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Language, Representation and Protected Ignorance

A conversation with Y.S. Alone


Dr Y.S. Alone teaches at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.  In this interview, Prof. Alone discusses the institutionalisation of ‘protected ignorance’ in postcolonial India, which renders transparent the brahminical politics driving critical and everyday practices and discourses.  He argues that, in a process dating at least to colonial times, when artists and other thinkers do develop a counternarrative to hegemonic brahminical thought, they are typically rendered to the ‘margins’ so as to protect the purity of ‘mainstream’ thought.

We interviewed Prof. Alone in January 2017.  Last month, when he and other faculty members were served legal notice by the JNU administration for addressing students on strike, the Indian Cultural Forum site published another excerpt from our conversation, focusing on Ambedkarite politics and contemporary student cultural/ political collectives; you can watch it here.



An excerpt from ‘Language, Representation and Protected Ignorance’:*

Modernity has multiple strands and manifestations in the colonial period. At the political level, it was a struggle to advocate political democracy as a modern means of espousing the nation/ nationality terrain, as a cosmetic adoption in caste-society, without bringing any social change. In such a context, it needs to be reinvestigated whether modernity is a systemic tool for maintaining the power relationship operating within the caste hierarchy. Tradition, as put forth by the Brahmanical reconstruction of a cultural past, negates the idea of the modernity of criticality; at the same time, Sanskritisation against the backdrop of modernity generated the debate of cultural modernity, which was confined to the idea of the greatness of tradition, and was very city-centric. Urban and non-urban became the subject of disseminations in pictorial language. The idea of village society, as advocated by M.K. Gandhi, remained a very romanticised realism: it did not address caste perceptions. Village India as a social category got highly exotic representation, more like the orientalised perception of urban India. No artist could really think from a non-Gandhian perspective.

In this context, the debates between Gandhi and Ambedkar are extremely revealing: the two being located in colonial modernity, with the former adhering to the varnashramadharma and the latter advocating the destruction of the caste-varna model. Dr Ambedkar makes a distinction between Ranade and Gandhi, saying, ‘In the age of Ranade the leaders struggled to modernize India. In the age of Gandhi the leaders are making her a living specimen of antiquity.’ At the same time Ambedkar rejected the idea of ‘inner voice’ (in ‘Federation versus Freedom’). The caste narratives of even the post-Ambedkarite period are testimony to the fact that the country is a living specimen of antiquity.

Interestingly, the intellectual and creative realms are directly and indirectly connected with caste-Hindu perceptions. The pertinent question would be to evaluate perceptual realities and perceptual understandings. Perceptual understanding empowers one to enter the analytical field of inquiry, where value judgments become an essential means of interrogating objectives as well as mental formulations. Even proclaimed progressives, including proclaimed socialists and liberals, in the fields of creative writing and art practices, remained within the fold: of the caste-perception of superiority and the Gandhian idea of ‘inner voice’. The generic intellectual sphere of high-caste understandings dominated the worldview of artists and intellectuals/ caste-Hindus, in which the self-centric representation of the new nation as the representation of normative/ unchanged perceptions was never questioned. Every realm was dominated by the static caste perception, to the extent that they could never differentiate between the modernist project of Gandhi-Nehru and that of Phuley-Ambedkar.

Ambedkar vehemently opposed the Gandhian perception of morality, which was based on following caste-duties as the supreme way of living. The caste-Hindu modernist uncritically absorbed Gandhi’s cultural nationalism. It percolated the minds of many because it was deeply rooted in Brahmanical reconstructions: they had no problem accepting Gandhi as the sole representative of the freedom struggle. S. Radhakrishnan finds in Gandhi a persona representing the tradition of truthfulness and dutifulness: ‘From ṣis of the Upaniṣads down to Tagore and Gandhi, the Hindu has acknowledged that truth wears vestures of many colors and speaks in strange tongues’ (The Hindu View of Life, 1954, 36). G. Aloysius explains that ‘the political process in colonial India was dichotomous in an ideal-typical sense: the traditionally dominant communities of Brahmins and allied upper-castes, brought together in terms of newly created economic and political interests, raised the slogan of nationalism when the British attempted to withdraw their exclusive patronage’ (Nationalism without a Nation in India, 1997, 216). He further observes that ‘what came to be looked upon as the nationalist class was nothing but the disparate and traditionally dominant castes and communities gathered together in their interest to preserve their traditional dominance on the one hand over the lower caste masses, and to enlarge their area of dominance in the new political society on the other’ (221).

Thus the discursive process was narrativised in the projection of Gandhi as father of the nation. The desire of the modernist as well as the post-colonialist has always been to eulogise Gandhi, without any inference. There is no difference, no oppositional logic; it is fixed to defend. Fixity and rigidity operate as a psyche, a finite consciousness nurturing aspects of ignorance to their finest level, where no destabilisation or questioning is allowed. The projection of the Gandhi figure is a fabulous example of the bhataji-shethaji nexus (the Brahman-priestly caste and the trading class). Even today, quite a number of artists paint Gandhi in a celebratory mode. The contemporary painter Sudhanshu painted Gandhi as walking on a pointed saw, and in another painting used a watering can as a marker of his community affiliations. According to him, when Gandhi was shot dead the first person who held him up from the ground was the gardener who worked in the premises of Gandhi’s residence in New Delhi. It is interesting to observe that Sudhanshu could relate himself very easily to the image of Gandhi; not, however, to Mahatma Phuley who was also from the Gardener caste, and was radical in his thinking and functioning. No post-colonialist, no modernist has shown any point of difference with the image of Gandhi; those like Akeel Bilgrami and many others have showered considerable love on Gandhian ethics. Bilgrami refuses to read any contradictions as well as problems in analysing Gandhian ethics. (in ‘Value, Enchantment and the Mentality of Democracy, Some Distant Perspectives from Gandhi’). Gandhi’s love for the shastras (sacred scriptures) testifies that his understanding was deeply rooted in the religious dogma of the sacredness of the caste institution.

Ramkinkar Baij, a sculptor from Bengal from the Shudra community, showed the courage to be different and did not allow his conscious to accept the normative understanding of Gandhi. Between 1953 and 1955, in the Shantiniketan premises, he created a huge sculpture of a walking Gandhi. He also produced a number of key models as precursors to this sculpture. Ramkinkar’s image of Gandhi has remained the sole example from a modernist who refused to accept Gandhi’s persona as that of an extraordinary person. A huge image of Gandhi is constructed upon a big pedestal. A human skull is placed under Gandhi’s feet. According to Ramkinkar, ‘Gandhi became Mahatma by crushing people.’ Ramkinkar revealed his statement when Ritwik Ghatak made a documentary showing Ramkinkar before the colossal image of Gandhi and explaining the importance of the human skull. He was the only artist who decoded Gandhian achievements by placing a skull under the feet of a tall, towering Gandhi image, in Shantiniketan. It was a systemic intervention by a sculptor whose ideas were rooted in pragmatic understanding, and not in romanticising the icons of the so-called freedom struggle.

The post-independent modernist project of formalism became a convenient tool of vibrancy in the plasticity of painting. As for subject matter such as suffering – social suffering was represented mainly through Christ, and by the depiction of a common man whose identity is totally concealed as part of the conscious preferred symbolic gesture to maintain a disconnect from social realities. Abstraction was another form of expression that received considerable attention, as one of the derivations from European art movements.


