An exhibition by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam and S. Anand looks at inter-caste unions that society has shunned.
New Delhi: “Ambedkar is the break in the abhang – an utterance that is meant to be unbroken. He causes the bhang, he breaks into history, he breaks into our present,” said writer S. Anand, in his talk titled ‘All’s Vitthal, Vitthal’s All: The Great Confluence Around Vitthal’ at the launch of an exhibition showcasing the work of the artist Venkat Raman Singh Shyam – ‘The Ganja-Mahua Chronicles’.
The exhibition, which commemorates the 126th Ambedkar Jayanti, is the collaborative effort of the Centre for Dalit Studies at the Department of English, Delhi University, and Navayana publishers.
Anand’s talk traced the world of the God Vitthal Or Vitthoba for whom Marahi poet-saints such as Namdeo, Tukaram, Janabai and Chokhamela sang a million songs. These songs are known as Abhang, that which cannot be broken, and are sung even today by varkars, those that go on a pilgrimage to Pandharpur in Solapur district, Maharashtra.
Devotion towards Vitthal is a vital part of historical Dalit struggles to free themselves of oppressive traditions, though this freedom was seen as spiritual rather than practical. Praying to Vitthal was an acceptance of their untouchable fate, but also an expression of rebellion in devotion to a non-Brahmanical god. B.R. Ambedkar criticised this acceptance of the untouchable status, but he understood the importance of their rebellion. Dalits were no longer to be imagined as supine, servile and outcast.
The two artists took the audience – a group of students, faculty members and journalists – on a walkthrough of the exhibition, consisting of large panelled mural installations. The exhibition was a collaborative effort, with Anand providing text that interpreted Shyam’s paintings. It focused on four love stories that transgressed caste and race – Ganja and Mahua, Ambedkar and Fanny Fitzgerald, the case of Ilavarasan and Divya in Tamil Nadu in 2013, and the onscreen pair Archie and Parshya from the Marathi film Sairat.
The Ganja-Mahua story is a myth from Gondi lore, passed down generations, probably by the ‘upper’ castes, as a warning against breaking caste norms. Shyam, a well-known Gond artist, associates this story with his childhood. Ganja was a Chamar, an ‘untouchable’, and Mahua a Brahmin woman. The two fell madly in love, but society did not allow their union. Thus, they reincarnated as trees and grew together. Shiva, in a state of intoxication, is said to have told this story to Parvati, saying their union was like that of Ganja and Mahua’s. Parvati’s parents were opposed to her marriage to Shiva, a ‘lower’ caste who lived with animals. In Shyam’s painting, Shiva in the form of a Ganja tree is shown in union with Parvati in the form of a Mahua tree.
Keeping with the break from tradition – the underlying theme behind the exhibition – Shyam wanted to showcase that he is not just a traditional Gond artist. His work is visually appealing not just because of its use of vivid colours and representation of characters, but also in its clear expression of meaning. As Shyam told The Wire, “The work is reflective of the wrong notion that one should remain at one’s station in life, as society imposes. The union of Ganja, an ‘untouchable’ and Mahua, a Brahmin woman, is not accepted by society and is vanquished. They say that Ganja and Mahua shouldn’t be together because that would be a perversion of nature. There is no happy ending in this story or the other stories being showcased.”
The prevailing normalcy of intra-caste marriages is also showcased in the exhibition. As Anand says in one of the panels, “The Dr. Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration through Inter-Caste Marriages offers Rs 2.5 lakhs to 500 couples every year if one spouse is a Dalit. In 2015, only 19 couples availed it.”
Ganja and Mahua have to mix in this day, the exhibition suggests, when there is increasingly a Hinduisation of Ambedkar, reflected in the obsolete celebrations across the country on his 126th anniversary. Ambedkar, the radical rationalist, is being subjected to devotion – his statue in Bhilwada was bathed in 126 litres of milk by the Congress and the BJP organised a ‘Bhakti Sandhya’ in his name. This has been seen as a distortion of the ideals that he represented. Even though “the elites have slowly adopted Ambedkar,” Anand said, his “wisdom has become a commodity.” For Ambedkar, inter-caste union was the path to a casteless society. Ganja and Mahua have to mix.
The exhibition is on display until May 3.