Cultural representation is an index of socioeconomic and political power. In contemporary Indian society, the chaturvarna caste ideology continues to govern the norms and values of lifeworlds and meaning-making. In such a context, it is unsurprising that few Bahujan artists have had the opportunity to access the complexes and canons that constitute the apparatus of contemporary fine art.

The first Indian gallery artist to foreground the Dalit experience of caste as an aesthetic mode, Savindra “Savi” Sawarkar’s work made a historic intervention in the vocabulary of modern Indian art with his oil painting Foundation of India (1986), which deployed Buddhist imagery to condemn the purusha sukta, a representation of the caste order as the anatomy of a man. Drawing on BR Ambedkar’s political philosophy and neo-Buddhist imagery, Sawarkar has over 40 years developed a pictorial language that explicitly represents Dalit subjectivity and critiques the Brahmanical and dominant caste perspective. Born in 1961 in Nagpur, Sawarkar studied fine art at the Chitrakala Mahavidyalaya in his hometown and went on to obtain a Master’s of Fine Arts in Printmaking from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Sawarkar practised and exhibited in India and abroad, working with Krishna Reddy at the Lalit Kala Akademi’s Garhi studios and KG Subramanyan at Santiniketan. In 1996, Sawarkar started teaching at the College of Art, New Delhi, where he worked as assistant professor till 2019. Between 1999 and 2003, he studied in Mexico on a scholarship awarded by the Mexican government.

Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

In his essay Caste Life Narratives, Visual Representation and Protected Ignorance, YS Alone, Professor of Visual Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, identified Sawakar’s practice as seminal, writing that it poses a challenge to “the very discourse of Brahmanical cosmetic modernity and its aesthetic canons. Savi created his own iconographic signifiers to signify the social identity of the untouchable community.” Santhosh Sadanandan, Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University’s School of Culture and Creative Expressions, observes in his essay Tense – Past Continuous: Some critical reflections on the art of Savi Sawarkar that the artist’s “unfinished, elastic bodies” suggest the possibility of physical and, consequently, political transgression.

Tucked away in a quiet neighbourhood of South Delhi, Sawarkar’s studio has a cosy, lived-in quality, as befits a space that the artist occupies for most of the day. A large printmaking press greets one on entering the apartment, while Sawarkar’s artworks pepper the walls in the next room. The kitchen is stocked with soft drinks and the studio seems to have an open-door policy, with canine neighbours popping in for a rest. In a sweeping interview, the pioneering artist and educator speaks about his practice.

You grew up in Nagpur, a city with contradictory legacies. It hosts the headquarters of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh and also Deekshabhoomi, the site of BR Ambedkar’s act of leading a mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956. What was it like growing up with these complexities?
I come from a very politically conscious Ambedkarite family. My grandparents were among those who converted with Dr Ambedkar in 1956. My great grandfather used to sing the songs of the bhakti saint Chokhamela, while my grandmother belonged to a Kabirpanthi family. There was emphasis on critical thinking – my grandfather would tell me to rely on my own perception, not someone else’s representation. My father was the first graduate in the family, a railway officer, and used to say that if he gave us one thing, that would be a good education. So, I was exposed to a very radical atmosphere at my home in Garoba Maidan [a prominent Ambedkarite locality in Nagpur] even though I attended a shakha [RSS-managed] school. Of course, the school itself was deeply casteist and teachers in my school were discriminatory, albeit subtly. Sometimes they’d be very nice because of my surname, which is the same as VD Savarkar’s.

Untouchable Couple With Ohm and Swastica. Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of making a career in the Fine Arts, in non-metropolitan cities, was still somewhat unusual. How were you propelled towards artmaking?
I used to paint from childhood, with whatever paper and colours were available. I was always doodling in my school notebooks while the teacher taught, as many children do. I was attracted to the fine arts from a young age. After my tenth standard exams, I realised I wasn’t interested in pursuing anything else. By this time, we had moved from Garoba Maidan to the railway colony, where my father bought a house. In that neighbourhood, I met some boys who were studying at Chitrakala Mahavidyalaya. I asked them about the fine arts programme and they advised me that the Painting specialisation had greater scope for a career, and helped me enrol for the BFA [Bachelor of Fine Arts] degree in 1977. It was a costly programme, and my parents supported me during this time, though my mother would fret about my prospects, as mothers do.

