and sexual minorities. Spooked but not deterred, my colleagues hoped to raise awareness about a swing to the far-right in Indian politics and explain the persistence of caste-oppression in what the 1949 Indian Constitution describes as a secular and multicultural state.

I listened carefully, but that discussion felt far away. The exhibition Constitutions, curated by Swapnaa Tamhane at Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, is a more visceral treatment of Hindutva, caste, and labor. It features Rajyashri Goody, Sohrab Hura, Sajan Mani, Prajakta Potnis, and Birender Yadav, artists who share a frame of reference as Indians who came of age in the era of economic liberalization and rising ethno-nationalism. They witnessed these developments and respond to them with a careful balance of world-weariness and hope. So the arid technicality of scholarly pronouncements against Hindutva is traded-in here for a more directly-felt power of images. By turns righteous and disturbing, vertiginous and otherworldly, the works speak univocally against the injustices of Hindu nationalism.

Sajan Mani’s Wake Up Call for Ancestors (2021) opens the show with a set of hanging rubber sheets bearing an archival image of three Thanda Pulayan, women of an erstwhile enslaved caste. Their bodies are distorted through the fleshy texture of the sheets and hemmed-in by a painted transcription of an early 20th-century Dalit activist’s poem. Mani’s personal story as a member of a family of rubber trappers in South India is crossed with the colonial history registered in the wooden poses of an ethnographic photo. The poem by Poykayil Appachan carries the energy and conviction of Dalit resistance to both colonial and caste-based exploitation in the rubber trade. Mani’s other two pieces feel less haunted. While the cheekily-titled video Art Will Never Die But Cow? (2019) shows the artist donning a foam cow head in an exaggerated walking performance, a neighboring hand-written text work gives only the trace of an action. But the labor of Mani’s self-identified “Black Dalit Body” is anchored in the present, as it strides comically in the video and dances across the page in the text work—aptly titled When the Hands Start Singing (2021). It’s a shame that a performance wasn’t possible in this exhibition, but even the residues of Mani’s actions stand in sharp contrast to the image of the Thanda Pulayan, issuing perhaps a more resounding “wake up call” than those women were permitted.

Birender Yadav, “Life Tools,” 2021. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Across the gallery, Birender Yadav responds with his Life Tools (2021), a set of three charcoal and pastel drawings of anthropomorphic bricks, calipers, and a ladder. The images call to mind the machinic anthropomorphism of Constructivists, but the “tools” are drawn directly from the artist’s experience. Born to a family of blacksmiths and laborers, Yadav began studying with a plan to design metalworking tools for his father. The calipers, fitted with dainty black feet begin to tell this story. But the next two images are a little more grim: a pile of bricks on a stool seems to sprout hairs in one, and in the other a ladder offers its steps to an unseen worker with bracing hands at its apex and flat feet at its base. Labor is pictured metaphorically here, but a particular kind of trafficked labor that Yadav observed in the Jharkhandi brick kilns and in the originally British colonial coal mines of his native Dhanbad. The work’s art-historical and biographical associations are tuned to Yadav’s solidarity with Indian labor movements of the past few decades, like the Narmada Bachao Andolan in its struggle for environmental justice, and the Marathi Worker’s Movement in its response to neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1990s. The join between art and Indian politics here and across the exhibition is invisible. But the artists’ concerns are shared well beyond India too.

Among those ‘90s reforms was the designation of “Special Economic Zones” for unregulated industrial activity. Global capitalism and its brood of migrant laborers makes an appearance in India as it does elsewhere in the post-socialist world. The exhibition’s regional focus, a potential hazard of the show encouraging an ‘area-studies’ mindset, doesn’t point to its ubiquity, but there remains a discernible kinship between the artists and critics of global capitalism elsewhere. Prajakta Potnis’s pieces in the exhibition, for instance, occasioned by her discovery of an uncle’s lung disease after years of work at a detergent plant, take up international health challenges in the era of advanced capitalism. Tamhane is careful in her curatorial text to point out such affiliative bonds across national and ethnic boundaries. Namdeo Dhasal’s fiercely utopian poem “Man, You Should Explode” (1972), included as a wall-text, invites us to think about the aligned causes of America’s Black Panthers and the Dalit Panther group which the poet co-founded in the 1970s.

But it’s Sohrab Hura’s work that, for me, provided the exhibition’s most powerful critique of Hindutva in the era of global capitalism. He does this by taking up the rhetorical tools used by its adherents—viral images. We’re led there slowly, past a pair of portraits hanging alongside a vaguely trippy print of the preamble to the Indian Constitution. That inaugural post-colonial document points back to a set of principles that are under serious threat from Hindu nationalists. As you approach the iconic black-and-white portraits of the Constitution’s architects, Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, the ghostly visages of India’s new leaders come into shaky view. Modi’s perfectly manicured short beard and contrived, press-ready smile advance from Nehru’s more humble expression. And the steely gaze of Modi’s Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah, replaces a contemplative three-quarter view of Ambedkar. With this, Hura sets up a distinction that runs through his works and his writing between viral images of the post-truth era and the icons of a more humane political culture.

 

Prajakta Potnis, “He woke up with seeds in his lungs-1,” 2020. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

 

Sohrab Hura, “Scramble,” 2020. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

 

Sohrab Hura, “The Lost Head & The Bird,” 2016–19 (installation view). Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Beyond the portraits, Hura’s video loop called The Lost Head & the Bird (2016-19) opens with a flashing image of a woman shown from behind sitting on a messy bed, with legs folded beneath her and an arm hovering over her shoulders where, by rights, a head should appear. Hura’s narration tells us her name is Madhu, and her head was taken by an overzealous lover. She begins a search for it at the scene of a (probable) sex crime, but crosses paths in the course of the story with a photographer and a fortune-teller who offer a limited kind of help. The story is retold with very slight modifications such that the blame for the crime is shifted from the perpetrator to the victim. Hura’s manipulation of the fiction reads as a comment on the dangerous mingling of moral certitude and disinformation in the Indian news media. Post-truth, then, is the work’s primary historical subtext, but the flickering emergence of Madhu on the screen recalls a 19th-century history of images, too. Her averted gaze and s-curve are academic. A distant art history of classicizing, white-passing Orientalist nudes might be in the background, but the stroboscopic presentation of Madhu moves her out of that history and into the brain, like the retinal afterimages that so fascinated Goethe and other theorists of subjective vision. This intra-mental space, and not India per se, is where Hura’s work unfolds.

The rest of the video runs on a split-screen. Madhu’s headless body is paired with a portrait of a South Indian festival goer flashing a maniacal smile—a salutary offering of a head to the protagonist across the gap. The images that follow bear similarly disquieting relationships, often between body parts, or more thematic and formal affinities. But our lingering over iconic images is scarcely possible in the last part of the work, as sensational shots of marching or dancing crowds, political meetings, news headlines, and a barrage of stills from social media fail-videos come at us like machine-gun fire. The fails are either amusing—think of Bruegel’s parables, but without the moral instruction—or delivered as searing political commentary. The headline “Modi’s Photoshop Fail,” for instance, is taken from a story about the Prime Minister’s doctored publicity photo from a visit he never made to the Tamil Nadu region after a flood.

Hura moves us into this jarring image-world to uncover the rhetorical devices of Hindu nationalists and to reflect on the global reach of viral images in our own homes, institutions, and pockets. Just as Madhu’s head is awkwardly restored in the opening image-pair, the credit-roll at the end of the loop is a re-constituting gesture. A complete, handwritten list of sources for the found images is offered in the spirit of transparency and to establish, if not a standard of truth, then at least a kind of set-list for Hura’s performance in search of it.

 

Rajyashri Goody, “The Milk Of The Tigress,” 2021 Selection of books on caste and Dalit writing from the Webster Library, plywood shelves covered with paper pulp made from the Manusmriti. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

In the wake of this frenzy of viral images, and more prosaic ones (eyeballs, dancing hands, gritting teeth, and tangled bodies), the exhibition’s approach to the Constitution of India feels thoroughly corporeal. A headless Indian body politic is framed in fictional terms, or propagandistic ones, or screened as an impossibly complex and seething force of both tradition and incipient change. But in the works of Rajyashri Goody, a somewhat more legal, textual, and academic sense of the term is recovered. Much of Goody’s work turns on writing and food, in Dalit households like her own and in the Hindu tradition. The 2nd-century Manusmriti, a code of Brahmanical laws for a caste-based division of labor, is certainly an ur-text for the artist, but she approaches it irreverently. Its status as an original expression of Hindu values is broken down through its altered appearance in her work as pulp, a sculptural rather than religious material. In The Milk Of The Tigress (2021), the sacred text is used as a coating for a set of shelves. On them, Goody arranged dozens of books on caste drawn from the nearby university library. Here we’re returned to the arena of debates and learned pronouncements on Hindutva, to a space for the “dismantling” of that ideology. But Goody doesn’t lose sight of its biopolitical inscription. An ideology’s abstract codes have concrete impacts on living, breathing, and laboring bodies, especially racialized ones. Read alongside Hura’s anatomized view of India, Goody’s gesture resounds.

If Hura reconstitutes the body through the action of the eye, Goody enlists the mouth in this task, and not the mouth of God which decrees Brahmanical privilege, but the mouths of Dalits in their poetic refusal of such privilege. Goody’s Is Hunger Gnawing At Your Belly? and What Is The Caste of Water? follow Dalit foodways through Indian literature and into key moments of organized resistance to caste. In the first of these, passages from Dalit writings on food are excerpted and redeployed in recipe booklets with questions for titles (“Can you devour all the suffering?”; “Are you the master of dead animals?”) that carry the charge of a collective existential burden. Goody’s almost alchemical conversion of poetic rage into instructions for spiritual and bodily nourishment goes a long way to lightening that burden. In another iteration of the project (not included in the exhibition), convivial family photos that testify to the joy of Dalit food culture are used as cover illustrations for the booklets, encouraging resilience in the face of caste-based discrimination. Surely this is an opening, in the show, to a more hopeful future for India.

Prajakta Potnis, “Attrition,” 2020. RIN detergent bar, infusion fluid, tubing, and needle. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

 

Sajan Mani, “When the Hands Start Singing,” 2021. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery. Photo: Paul Litherland.

But the overwhelming tone of Constitutions is one of dismay and deepening skepticism about the fulfillment of Nehru and Ambedkar’s 1949 promise. Such ambivalence circulates more freely in contemporary art spaces than in the disciplined setting of academic conferences. What’s more, the work of these artists carries us beyond the walls of the gallery into viral image-worlds, thriving foodways, and affective spaces for laboring, loving, and always-articulate bodies. Uncomfortable feelings are not reduced to simple arguments for social, economic, and environmental justice. And yet after a reckoning with these works, the appeal of those arguments is undeniable.

In the run-up to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 against British rule, panicked rumors circulated among colonial authorities about the clandestine movement of chapatis, unleavened flat bread, from village to village across Northern India. The bread was said to be carried by messengers who brought with them the news of an impending rebellion. In a conversation with Tamhane, the artist Sohrab Hura described a similarly contagious transmission of Hindutva propaganda on social media and in WhatsApp messages. These are noisy and often hateful platforms, but they constitute a space for communication that we’re encouraged in this exhibition to imagine differently, as a potentially revolutionary one. Constitutions is itself such a space, as quiet and kind as it is indignant.

1 Comment

  • Mona Abdel-fattah El Alfy says:

    Wow, Tamer I will never look at art in the same way again. Your writing brings every piece to life and delves deep into history, politics, feelings, and awakens so many emotions and thoughts. Thank you and keep on writing

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