Growing up in Nepal, we were told that our country was the most peaceful of countries, that we were the bravest of people, that our language was rich and our rulers benevolent. The 1990s and 2000s have shown us this was a façade, a lie; this country is “peaceful” only for those who control its violent means. This violence isn’t just bullets and steel. It is perpetuated through the pawning of bodies, through the denial of speech, through economic servitude.
Misplaced national pride is evident in the way we glorify our long history of forcefully conscripting Nepalis, mostly Janajati men of the Matwali castes, into foreign armies. It is cowardice to appropriate their bravery and glorify thousands of Gurkha deaths while disavowing their humanity. Bravery was forced upon them. Similarly, over the past two decades, with the rise of Nepal’s migrant worker armies, we’ve distanced ourselves from their servitude by granting them an “entrepreneurial” spirit. This spirit gives them agency and choice, and we no longer need to worry about the exploitative systems and structures that they shuffle through.
The photographic exhibition Dalit: A Quest for Dignity, on at Patan Museum till November 26, brings much of our country’s exploitative history into focus. The Dalits comprise a broad spectrum of the untouchable castes, as defined by the Hindu caste system that was codified (though later rescinded) into Nepal’s legal structures in the 1854 Muluki Ain. Using photographic records from the 1950s onwards, curator Diwas KC does a commendable job in representing the Dalit experience. Around 80 photographs, in five distinct sections, move inwards from the creation and growth of a Dalit counterpublic to their broader significance as skilled workers and cultural custodians. From their work as tillers and tinkerers to skilled workers and entertainers, the labour of Dalits has always been exploited. As sweepers and cleaners, they did what no one else would do, and were reviled for it. As musicians at festivals and weddings, they were integral to the cultural fabric of the upper castes, but were excluded from the spirit of the celebrations themselves.
The exhibition successfully highlights the intersection of religion, economy and the state – the powers that come together to justify the dehumanization of one group so it can be used for the benefit of another. The photos speak for a people in bondage through their lives and culture, work and politics. Although the exhibition occupies only one floor of the temporary exhibitions building at the museum, it provides enough visual and textual support to occupy visitors for the better part of an hour.
All photography has to deal with issues of objectification, however, and with photography on Dalits this is particularly poignant. The exhibition largely ignores the relation between its Dalit subjects and the people who are taking these pictures. A considerable number were taken by foreigners and another significant set were taken by journalists. In the most obvious example (see Uma Devi Badi’s photos from the 2007 “petticoat andolan”), the curator’s decision to include a smaller, more dignified photo of the person photographed is commendable and displays an empathy that would otherwise be lacking. But with another photograph (see Ajit Mijar’s selfies) the curator’s reversal of this is distinctly unpleasant in its attempt to sensationalize.
The exhibition’s introductory text states its aim is to present, through photographs, “the various meanings of dignity for Nepali dalits” and “bear testimony to the history of social, economic, political and intellectual disadvantage.” Considering this along with the importance the exhibition gives to the building of a “new and respectable identity” for Dalits, questions pertaining to the medium (of photography) cannot be considered secondary. The medium itself is invested with political and structural significance. Consideration of this is necessary to both uphold the veracity of some of the photos exhibited and to situate the photograph and its content. Critically engaging with the medium allows us to evaluate our visual culture and sustain a self-criticism that acknowledges our own histories and tacit complacencies.
This being said, a striking element of the exhibition is its understanding of the Dalit movement in Nepal as not just a fight for rights denied, but equally an acknowledgement of the unique identities and cultures of the Dalits. The curator has articulated this approach in stating that the start of the Dalit movement was the start of the Dalit counterpublic – “a space from which the exclusion of dalits from public life can be challenged”.
Along with the creation of a counterpublic, the political inception of the Dalit movement in Nepal is closely tied to the movement in India and was influenced to a considerable degree by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The attitude of the religious and political elite in Nepal is evident in Poorna Bhadra Adiga’s childhood recollection of Ambedkar’s attempt at entering Pashupati Temple. Over 60 years on from that fateful day, the hosting of a Dalit exhibition in a former palace, reserved only for the pure castes, is a small achievement in itself. This sense of progress does not stick for long, for the museum remains an elite haunt (more so now with the introduction of an entry fee to even enter the courtyards) and because if there is anything that the exhibition makes evident, it is that Dalits will always occupy a counterpublic. Their engagement with the broader public will always be nuanced by this space.
Dalits were denied education, limiting their access to reading and writing – a command of language – by those who oppressed them. During his opening remarks, the curator explained, “Records are anyway typically tools of oppression, techniques of power. They are means by which the rich have exploited the poor and the powerful have dominated the powerless.” Evidence of this is clear to see in many of the exhibits. Equally evident is the fact that curator has made a choice not to capitalize Dalit. This seems an odd stylistic choice that can be read as either poor grammar or language politics. If it is language politics, the choice was probably made to normalize the word Dalit. Within a text, the [un]capitalization of words in contravention of the grammatical norm generally denotes specialty: for instance English, with its Abrahamic religious precedence, tends to say our “God” versus their “god”. For the word Dalit, this might work in academic papers exploring ideas of god[s] or the Classics versus classics, but it makes little sense in an exhibition text where one does not have the liberty to rationalize such choices. Proper nouns are capitalized and to not do so makes it stand out all the more, rather than aid their absorption into the mainstream. It is perhaps more important to use and understand the significance of the word Dalit rather than try to distinguish it in grammatical terms.
The use of the word Dalit in the exhibition is important, for the exhibition prefigures the design of a book that aims to be a photographic history of the Dalit experience and movement in Nepal. By virtue of its content, the book will be both history and activism. A good book, a powerful book, would acknowledge both of these aspects, for as the exhibition itself makes clear, the very idea of the Dalits and the space they occupy was born out of activism and a struggle for rights. Its battle should be in confronting the public with its systemic historical injustices.
Anyone interested in the Dalit movement should visit the exhibition. Beyond that, those seeking to reconcile Nepali history beyond the “unification” narrative will find plenty to ponder, for this is a history of a people who have been denied one. And for those who would like to come to terms with the ways language, records and archives are used as political tools for oppression, this exhibition lays bare the ways our “twice born” and “pure” upper castes have used their religious and traditional tools as a means for subjugation. The exhibition is inspiring, for it acknowledges that generations of people have been fighting for their rights. Yet you leave with a heavy heart, for what they fight for remains an elusive dream. Perhaps, wishful thinking can bring out the best in us.
Dalit: A Quest for Dignity is a part of Nepal’s first international photography festival, Photo Kathmandu, and will be on view at the Patan Museum until November 26, 2016. Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm.