There is constant news about atrocities against the Dalit community but rarely do people delve into the intricacies of their lives and the reality that’s forced upon them. Self-taught photographer Asha Thadani’s new photography exhibition, Broken, in Delhi is an attempt to spotlight their lives to force people to pause and interrogate their role in perpetuating the bias.
The ongoing exhibition at India Habitat Centre is focused on ten Dalit communities across India. Thadani, who has been working on the project since 2016, stayed with these communities for long periods to understand their daily life in depth and not just capture a glimpse of it. “I have always been interested in power hierarchies dominant in our society, and how they manifest for different communities. This project was rooted in wanting to talk about the Dalit communities beyond what is seen in mainstream media,” says Thadani.
In the series, the Bengaluru-based photographer made a deliberate choice to portray the ten communities—the mine workers of Jharia, the boatmen and fishermen of Varanasi, the Joginis of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and the goat head processors, the Holeyas—, in black-and-white. “There is an inherent discrimination, prejudice, and bias. In modern times, we call it black-and-white thinking. Also, when a frame is devoid of colour, there are no distractions, it compels you to look and feel,” Thadani explains.
The stark ignorance about the lives of Dalit communities is something Thadani finds striking. For years, the life-threatening work that manual scavengers are forced to do, has been reported about, and yet they continue to do the job without any protective clothing or equipment. There are more such communities, which are forced to do the work that the so-called upper castes avoid because of their convenient distinction between pure and polluted.
“These communities—as seen in the photo series, ‘Coalminers in Jharia’— work in one of the worst polluted places in the world, which is dangerous for them. But this work is pushed onto them,” Thadani explains. The coalminers often have debt, so they work like bonded labour for 17 to 18 hours.
There are also the goat head processors, the Holeyas, who are given the task of harvesting the brain from the goat head, a process that involves burning its fur and hair in primitive furnaces using low-grade coal for 12 hours a day. Often their faces have burnt patches as a result of the hellfire they are made to endure every day. Thadani explains, “This happens across the country; I have shot the photos in Bengaluru. They are not allowed to enter the meat or the offal markets, and the slaughterhouse because if they touch the meat of the animals, upper caste Hindus won’t eat it. The butcher will come to collect the heads after the processing.” Their life expectancy, because of this work, is only about 40 to 45 years, she adds.
In the series Thadani has looked at discrimination from different angles—from the labour economy to sexual slavery. “Whatever is considered as taboo, is assigned to them,” she says.
If there's one thing that has stood out for Thadani during the process of shooting this photo series, it's the contrast between belief and practice. Discrimination is practiced against the Dalit communities, but in situations such as that of Joginis, it is relaxed to suit the upper castes, she explains.
Joginis are a subset of Mala, the largest Dalit community in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Girls from the community, sometimes those as young as five, are married to the village deity and referred to as a ‘goddess’. “On one hand, they are ostracised and limited to the outskirts of the village. But it’s also not considered wrong to have sex with them when convenient,” Thadani says, pointing out the irony.
Through the exhibition, Thadani aims to make people think about the prejudices that they hold and how caste manifests in their lives. She hopes the photography exhibition starts conversations on caste, power hierarchies, and the discrimination against different communities.
Thadani is currently working on documenting ten more Dalit communities as part of this project.
The ongoing exhibition, Broken, be on display at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi till 7 January.