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.
An outspoken feminist and one of India’s foremost Dalit poets writing in English, Kandasamy was there to give a voice to the people in the photographs, something she is famous for doing back in India. The 26-year-old published her first book of poetry, Touch, to critical acclaim in 2006. Her much anticipated second collection, Ms Militancy, distributed by Dalit-only publishers Navayana, is out in November.
It is interesting then, that Kandasamy chooses the language of colonial oppression in her poetry, a language she herself describes as “privileged”. The answer lies in ownership. “Much of the oppression is codified within language,” she says. “Poetry can attack structures and attack form. Poetry has an enormous political power which I try to use.” Also important, however, is bringing the issue to an international audience: “The only thing that can put an end to this evil system is the aroused opinion of the international community.”
They say a picture can paint a thousand words, but listening to Kandasamy read her poetry at a discussion event at the LSE earlier in the day, and one could argue the truth of that old adage. She describes herself as an angry young woman, and as she reads her work, spitting fiercely into the microphone, her passion is almost tangible.
Kandasamy was joined on the stage by journalist and founder of Navayana publishing house, S Anand. Was it problematic to set up an elitist publishing house as part of a movement to eradicate differences? Not according to Kandasamy. The Dalits have no voice in the media, she says. “What is not in the newspapers and on TV does not exist for the vast majority of people, so it is very important that Dalits have a way to express themselves.” The caste system is banned under India’s constitution, but as Dr Ambedkar, champion of the Dalit cause famously said: “it will take more than a law to remove this stigma from the people of India.”
I asked her what would happen if she lost some of her anger.
“There are only two options, either I become a victim, end up voiceless, or I become angry and I decide to act on it.” In this small gallery in London, her words resonate as the faces of the untouchables stare back at us.
Meena Kandasamy’s collection of poems Ms Militancy is out next month published by Navayana