Shukla Sawant, ‘Outside the Fold’, from the Remembering Pandita series, 2009


Post-colonialism has projected Gandhi as an icon against colonial rule or colonial supremacy. There appears to be an obsession to consider or legitimise each and every figure that is part of the anti-colonial struggle. Postulation is directed toward scheming the narrative of caste-Hindu hegemony with the idea of blaming the colonial world. Leela Gandhi observes that ‘if Gandhi speaks in an anachronistic religiopolitical vocabulary, Fanon’s idiom is shot through with Sartre’s existential humanism’, concluding that Gandhi’s encounter with British imperialism generates a theology of non-violence (Post-Colonial Theory, 1998, 18). It is extremely insensitive to make claims regarding the emergence of a theology of non-violence, given that such signifiers have emerged outside the field of Gandhi’s own writings. Readings are structured well within the ‘re-called’, or the ‘process of remembering’. While re-calling memories of anti-colonial struggle, Leela Gandhi does not go into the body of writing produced by Gandhi himself, nor look into the subjective fields of operations during colonial rule in India. It is a state of conscious adherence to the normative understanding espoused by the physicality of caste perception, where there is an ego of caste and the consciousness of dominance, in order to subscribe to the rhetorical, uncritical inference that would consistently protect the agency of hegemony. A theology of non-violence, when located within the Gandhian notion of Sanatani Hinduism, dislodges the claims of theology; as does the fact that Gandhi claims (in Young India, October 1921) that he is a Sanatani Hindu because he believes in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and all the other Hindu scriptures, and therefore Gandhi believed in idea of avataras (reincarnations of gods) and re-birth. Gandhi equates non-violence with the truth, but the very belief system in which he is deeply rooted does not venture an understanding of truth; nevertheless, truth is understood from the notion of divinity and the sacredness of belief systems. The caste narratives completely dislodge the Gandhian theology of non-violence.

Writing in the Harijan newspaper on August 2, 1942, Gandhi said that he would not ask Congress leaders to make any untouchable legislator a minister: protection mechanisms for the marginalised should not be extended to such a level that it proves harmful to them and to the country. For Gandhi, having a minister from the untouchable community in the government was deemed harmful to the nation, indicating how Gandhi’s and the Indian National Congress’ ideas were governed by caste considerations. As for the fact that they were opposing oppression by the Colonial ruler, they were, on the other hand, protecting the native landlords who were also exploiters. The other non-Gandhian Brahmanical voices become ‘the others’, i.e. outside the fold of Gandhi-Congress. Otherness in the anti-colonial struggle is not contemplated as real, and democratic; instead, the very convenient nomenclature of ‘casteness’ (today the nomenclature is ‘castewalas’) shows how the ego works in the intellectual sphere. There is always considerable studied silence whenever contradictions within the persona of Gandhi come to be discussed. An attempt has also been made towards understanding Gandhi within the praxis of Marx and modernity (Marx, Gandhi, and Modernity, ed. Akeel Bilgrami, 2014). However, there is no desire to interrogate the moral and the political. There is an acceptance of the repressive caste structure from a position of power, in order to control discourse and the power of discourse. Therefore, the so-called intellectuals who are involved in the knowledge production process, are creating a discourse by means of ‘protected ignorance’.

Savi Sawarkar

As discussed earlier, modernist painters have not addressed the issue of caste in their pictorial representation, as their pedagogic persuasions and political understandings forbid them to think differently. Savi Sawarkar happened to be the first gallery artist who challenged the very discourse of Brahmanical cosmetic modernity and its aesthetic canons. Savi created his own iconographic signifiers to signify the social identity of the untouchable community. His intervention is not merely social, but political as well as aesthetic, designed to make the viewer realise how he aims to hit spectators with his volatile images that shake the perceptions of caste-Hindus. His personal intervention in creating iconographic symbols had its genesis in the historical location of the community. By the time Savi started painting, Dalit life narratives had emerged as a powerful means to explore the world of caste narratives, which show realities of life. ‘Three Untouchables under the Black Sun’ is a telling work that makes a profound statement of the abject poverty and conditionality in which the untouchable community live their life. The black sun is a symbolic representation of the darkness in daylight which forbids untouchables from having any freedom. The Sun is a generative symbol of brightness and a ray of hope. Its embedded property of the emanation of light and energy is a testimony to how the sun’s presence is important and gives energy to everyone. But in the life of the untouchable, no such luxury exists. Though it operates at the imaginary level, the critique of have-nots as defined by caste in society is a glaring physical and material fact of life of the community. It is interesting to see a parallel in Upara, the caste-life autobiographical narrative by Laxman Mane. Mane’s narrative shows the startling condition of his community living in the outskirts and garbage of village and city. In exactly the same manner, Savi’s painting shows the same narrative of caste-life and the ways in which a particular caste has to survive even in the post-colonial situation.

