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An art show about bad hair and forbidden shadows

Rahee Punyashloka’s solo show seeks to portray a vastly different order of history

Boat called Phoolan by Rahee Punyashloka
Boat called Phoolan by Rahee Punyashloka (Courtesy Method Bandra)

B R. Ambedkar struggled with his hair all through his life, says Dalit writer, experimental film-maker and visual artist Rahee Punyashloka. “He clearly had bad hair because barber communities would not touch the hair of a Dalit man,” he says. So the Dalit icon had to cut his own hair or ask a relative to cut it, adds Bhubaneswar-based Punyashloka, whose artwork Bad Hair depicts this “complicated interface of caste, hierarchy and dignity intersecting in something as banal as hair”. The digital work depicts a hand reaching into Ambedkar’s tousled locks, capturing the reality of how “caste operates in these small day-to-day ways”.

When Ambedkar rejected Hinduism and embraced Buddhism, his hair was tonsured as part of the ceremony. “Were it not for a religious order that refused to provide one of the most well-read men in the nation the dignity of having well-cut hair, perhaps, our pasts and presents would have been so different,” writes Punyashloka in an introductory note to his solo show Séances, Featuring My Kin With Fantastically Large Shadows, which opens at Method, Bandra in Mumbai on Independence Day

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Bad Hair is one of 10 works that will be on show, each “a direct culmination of learning/unlearning/relearning the history of my people”, writes the artist. He seeks to portray a vastly different order of history—one that includes the infinitely rich, profoundly cosmopolitan and deeply resilient lives of people like him. Set against a blue background, the colour associated with Ambedkar, the white drawings evoke deeply personal moments as well as instances from the anti-caste movement. “It is about me taking a journey through moments that made us what we are,” says Punyashloka.

The shadows Punyashloka refers to in the show’s title are both metaphors and lived experiences. Through much of history, Dalit people’s shadows were illegal, says Punyashloka. “There were rules that banned lower-caste people from visiting the city centre or engaging in public spheres that upper-caste people would occupy during the daytime,” he says, adding that the shadow of a lower-caste person was considered impure. His ancestors lived on the edges of towns, travelling on paths that the upper castes rarely used and adhering to routines that ensured they ventured out in public only in the dark, he says. The title also refers to the metaphorical shadow cast on Dalit people, says Punyashloka, adding that the modernising impulse of an independent India pushed most lower-caste/tribal histories into the shadows.

The exhibition picks up moments from this history. For instance, the work Writing On A Ravidasia Notebook depicts a pair of Dalit hands writing. Punyashloka, who often posts his work on Instagram under the moniker artedkar, says he uses this motif repeatedly to fill the void in art history when it comes to the visual representation of Dalit people engaged in active knowledge production.

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Sahil Arora, the founder of Method Gallery, says he hopes the show will start a conversation and encourage self-education. “For us, it is as simple as this: More people should hear about this, read about this on their own, and there needs to be some discourse around the subject.”

The show will be held at Method Bandra, Mumbai, from 15-26 August, 8 am-8 pm daily.

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