These days, a photograph is doing the rounds on social media. It shows a young man in Rayban sunglasses, full and handsomely-styled moustache, and sparse but still fashionably sufficient beard. The sun catches his white kurta, his royal blue shawl edged with what could be Kashmiri embroidery, and his matching blue turban, revealing the contrasting textures of wool and cotton, creasing and starch.
The plume of the turban reaches defiantly to the upper edge of the frame. It stands in for the expressiveness we might have seen in his eyes, were we permitted to look into them. His impassive face turns insouciantly towards the viewers, flanked by his hand-held microphone and, in the extreme foreground, a photographer’s camera. Its screen replicates the teeming crowds around the man.
Someone in the crowd has raised the Indian tricolour, which echoes the line of the turban’s plume. The horizon is defined by a blurred line of buildings and trees, beyond which is sky.
It’s a stunning portrait that Chandrashekhar Azad, the leader of the Bhim Army, sometime bearer of the sobriquet “Ravan”, surely loves, for it captures his modus operandi as Dalit icon. In the confused, chaotic, and clamorous battlefield of symbols through which the Indian political arena is constituted and reclaimed, Azad is top of the game.
This process is nothing new. Till today, our first nation-builders are conjured up in our collective imagination by their clothes and accessories: Mahatma Gandhi’s loincloth and stick, Maulana Azad’s fur cap, Jawaharlal Nehru’s eponymous jacket, BR Ambedkar’s suit and tie. These lasting associations confirm contingent choices as highly successful political and emotive strategies. They condensed the radical paths each chose to pursue their brand of anti-colonial protest and decolonial self-fashioning.
But Azad does something more: his style is ostentatious. It rejects docility, mimimalism and discretion. It is not quietly elegant, but emphatically flamboyant. It flaunts Raybans alongside homespun, replaces hipster beards with the twirled ’tache. It is azadi with swag.
The word “swag” is abbreviated from “swagger” to describe a Black way of moving in the world. It conveys a stylish confidence that mounts a challenge to the world in just standing and being there, refusing to be invisiblised. “Check out my swag, yo,” as rapper Jay-Z said.
Entering the global mainstream through hiphop and its marketisation, it has graced the popular Indian lexicon for a while now, as the hit song Swag Se Swagat from the film Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) confirms. Bollywood’s anodyne adoption of “swag” echoes the watering down and commodification of Black protest and resistance through the body that the neoliberal industry around Black urban music has ensured worldwide.
But Chandrashekhar Azad’s brand of swag cuts through that superficial gloss. It taps into swag’s deepest reservoirs as a way for Black people to survive the absolute dehumanisation of enslavement and the continuing burdens of racialisation and traumatic memory. Swag draws deeply on the ultimate reservoir of resistance: the body.
When the enslaved on the Plantation could own nothing, not even their labour, they still had the infinite potential of self-styling through gesture. This inheritance manifests itself in the determination to stamp the public space with one’s presence, decked out in all those fancy things which your ancestors’ sweat and blood created but you were still denied.
“If the birth of the racial subject – and therefore of Blackness – is linked to the history of capitalism,” says renowned African thinker Achille Mbembe in his Critique of Black Reason, it is the stylised “gestures that disclose what is at stake – the matter of life returns as an open question”.
This challenge to the system through a swag as an improvised vocabulary of “self-styling” is precisely what we see Chandrashekhar Azad doing: not just in his clothes, but in the 2015 banner in his village that first proclaimed his presence in our deeply casteist world: “The Great Chamars of Dhadkauli welcome you.”
Check out my swag
This use of swag as protest, rebellion, self-ammunition, and self-adornment has been described by cultural analyst Madison Moore as being “fabulous”. Moore examines the style choices by a range of queer Black and Brown performers who prefer not to scuttle around the world being meek and avoiding scrutiny but who do precisely the opposite, often courting opprobrium and danger through the way they dress, speak, and occupy public space and attention. If you want to extinguish me, then at least let me show you how brightly I burn.
It is this art of being fabulous, “created in duress”, born out of racialisation, that throws out a lifeline, a “gift” whose reception goes beyond racialised distinctions: “I have found”, Moore declares, “that the people most likely to do fabulous performance are either those who, though well-off, feel hemmed in by conservative conditions or, alternatively, those who have in some way faced historically conditioned, systemic oppression.”
This lifeline has been caught by Chandrashekhar Azad. Whether consciously or not, he claims swag’s power of the fabulous. But it is effective because it is translated into the set scenarios of Indian popular culture. Azad’s spectacular presence at Delhi’s hugely symbolic Jama Masjid on December 20 is pure Bollywood. It has been reported as such, both through television commentary unfolding in real time and in retrospective narrative reportage.
Adeptly switching his phone on and off to balance the needs of tweeting his movements to the public and concealing his trail from the police, he appeared in messianic fashion on the steps of the Jama Masjid. Having used a skull cap and shawl to disguise himself till that moment, he now brandished a portrait of Dr Ambedkar and a copy of the Constitution. As always, he chose his accessories wisely, with a view to their maximum visibility in photographs of the seething mass as well as resonance with the spirit of the times.
Chandrashekar Azad’s re-appropriation of Bollywood’s emotive and performative register is, however, completely rewriting the script. Where in filmistan is the Dalit hero who joins forces with the Muslim working class to make Old Delhi the vanguard of a revolutionary refusal of the status quo? Yet, as a song in Veer-Zaara announced, “Aaya Kis Mod Pe Afsaana” (Which Turn Now Has This Story Taken?)
The superhero of the Bhim Army has stepped in as Bollywood’s heroes have cowered timorously, seizing the lyric and performative possibilities within Indic culture that can be activated time and again to serve fresh and urgent political purpose. He has refused the place in the penumbra that our divided society would relegate him to, in order to claim a place in the spotlight of the cameras.
Chal Beta Selfie Le Le, Come Sonny, Take a Selfie, he could well say: search Instagram, and thousands of accounts spring out bearing his name, all claiming to be his personal blog. Over and over again, they reassert: no, my birth is not a fatal accident.
I have paraphrased above from the late Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, and Chandrashekhar Azad’s self-presentation returns me, at least, to its poignant, unforgettable words: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”
It is that star dust that irradiates Chandrashekhar Azad’s weaponry of azadi with swag. It is what Madison Moore would call the glitter bomb of fabulousness thrown into the path of authoritarianism masquerading as authority. And it is mobile, like the unpredictable path of a strobe light.
Chandrashekhar Azad slipped in and out of the police’s grasp as Friday moved into Saturday. He took control of the narrative, choosing his time and moment to surrender. In custody now for 14 days, let us see what his next episode may bring. Picture abhi baki hai.
Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature at King’s College London.