After Savi heard a song by JNU professor Dr Tulsiram – ‘manua mah thagva ham janirea aur kais kaisa ras aras iye’ – he realized how Manu was a villain for Dalits and others. Around 1990, there was the large-scale atrocity near Agra where Savi also visited. It moved Savi with lot of anger and hate towards ideas of caste and its legitimacy. He discovered how ‘Manu’ was the generator of such heinous life, and how it is an idea that goes into the everyday caste narrative of caste-Hindus. His series of visual representations of Manu offers a reading of how ignorance is propounded by the Brahmanical ethos, where past and present are deeply entrenched in psychotic perversions. For him, Ambedkar becomes a cardinal figure of inspiration that critiqued Manu in the strongest possible manner. ‘Dalit Pissing on Manu’ is indicative of Manu’s rejection by Ambedkarite society. There exists an inherent nature of image that is symbolic but at the same time equally real. There is a desire to create an imagery that will not be transcendental but more physical and real, which will force the viewers to rethink their thick-skinned caste practices and behaviour. Symbolic, in this case, is just an idea to denote the caste-Hindu who is absent in the pictorial space but is part and parcel of violence imposed, codified and practised as normative. The perception of the caste-Hindu is that of otherness and exclusion. Their ego is reflected through violence and imposed codes of conduct.

All Savi’s earlier works on the figure of the Devadasi had a very different narrative quality, showing cardinal events, emphasising the caste-narrative ordeal through torment and sexual exploitation. Many found his works extremely hard hitting. In later works, the element of caste-violence takes a different turn. Without compromising on the quality of expression, Savi’s endeavour of caste-narrative explores the language of minimalism loaded with the background of caste-narratives. The Devadasi is shown eloped with the body of a Brahman. Here embrace has a dual meaning: of the control of the Brahmins of their social orders, and on the other hand, a meaning connected with the lust of a Brahmin who would not like the Devadasi to go out of its fold. Perversion is a very fundamental aspect of sexuality when it comes to the heinous practice of Devadasi. Embrace of the Devadasi with the Brahmin body is indicative of the Brahmanic control over her own body, and at the same time, the Devadasi extending her hand out of the Brahmin body and holding the dhammachakra shows the transformation.


Savi Sawarkar, ‘Devdasi and Brahman with Dhammachakra’, dry-point, 11 x 14′, 2001


It is very important to understand the complex nature of sexuality operating through the religious institution, and the way it is nurtured as part of the male dominance of pleasure: where an adolescent girl is initiated as Devadasi, enjoyed first by the priest and later the chief patron, mainly landlords consisting of Lingayats and Marathas. One will have to recall the ways in which psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar analyses the nature of upbringing in society (The Inner World, 1978). For Kakar, the ideal of the Hindu household is in following the Rama-Sita ideal: however, the tradition and practice of Devadasi completely denounces the example of Rama-Sita ideal in Indian society. Mythic becomes an ideal that never gets disseminated, by means of the idea of killing ignorance. The moral self becomes a self-reflective category of ignorance embedded in the caste-ridden perceptions and ideals of caste-living. In fact, the Puranic tradition and larger Hindu traditions do not allow followers to be enlightened beings, as there is a fear that there would be a collapse of ‘agency’, which would not permit the egoist male to exercise sexual perversions. The life of a Devadasi is very traumatic; Savi brings forward their trauma through the physicality of the body; it is a desired body and a mutilated body. Devadasis undergo series of abortions; Savi captures graphic representation by using the static body with a surgical cut mark on the stomach.


*  This is an edited excerpt from the draft text of a public lecture delivered at the JNU in September last year; you can read it in full here.

Also see ‘In Memory of Rohith Vemula’ by Savi Sawarkar, Meena Alexander and Orijit Sen, here.



Images courtesy Y.S. Alone.


Y.S. Alone is Professor in Visual Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics. He specialises in ancient and modern Indian art, Buddhist art, and caste studies.