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Sajan Mani’s Dalit protest art

The artist interprets protest songs by Dalit poet Poykayil Appachan as drawings at his first solo in Europe

Sajan Mani’s ‘Alphabet of Touch Overstretched Bodies And Muted Howls For Songs’, a solo show at NOME, Berlin.
Sajan Mani’s ‘Alphabet of Touch Overstretched Bodies And Muted Howls For Songs’, a solo show at NOME, Berlin.

At the NOME Gallery in Berlin, rubber runs like a leitmotif through the works on display. In one corner, a video, Unlearning Lessons From My Father, is projected across a stretched piece of rubber. In another space, white silk screen prints of the artist’s body, titled I Want To Touch The BWO Of The Rubber Tree, also make use of the material.

This new body of work by artist Sajan Mani brings together the personal and the political. The starting point—the artist’s memory of his parents working as rubber tappers in a north Keralavillage—extends to a sociopolitical discourse based on the material and its inextricable link with colonial history and a capitalist present. The works are part of Mani’s first solo in Europe, titled Alphabet Of Touch >< Overstretched Bodies And Muted Howls For Songs, which will be on view till 10 October.

The show started with a performance that took forward Mani’s engagement with the idea of public spaces and bodies. “The performance is a central part of the show but it is not limited to that," says Mani. There are, however, cues which link the artist’s previous work with the current one. At the entrance, for instance, stands a red column that was part of his earlier performances, with Mani often bearing it on his head. Here, he keeps adding to its height architecturally.

Photo: Billie Clarken
Photo: Billie Clarken

As part of the performance, Mani has been filling the room with artistic renderings of protest songs by Dalit activist and poet Poykayil Appachan (1879-1939). The “muted howls" in the exhibition title refer to this suppressed history from Kerala that is now being drawn on the walls of a European gallery. “Hand connects with paper in a haptic experience responding to the call of Appachan’s early lament: ‘There was none on the earth to write the story of my race’," states the curatorial note. These words have been rendered on the walls in the form of drawings.

There is a meditative quality to the works. “I am doing the Braunschweig Projects Scholarship (for emerging artists), which is almost an year-long programme. I have my studio there. This allows me to think through my practice and I have been doing a lot of drawings," he says. This show too has five drawings, all renderings of Appachan’s songs. “I am using artistic freedom to express these lines in a drawing form," he adds.

Much of Mani’s practice is rooted in research. Besides the complicated history of rubber, he has been reading philosophical and political writings about body and space. “I am influenced by the politics of touch," he says.

One work is accompanied by a text from his “thinking together partner", Antony George Koothanady, a researcher in comparative literature and performance studies, and offers an entry point to Mani’s practice. A smaller room is showcasing a short video of Mani drawing, taking the art form into the performative realm. Three books are on display, among them Modernity Of Slavery: Struggles Against Caste Inequality In Colonial Kerala by P. Sanal Mohan. “There are different layers of work in this show which bring together the complexity of my biography, curiosities and my politics. One can enter it from any point. These works are keys which can open any door to my practice," says Mani.

Given the paltry legacy of archiving, particularly of Dalit histories, in Kerala, it’s interesting that the archive forms such an integral part of his works. “These have been erased or hidden behind so-called Brahmanic history. We need to take archiving seriously. There are huge archives in London, the Netherlands and the US, but we don’t have access to them. Young researchers need to look at alternative ways of archiving through personal biographies and collective histories," he explains.

Reimagining Appachan’s songs is Mani’s way of creating an act of archiving—he describes it as a political excavation. In the times that we live in, Mani struggles with the idea of an “apolitical artist". In his opinion, all cultural practitioners should be aware of their sociopolitical context. “There is no more room for Indian artists to do just tantric or abstract drawings," he adds.

Alphabet Of Touch >< Overstretched Bodies And Muted Howls For Songs will be on view till 10 October at NOME Gallery, Berlin.

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