There was consensus about the event’s objective, but not its name. Before the Bahujan or Marginal Art Festival was held in Mumbai, many in the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi community had raised objections, said Aroh Akunth, the festival curator – “They said, ‘we are not marginal’ [because of our numbers].” Akunth’s contention, as he explained during a panel discussion at the festival, was: “Yes, you aren’t marginal, but your art is.”

While the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities have come together in the past to celebrate their arts and cultural identities, they have often not received due attention. “All universities call artists to perform, but if one looks at most festival lineups, the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi folks are always relegated to academic sessions on caste,” said Akunth.

It was to bridge the gap between tokenism and actual recognition that the Bahujan or Marginal Art Festival was held on December 16 at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. A first-of-its-kind event in the city, it took forward the efforts of extant platforms like the Begumpura Film Club at TISS – exclusively for the Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi students – and the three-day Dalit Art Festival held at the Ambedkar University in Delhi, earlier this year. The aim was to create a space for artists belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Nomadic Tribes, Denotified Tribes and other marginalised minority communities, where they could “highlight their voices, cultures, and resistance through artistic means”.

'Challenging Everyday Casteism on Social Media' – a discussion between Aroh Akunth and Divya Kandukuri.
'Challenging Everyday Casteism on Social Media' – a discussion between Aroh Akunth and Divya Kandukuri.

“The platform was never meant for visibility, but out of a need to have autonomous events which cater to our own communities in ways which other commercial festivals do not,” said Akunth, who is also the cultural secretary of the TISS student union. The festival featured 30 artist-activists from 10 states and included photography and art exhibitions, panel discussions, film screenings and live performances.

Platform for stories

“Access to a space, mic or stage has often been limited for Bahujans,” said filmmaker Jyoti Nisha. BR Ambedkar saw this during his time, she said, and “that’s when he started his own newspapers and magazines such as Janta, Bahishkrit Bharat [and] Mook Nayak, and recognised the need for his own satyagraha.” Nisha’s documentary B R Ambedkar: Now and Then was screened at the festival. For her, being part of the event was like “coming back home to our people, knowing them through their art, words and experiences in this country”.

Other films that were shown included Biju Toppo’s Naachi Se Banchi (Dance to Survive) – an award-winning biopic of Padmashri Dr Ramdayal Munda, Nagnath Kharat’s Disad Dis (Day After Day), an excerpt from Raghu Jamuda’s Repression Diaries as well as Pratik Parmar’s acclaimed documentary Project Heartland. There were also post-screening discussions on all the films.

Photographs by Prashant UV.
Photographs by Prashant UV.

Ek Potlee Ret Ki/Kaani Nilam, an artist collective that explores cultural identities and combines political action and advocacy intervention to preserve diverse identities, curated a photography exhibition titled Cultured Lives: A Peek into the Cultural Existence in the Margins. The photographs were glimpses into the culture of the marginalised as a daily, lived experience rather than an occasional, performative one.

Pravin and Kishor Mhase. (Right) A painting by Pravin Mhase.
Pravin and Kishor Mhase. (Right) A painting by Pravin Mhase.

Warli painters Pravin Mhase and Kishor Mhase were among the other invited artists. The cousins, who learnt the art from their grandfather Padmashri Jeevya Soma Mhase, are struggling to keep it alive. Their work is cut out for them, at a time when Warli art is being replicated and commercialised without context, diminishing it in the process. Important folk legends behind these paintings are often missed.

Festivals like this, then, become all the more important, allowing artists to tell not just their personal stories, but those of their community as well. At TISS, the traditional folk art of the Mhases was juxtaposed with the modernist works of Sunil Awachar, the scathing political cartoons of Syamsundar Vunnamati and paintings by Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, each speaking in articulated silences about the daily injustices in their lives.

Sunil Awachar.
Sunil Awachar.

Voice of resistance

The Bahujan or Marginal Art Festival had no dearth of artists speaking out loud against caste discrimination. Young anti-caste activist, Divya Kandukuri, whose platform of choice is social media, was one such empowered example.

Having dropped out of TISS because of an “ableist inhumane curriculum, lack of understanding about mental illnesses by the administration and so-called progressive professors, and lack of support systems”, returning to the institution as a guest speaker was “empowering and a form of protest” for Kandukuri. According to her, this opportunity would not have come her way had this been a festival with Savarna organisers.

Her views are echoed by Akunth. “Our students often are first, second generation learners and face economic, linguistic, cultural barriers apart from stigma and the violence that caste brings with it,” he said. “All universities are exclusionary, and upper-caste dominated spaces as we have come to know them.” But TISS as the venue for the festival made sense because “universities are also supposed to hold ideas together, even if they are oppositional in nature – this festival is part of that oppositional practice”.

Kandukuri’s memes on her Instagram and Twitter accounts are well known, as is her outspoken criticism of casteism. Her activism, though, is incidental. “Living this life, surviving in itself…is activism, challenging the Brahminical structures, for us,” she said. “I am just posting things that happen to us all day [and] around us, in simpler terms under the hashtag EverydayCasteism. This was started by a PhD student, Riya Singh. And we took it forward by turning it into a campaign.”

Other assertive voices included those of poet Dhiren Borisa and rapper Sumeet Samos. The two were engaged in a brief panel discussion, titled Verses of Resistance, during which they spoke on the creative challenges that are unique to their communities, and then presented their authored pieces.

Samos’ songs – in English, Hindi and Odiya – were powerful reflections on discrimination by the upper castes, but more importantly, about finding one’s own salvation. Drawing inspiration from international artistes like Tupac Shakur, the 26-year-old Samos raps about SC/ST students, Savarna oppression, Ambedkar-Phule ideology, manual scavenging, caste discrimination and atrocities on Dalits, among other things. Rapping is his choice of medium because of its greater appeal among the present-day youth, and the immense scope it offers for articulation of issues on marginalisation.

Platforms like the Bahujan Art Festival, Samos says, are important for “bringing together artists from marginalised sections in a common space and building a strong sense of community among us”. At one point, when he sang “Maang maang ke thak gaye, ab sab kuch lenge cheen ke” (Tired of asking, we will now snatch everything), the angst in the audience was palpable.

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Another performer who charged up the TISS quadrangle with her presence was Kadubai Kharat. A social media sensation, this artiste from Aurangabad is best known for her songs about Ambedkar. Her simplicity, signature do-tara and complete devotion to Ambedkar are reminiscent of the Bhakti saints of Maharashtra, who set precedents centuries ago on how to reclaim dignity in society. And much like those revolutionary saint-poets, Kadubai and her contemporaries are coming together to voice their resistance through art.