In the summer holidays after my BFA, I came to Lalit Kala Akademi’s Garhi studios in Delhi and got to know more about institutions like MSU [Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda] and Santiniketan, where advanced study of the fine arts was possible. I applied to MSU and got admitted to the MFA programme in Printmaking, studying there from 1982 to 1984. It had a very different environment from Nagpur.

How do you mean different?
You see, Baroda was a very radical kind of space, it had a unique kind of freedom. At least in my time. Now, it has become a saffronised place.

Untouchable, peshwa in pune. Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

Did this radicalism extend to understanding about caste discourse? You would have been there at roughly the same time as the Kerala Radicals in the mid-1980s…
In Baroda, everyone positioned themselves as secular and radical. But yes, caste exists everywhere. Even in Baroda, there was no engagement with caste as a discursive category because they believed that this wasn’t their issue. I experienced loneliness, especially when I would talk about Ambedkar. People used to ignore me, including my classmates. They used to say that Ambedkar had only worked for the Dalits and Scheduled Castes. Their definitions and understanding of caste were very limited, existing only at the level of materialist analysis.

The Kerala Radicals were a little after my time as a student, but the milieu from which their ideas emerged was already there in Baroda. They were hardcore Marxists, rejecting the galleries and the art market. However, I found that class issues go deeper than caste issues – if you are born in a particular caste, you have to die in it. The Kerala Radicals held the stereotypical Marxist belief that these caste-based problems of inequality would automatically be resolved when issues of class were. I met KP Krishnakumar for the first time at the Lalit Kala Akademi’s guesthouse. He saw my work and asked me to join their group. But I told them that I had a greater responsibility because of my background. There was no crisis of content for me, there were a lot of subjects for my art.

Speaking of subjects, you started making one of perhaps your most well-known series, on devadasis, soon after your MFA. Could you talk about how you developed the works?
In 1986, I received a Garhi grant – I think it was Rs 1,000-1,500. I visited a school in one of Bombay’s red-light areas, where the children of devadasis studied. The Marathi poet Narayan Surve was the principal and on the request of the women, he would write his own name in the space for father’s name on the form. After meeting him, I thought that I should use my grant to work on devadasis.

I headed to the Yellamma Temple in Saundatti [where Dalit children are forced to serve as devadasis], posing as a priest. Already having the advantage of having a long beard and long hair, I changed my get-up and pretended to be non-verbal so I wouldn’t be expected to speak Sanskrit. I even started doing odd jobs like sweeping the complex and filling water.

Foundation of India. Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

Almost like a performance piece…
Yes, exactly! That’s how it was. I was there for six months. I rented a room across the river from the temple, where I would return in the evening to make ink sketches of whatever I saw during the day. I was deeply disturbed by some of the scenes I saw: a 60-year-old priest raping a 14-year-old girl. One night, at around 1.30 am, a man knocked on my door and said, “I know you can speak.” He helped me flee. Till today, I have my suspicions that that man belonged to some radical left-wing organisation.

Had I been caught, they would have killed me. I walked along the river for some kilometres, then hitched a ride on a lan phan and finally caught a bus to Panaji. There, I took refuge at the house of a friend from MSU who lived opposite a church. I was in bad shape, traumatised. Everything I saw there had left an imprint on my mind. The entire experience was a pivotal moment in my practice. Before this, my art had a certain artifice, but afterwards, there was an expressive quality.

How did this watershed series impact your techniques – like your use of line and approach to figuration?
In general, my most expressive work has been in line drawing with ink. In the case of the devadasi series, I incorporated the South Indian temple’s architectural elements into the devadasi’s figure, subverting the temple’s motifs to create a Dalit iconography, something that the critic Geeta Kapur too noted in her comments on the work in her book When Was Modernism. For instance, within the temple complex, there is a black platform to which the devadasi is confined. I quoted this shape in the illustrations as the feet of the devadasi. In another case, I converted the Yellamma Temple’s dhwaja stambha [flagstaff] into a crown on the devadasi’s head. Some of these works were exhibited at the American Centre, New Delhi, in 1991.

Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

Another recurring motif in your work over the decades is the terrifying face of Manu. Have there been any particular models you think of when making these?
This is an excellent question. I once heard someone sing a song by [JNU professor] Dr Tulsi Ram – Manu maha thagwa hum jaani [We know Manu is a great thug]. I wondered to myself what kind of a person must Manu have been to have had such a mindset. Then I recalled what Babasaheb said, that Manu is not a person but a compilation of Brahmanism. I made the first Manu painting while listening to that song. At a show of mine in Rabindra Bhavan in 1996, members of the RSS attacked me over an objection to a painting titled Manu and Dalit.

