In a small gallery off Old Street, a woman with a glass of wine and Vero Cuoio shoes stares at the photograph of another woman—thousands of miles away—shovelling shit from a public latrine used by 450 people. The caption says it’s a job this faraway figure merits because she is a Dalit, an untouchable, the lowest caste in Indian society.
A child severely burnt for walking on the wrong footpath, a widowed leprotic widow—the exhibition of humanitarian photographs, “Being Untouchable,” taken by Marcus Perkins, brings one face to face with the daily horrors Dalit people endure under India’s system of social stratification. It is a centuries-old system, supported even by Mahatma Gandhi.
This endorsement of subjugation by the so-called “father of the nation” is something provocative young writer and poet Meena Kandasamy asked the audience to think about as she made a special address at the exhibition on Wednesday. In one of her most controversial poems, the Sylvia Plath-inspired ‘Mohandas Karamchand’, she lampoons Gandhi’s behaviour towards his wife and his insistence on people working only in their traditional occupations.