The legacy of human enslavement taints virtually every corner of the world. From Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, ancient India, Han China, to Germany, the Americas, Britain, Brazil and beyond, subjugation has been a consistent facet of human societies. In nineteenth-century Kerala in South India, agrarian slavery was enacted on the basis of caste, a Hindu system of social stratification that justified priestly patriarchy and a degrading rule over Dalit or so-called ‘untouchable’ communities. So all-encompassing was this oppressive hierarchy that it spread, transgressed religious boundaries and came to inform the perspective of Syrian (Nestorian) Christians in the region. Land was sold with slaves attached, who, dressed in little more than leaves, would toil in extreme heat. As Sanal Mohan has written: “The inequities that the Dalits had experienced had their origins in the caste system, which denied them almost everything except the hard labour of chattel slavery.” 1.
It would be naive to assume that caste injustice, expressed most savagely in the practice of bonded labor, has been consigned to history – or that an honest acknowledgement of the full scale of contemporary servitude, very much exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has yet its proper place in the public domain. Through performance, painting, drawing and video, Sajan Mani excavates the annals of Dalit history, exposes these legacies of brutality, and points to their continuity. Like a meticulous scholar, he chases new lines of enquiry, consults academics and experts, synthesizes various materials, and distils his research to create charged works and physically draining, often self-castigating, performances of long duration. His body, frequently, is visibly in pain as he pushes toward sensory proximity with his Dalit ancestors. He has hung himself, dragged himself through the hot Delhi sun, and sunk himself into a steel vessel. In each performance, Sajan’s infliction upon his own body of the suffering of his forebears draws a visceral response. It’s discomfiting yet compelling, and awakens our dormant conscience.
At NOME, it is through the songs of the early twentieth-century Dalit activist, social reformer, and son of agrestic slaves Poykayil Appachan/Yohannan (1879–1939) that Sajan retrieves Kerala’s tortured past and foregrounds it in the present. Appachan’s lyrics, which Sajan scrawls across the white gallery walls in his central performance, are his “muted howls.” In his frenzied bouts of activity, wherein his body lolls and stalls, Sajan’s Malayalam script overwhelms the gallery. Dancing with Appachan’s words, he bounces off the sides of a red monument stationed in the gallery, a reference to Kerala’s communist past. There’s a bind for Sajan: he is fervent, animated, intoxicated, by Appachan’s songs, and equally cognizant of the depressing reality they articulate, and the contemporary relevance it holds.
No, not a single letter is seen
On my race
So many histories are seen
On so many races
Scrutinize each one of them
The whole histories of the world
Not a single letter is seen
On my race. 2.
These words and others reach across the gallery’s walls and are abstracted into energetic drawings. The loops and curls of the Malayalam script have a dizzying effect. Turning Appachan’s words into illegible marks is as much a reflection of the artist’s relationship to writing as it is his response to the author’s lament: “Not a single letter is seen / On my race.” A cryptic scramble of colorful forms, an extravagant mesh of ‘text’, answer Appachan’s grievance and evoke his reliance on the oral tradition.
Although able to read and write, Appachan cultivated the form of oral transmission. He shared over 1500 songs, and with them, his progressive views. Avoiding the permanence and visibility of putting words on paper, he covertly built his popular Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha movement, starting in 1910. Borrowing from Christian frameworks introduced into Kerala by zealous missionaries, Appachan coopted prophetic language and critiqued biblical teachings, noting that they held no place for Dalits. According to those threatened by Appachan’s activism, it was in the jungles at midnight that these potent verses were shared. It fitted the esoteric narrative built around him that his followers fell into “swoons, fits, contortions, wild laughter, dancing and the like.”3.
In his performance, Sajan plays up to this portrayal of what was deemed “heretical blasphemy,”4. and in his process video, I want to touch the BwO of the rubber trees, returns to Kerala’s lush land and the site of this dissent. This is all part of Sajan’s ongoing effort to bring Dalit politics face to face with an art world whose outward claims of equality conceal its insidious internal prejudices, which, in India, seemingly operate on the basis of caste. The video follows Sajan’s father tapping rubber from a tree. A ring is carved around the bark, releasing a slow dribble of white fluid. Laid out in metal trays, this pool of pus-like material hardens into a gelatinous latex mass, then is flattened and pressed into neat rectangles.
That rubber has the epithet devil’s milk signals not only the acrid qualities of its sap, but also the acrid history of its production, entangled with colonial enterprise and exploitation across Africa, South Asia and the Americas. Both the trees we see in the video and the body we see holding up the final product are scarred by acts of cruelty, the necessary means to realize profitability. The rubber tablets Sajan brings to the gallery are rooted in agricultural anguish. This dense material comes to us through supply chains built upon distress and the lives of workers driven to suicide by volatile income and rising debt. In I want to touch the BWO of the rubber tree (2020), Sajan’s ghostly silhouette, silk-screened onto the rubber, is textured by the grooves pressed into the material. His faint image forges a connection with other stories of distress, making reference to the Mesoamerican indigenous belief systems which once considered the milky liquid a source of life, akin to blood and semen, offered as a sacrifice to deities. At the hands of colonizers, this spirituality and ritual practice were compromised.
To return to Kerala now is to see the residues of colonial commerce. Although largely unpeopled, Sajan’s video alludes to a system of rubber manufacture thriving on the caste prejudices that progressive social movements have been as yet unable to reform. While Sajan may describe his output as muted, this exhibition goes far in adding volume to the voices of Dalits in South India, whose plight is increasingly obscured as the global pandemic takes root and is exploited locally by the Hindu right wing.
Dr Cleo Roberts writes on contemporary South and South East Asian art. Her work has appeared, among other publications, in Frieze, TLS, Spectator, Quartz India, ArtReviewAsia, and ArtAsiaPacific. She has contributed to books published by Phaidon and Thames & Hudson, reported for the BBC World Service, and has worked on exhibitions at the Met Breuer, Hayward Gallery, and National Gallery of New South Wales.
1. Mohan P., Sanal, Modernity of Slavery: Struggles Against Caste Inequality in Colonial Kerala (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 155.
2. Unknown Subjects: Songs of Poykayil Appachan, eds. V. V. Swamy and E. V. Anil, trans. Ajay Sekher (Kottayam: IPRDSS, 2008).
3. “Travancore and Cochin Mission Annual Report for 1916,” Travancore and Cochin Diocesan Report, Vol. XXVII, no. 3 (May 1917), 44–5.
4. The Travancore and Cochin Diocesan Report also carried brief reports of blasphemy from other mission centers like Uganda in Africa. See for example Vol. XXVII, no. 1 (January 1919), 19–20.