What about your Dalit protagonists? Did you have to come up with a new way of depicting them outside the existing schemes?
When I first started rendering Dalit subjects, it was an entirely new style of figuration and representation for people in the art community. Many people questioned me. Someone asked, “Why is the pot so big?” In one painting, I used the Om and swastika symbols, which also made people uncomfortable. That was also why many of them didn’t invite me for group exhibitions.

Given that for a long time, you were the only Dalit artist in the gallery context, what are the legacies of neo-Buddhist and Ambedkarite aesthetics that you drew on?
Along with my grandmother, I used to buy the calendars sold at Deekshabhoomi. The images and symbolism in those calendars made a great impact on me – the peepal, the dhammachakra, the life of Buddha, a galaxy of leaders like Ambedkar, Savitri and Jyotiba Phule, Kabir…I grew up listening to the songs of Nagorao Patankar, which moved me deeply. So popular Dalit culture has been of great inspiration in my work.

In my childhood, my grandmother would tell me of our suffering under Peshwa rule, and I later returned to this history. The visual markers of the Dalit experience – the matka (pot) and jhaadu (broom) – became part of my work right from my art school days. Dalits would have to tie a pot around their neck to collect their spittle and a broom around their waist to sweep away their footprints. They would leave the house after noon to minimise their shadow since that was deemed inauspicious. The play of light and shadow, the use of Buddhist colours like black and red, aggressive brushstrokes, all became part of an expressionist mode that was meant to convey an angry demand for justice.

Untitled 09. Courtesy: Savindra ‘Savi’ Sawarkar.

You went to the US in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. What was your experience in North America like and how did their aesthetics and politics influence your practice?

In 1991, I received a USIS travelling grant to go to the United States for a couple of months. I encountered African-American art and viewed many exhibitions of Black art. I went to the Bob Point Studio and met many Black artists. Upon engaging with that work, I gained a lot of confidence because nobody here was addressing these issues of suffering.

When I went to Mexico on a scholarship awarded by their government, I was the only Dalit in the cohort of Indians. One upper-caste colleague went around telling everyone there that I was “an untouchable”, and persuading them to not rent a room to me. The Mexicans didn’t even have the framework to understand untouchability.

It’s similar to what Ambedkar describes in his essay Waiting for a Visa
Yes, indeed. Anyway, I had left my wife and four-month-old daughter behind, so I was determined to make my stint worthwhile and concentrated on my studies. I was the only person to pass the exams and secure admission to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Mexico City.

Over three and a half years, I pursued five or six diplomas, including in Spanish, and finished a second master’s. My thesis was on neo-Buddhist imaginary. I was interested in the Mexican mural traditions and they did influence my work. I began to make paintings using a technique that combined wax, colour pigment and resin mixed with oil. The university offered me a job but I wasn’t comfortable raising my daughter there, and decided to come back.

Do you think that younger Dalit, Bahujan, Ambedakrite artists are finally gaining access to opportunities that they were historically excluded from?
I think so, at least in comparison to my generation. Little by little, there does seem to be progress but at the same time it’s not enough. There is a chance for targeted mentorship in educational institutions, but, for example, reservations don’t even apply to private institutions.

There is a tendency to reduce oppressed caste individuals to their identity while positioning upper-caste identity and visual schemes as the default that need no mention. How do you approach the matter of asserting yourself as a Dalit or Ambedkarite artist, since it is so central to the innovation of form in your work?
Politics and aesthetics are not separate from each other but are interconnected. You work on all issues simultaneously because there is an internal logic binding them. Inevitably, one subject contains another. In terms of my own artistic process, I would say that the ethnographic method I adopted in my work on devadasis is an example of my selecting a formal mode suited to the subjects I was interested in exploring.

I have been in the art world for many years and yet have never been represented by a gallery. That is because of Brahmanism in the arts. My experience of caste, of exclusion and ostracism, strengthened my artistic approach. As for identity, while the term Dalit encompasses a vast group of people, Ambedkarite is more specific, denoting those who align themselves with Ambedkar’s ideas, his concept of the annihilation of caste, his theories of revolution and counter-revolution and a commitment to the “right fight”. When you come from the kind of politically aware background I do, you feel proud to call yourself an Ambedkarite.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.